Barcelona had one job here against Inter and that was to win. Within that, there were going to be opportunities for their replacements to step up and show coach Ernesto Valverde they had the capability to stand in for Lionel Messi in this weekend’s Clasico against Real Madrid.
The task on the night – perhaps a little surprisingly – went to Rafinha. He played in a withdrawn role in attack and impressed, scoring the opening goal after an assist from Luis Suarez when delivering the best pass of the game.
Barca had gone four La Liga games without a win before the weekend’s victory over Sevilla when Messi was injured in a collision with Franco Vazquez. The trouble for Valverde was always going to come when Messi was unavailable.
Too often this season they have been totally reliant on their No. 10 and captain. Without him they lack imagination, creativity and threat. He is the one almost single-handedly bridging the gap between what Barca were and what they hope to become.
And through the next few weeks they cannot count on him so Valverde has been forced to turn elsewhere.
Messi’s replacement at the weekend was Ousmane Dembele – the French World Cup winner. However, Valverde was known to be upset not only with his lacklustre contributions against Sevilla but indeed with how long it took him to get stripped, ready for action and into the game.
He was left out here not to be rested for the Real Madrid game but instead to learn a lesson. It proved to be the right move for Barca and Valverde, whose side never looked less than in total command.
Arthur Melo – consistently excellent in his midfield role since arriving from Gremio – is fast becoming Barca’s second most important figure after Messi. He was impressive again here and made sure the hosts had control of the midfield.
They were thankfully not as reliant on Marc-Andre Ter Stegen as they were at the weekend, but the German was still efficient when called upon.
All the while this one was watched by Messi up in the stands with his arm in a sling and accompanied by his son Thiago. He was off his seat again before the end when Jordi Alba combined well to finish a good move in which he partnered with substitute Arturo Vidal. That was enough.
The sight of the sprinklers gushing at half-time evoked memories of Jose Mourinho’s infamous celebrations here at Camp Nou at the conclusion of the semi-final second leg in 2010, after his Inter side had eliminated Barca.
It’s been a long time since Inter have been seen on the Champions League stage and where that match needed the deluge to quench what had been a white-hot encounter, the truth is that this one never threatened such ferocity.