Inter shines despite growing Balotelli furor

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Champions League rankings

1. Inter Milan. Riding the juggernaut and showing no sign of slowing down.

2. Bayern Munich. Arjen Robben's brilliance saved the Germans once again.

3. Barcelona. Ready to write them off already? Careful.

4. Lyon. Still in contention but will miss suspended star Jeremy Toulalan

Inter Milan has been forced to draft in extra security amid fears for the safety of teenager forward Mario Balotelli, Yahoo! Sports has learned.

The Italian club took a giant step towards the Champions League final with a 3-1 victory over Barcelona on Tuesday, but the result was overshadowed by the latest controversy involving the divisive 19-year-old.

Inter fans are said to be plotting an extensive protest against Balotelli before and during this Saturday's Serie A clash at home to Atalanta, during which they will demand that president Massimo Moratti sell him this summer.

"Everyone is aware that there is a lot of bad feeling toward Balotelli at this time," said a club source. "The fans are angry and are going to make their feelings known. There will be extra precautions taken to ensure there are no serious problems."

Balotelli incited the fury of Inter supporters when he came on as a late substitute against Barcelona. After a poor passage of play he was booed by the crowd, and responded by gesticulating in their direction. At the end of the game, he threw down his shirt and stormed down the tunnel instead of celebrating with his teammates.

According to Italian press reports, Balotelli was confronted by teammate Marco Materazzi as he approached the locker room, and the pair had an altercation.

"I saw that Materazzi was attacking [Balotelli] in the players' tunnel, and I've never seen anything like it," said former Inter forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now with Barcelona. "If I were him, I'd have left Mario alone, but Materazzi was attacking him, and I was stunned. If Materazzi had attacked me like that, I would've decked him in a second."

Balotelli has regularly attracted criticism from head coach Jose Mourinho because of his attitude in training, and he recently created another ruckus by wearing the shirt of hated rivals AC Milan during a television show.

Despite the controversy, nothing could take the shine off a magnificent performance which has catapulted Mourinho's Inter into outright favoritism to lift the trophy.

Mourinho's methods are hardly conventional, and he is often accused of courting the spotlight too aggressively. Yet he is now just two games away from leading Inter to its first European Cup title since 1965 and inking his name into club folklore.

Any concerns about the Balotelli saga providing a distraction for Mourinho are unfounded. The Portuguese boss is a man who thrives on controversy, and knows better than anyone how to use it to his advantage.

It is likely that he will use Tuesday's issue as a means to unify the core of his team, while Balotelli could be the fall guy, becoming even more of an outsider in his own locker room.

Mourinho knows better than anyone that Barcelona has the ability to fight back, and a two-goal deficit will be scare the Catalan giants need when they prepare to do battle on home soil next week.

Even after being forced to make a grueling 14-hour bus journey to Milan due to airspace restrictions, Barca still took the lead and was unlucky to be denied at least two penalties that could have drastically altered the outcome.

The battle of wills and minds between Mourinho and Barca coach Pep Guardiola is yet another fascinating subplot to a semifinal that deserved to be a final.

Round 1 went to Mourinho, but it's not over yet.

It has been a rough week for Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich midfielder spent several days leading up to his team's Champions League semifinal against Lyon being investigated by French police in relation to a prostitution ring.

However, on-field matters did not bring any respite as Ribery was sent off in the first half of Bayern's 1-0 first leg victory for a dangerous challenge on Lisandro Lopez.

Ribery is one of the Europe's most talented players and has the ability to play a crucial role for France in this summer's World Cup. Yet how he is able to cope mentally with the pressure of the ongoing investigation will determine how effective he can be in South Africa.

The early signs are not good.

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