Lionel Messi’s Barcelona team-mates have rallied around the Argentinian after he was branded an “actor” by Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho following the Spanish champions’ 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho claimed the 18-year-old sensation’s play-acting led to the sending-off of full-back Asier Del Horno in Wednesday night’s Champions League last 16 first leg.
Messi had evaded a tackle from Arjen Robben seconds before a clumsy challenge from Del Horno knocked the midfielder to the ground, prompting him to roll around in apparent distress.
Del Horno was shown a straight red card and, despite falling behind to a Thiago Motta own goal, Barca made their man advantage tell, forcing John Terry to put through his own net before Samuel Eto’o sealed victory with a late header.
Mourinho felt the sending-off cost his side the game, but Barca playmaker Deco leapt to Messi’s defence, saying: “I believe the tackle on Messi was very strong.”
He added: “Before the sending off of Del Horno we were playing well and the key was to have patience.
“Everyone has their own opinion but we came to play football and we will do the same in the Nou Camp.”
Cameroon international Eto’o added: “The referee is the one who makes decisions on the pitch and he has decided that the foul by Del Horno on Messi deserved a red card.”
Meanwhile, defender Oleguer Presas felt Barca’s performance proved the team has learned from last year’s experience when Chelsea knocked them out of the competition at the same stage.
“We knew it would be a difficult game and that they would play with strength as they have done,” he said.
“We have shown maturity and knew we had to play differently to last season. All the team did well in defence, while everyone knew our quality in attack and it was important they were clinical.”
Manager Frank Rijkaard denied Messi over-reacted and was delighted with the win, but he urged caution ahead of the second leg in a fortnight’s time.
“It’s an important first step,” he said. “Now we have the advantage but we have to continue and do our job in the Nou Camp.”
And despite the bad blood between the sides that has been fermenting since last year’s controversial meeting, Rijkaard still holds the Barclays Premiership champions in high esteem.
He said: “We can’t relax yet because Chelsea have won a lot of matches and have the right mentality.”