Jose Mourinho accused Lionel Messi of play-acting last night but he was careful not to say anything which could lead to a referee being hounded into retirement. However, he left no doubt that he felt Chelsea's Champions' League defeat by Barcelona was a result of Terje Hauge's decision to dismiss Asier Del Horno 37 minutes into the knock-out tie for a lunge on Messi.
The Spanish defender was sent off with the first leg goalless and although Chelsea then took a shock lead, Barcelona's man advantage told and the Spanish champions will start the second leg on 7 March with two precious away goals.
Mourinho said Chelsea should think about asking Uefa to punish Messi for "play-acting" and to revoke the red card. Quixotically, Mourinho suggested he would consider taking a B team to the Nou Camp and instead concentrate on the Premiership and FA Cup. That prospect briefly fazed Frank Rijkaard, the Barcelona coach, before he responded "we will obviously take the game seriously".
When Del Horno left the field, Barcelona were on top but clear chances had been rare. Ten-man Chelsea, rallying as ever to a test of character, then played their best football and took the lead shortly before the hour when Tiago Motta turned in Frank Lampard's free-kick under pressure form John Terry.
This own goal was then cancelled out by another as Terry himself inadvertently glanced Ronaldinho's 71st- minute free-kick past Petr Cech. And then, seconds after Shaun Wright-Phillips, a late substitute, spurned a chance to restore Chelsea's lead, Samuel Eto'o rose to head in an 80th-minute winner.
It was Chelsea's first home defeat against Spanish opposition and [excepting this season's Carling Cup penalty shoot-out defeat by Charlton] Mourinho's first at Stamford Bridge in 50 matches in all competitions.
On the reason for this he was clear. "What changed everything was the fact we were playing 10 v 11 when we should not have been," he said. "To play with 10 men is always difficult, even against a small team. Against a good team it is, of course, more difficult."
Referring to last year's encounter between the teams, at the same stage of the same competition, a year ago to the day, when Didier Drogba was dismissed in the first half of the first leg, he added: "Again we had to play them with 10 players, and not for a small period of time. When you play 10-15 minutes with 10 men you have the energy to fight such a situation. When you play with 10 for an hour it is difficult to close the door all the time. Sometimes the door has to open, that is the reality.
"When it was 11 v 11 we beat them [at Stamford Bridge] last season. When it was 11 v 11 [last night] the game was open. When it was 11 v 11 in Barcelona we were winning 1-0. But, 10 v 11 is very difficult. When you play 10 v 11 you can't press in the centre and you can't double up on the wings - you are struggling."
After last year's match, Mourinho criticised Anders Frisk, the Swedish referee, who then retired after receiving death threats. Mourinho was called "an enemy of football" by a senior Uefa official and fined and suspended.
Last night he was more careful, if still emotional. "If I say what I thought about the sending-off I can be suspended," he said.
"Of course I saw on television in the dressing room, of course I know, but you also saw the game. It is more easy for you to say what you thought.
"Can we take back the suspension for Del Horno? Can we suspend Messi for play-acting? It is a cultural city Barcelona, you know all about theatre. Would it be right to send a B team to the Nou Camp and concentrate on the cup and the league?
"We can discuss all these issues but the final result is 2-1. But I do not want to talk about the game like that. I want to talk about how proud I am of my players and the fans. I prefer to lose like this than like Middlesbrough. I prefer to go to Barcelona in a positive mood. We have to go there and compete and do our best."
Rijkaard rebutted Mourinho's criticism of Messi, insisting: "I know Messi and he is not the player to over-react. The style of player he is he gets fouled a lot." He added: "I'm not hurt by Mourinho's comments, our duty on the field is to impress our fans, not to get praise from our opponents. I can understand why people react in certain ways. I can understand someone's frustration if they do not achieve their goals. But I just do my job.
"It was an important result in a special game. We created enough chances to win even if we did not play as well as in recent games. I'm very happy with the result which is a good step towards the next round."
With Wayne Bridge now on loan at Fulham, Mourinho will hope William Gallas recovers in time to play in place of Del Horno at the Nou Camp. If not he will have to field either Geremi or Glen Johnson, probably at right back with Paulo Ferreira on the left flank.
Blues see red
Chelsea players sent off against Barcelona
CELESTINE BABAYARO (18 April 2000, Nou Camp, European Cup q-f 2nd leg, agg: 6-4 to Barça)
DIDIER DROGBA (23 Feb 2005, Nou Camp, EC Cup Last 16 1st leg, agg: 5-4 to Chelsea)
ASIER DEL HORNO (22 Feb 2006, Stamford Bridge, EC Last 16 first leg, score after first leg: 1-2)