Two of Europe’s biggest clubs meet in the Last 16 of the Champions League as Scudetto holders Inter host Premier League and European Champions and Manchester United at the San Siro.
With both clubs leading their respective league by a considerable margin and on course for yet another title to further their domestic dominance, we look set for a real treat on Tuesday night.
The similarities are endless between these two mega forces in the European game with some interesting sub-plots set to spice up an already tantalising clash. The obvious one being the rivalry of Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson which will be renewed on the European stage once more. Although the rivalry had been a little fiery during the Special One’s time at Chelsea, there seems to be a real sense of mutual respect and admiration between the pair at present. After Mourinho’s infamous touchline exploits at Old Trafford in 2004 when his Porto side stole victory on their way to Champions League glory, it seemed the two would be at each others throats for years to come when the Portuguese Tactician arrived in London. But Fergie’s adulation of the “amazing” Mourinho on Saturday evening came after a series of admiration cries from either Coach over the past year. There have even been whispers of Mourinho replacing Fergie at Old Trafford when the Scottish master (eventually) retires.
While United are clear favourites for the crunch tie, Mourinho can at least take heart in the fact he has lost just once when facing Fergie. A record that stretches back to his time in Portugal, the Special One has won six and drawn five from their 12 meetings. A kind of record very few others can boast against Fergie’s Red Devils. Surely none of those were as important as this clash though, with the Champions League being the main reason Mourinho was employed at the San Siro and an early exit from Europe’s elite competition would mount some serious pressure on the Nerazzurri Coach – who has failed to win over much of the Inter tifosi.
Another similarity is form. The Red Devils go into Tuesday’s game on the back of ten straight league wins and before Roque Santa Cruz’s 32nd minute effort, 1,334 minutes had elapsed since the United defence was last breached – that’s more than 22 hours of football and 14 consecutive clean sheets. Saturday’s win was nervy at best and whilst their winning streak makes for a sparkling statistic, their performances haven’t always hit the same heights. Although recent displays against Fulham, West Brom and Chelsea have produced excellent performances and some scintillating football, mostly the impenetrable back line has been the main reason behind for their relentless march.
Inter’s last ten league matches have seen them beaten just once with seven wins along the way including the scalps of Roma and arch-rivals Milan. Very much title-winning form, but with 11 goals conceded during that run, it makes for distressing reading despite there being no such problems at the other end.
The impassable defence of Fergie’s men will provide a stern test for the Nerazzurri’s attacking talent while the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov will be licking their lips at the prospect of meeting the leaky back line of il Biscione.
However, a major boost for the Inter camp comes in the shape of a defensive injury crisis for the Old Trafford side. With influential defender Nemanja Vidic suspended following his red card at the World Club Championships, the Red Devils will be without arguably not only their most prominent and leading centre half but possibly their best player this season. Some are even tipping the Serbian powerhouse to claim the coveted Player of the Season. Vidic will be a massive loss but that gap would have been made to look far less severe if the much admired Irish prodigy of Jonny Evans had been fit to fill the hole. But an ankle injury on Saturday has left his participation doubtful, but he did join up with the United squad flying out to Milan. If he fails to make the line-up he will join a long list of defensive absentees for United, with the likes of Wes Brown, Rafael da Silva and Gary Neville for the crunch clash; -there will be a rather unfamiliar and far less daunting defence the Nerazzurri will be hoping to breach. Sir Alex hopes to have utility man John O’Shea available to fill the void but he too is struggling and is far from the standard of Vidic or even Evans. Another option is that of moving resident left-back Patrice Evra into a central position and bring in Fabio De Silva at left-back while Michael Carrick could also be deployed as a makeshift centre back – none of these options too ideal for such a massive game.
Meanwhile, the on-going feud between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo adds yet more flavour to the encounter. Two of the best players on the planet at present have been at loggerheads during the past month, showing none of the mutual respect shown by rivals Fergie and Mourinho. Ibra’s admission that the Ballon D’Or meant nothing and that the prize is just a “publicity stunt” must have angered its current recipient, Ronaldo. The Portuguese flyer didn’t rise to the bait until his fellow countryman, Mourinho claimed that his star man Ibra, as well as Kaka and Lionel Messi, were considered in his opinion to be better players than Ronny prompting the United winger bit back, “I respect everybody’s opinion but all the trophies for best player last season – FIFA, Champions League, FIFpro, Ballon D’Or – are in my house, not Ibrahimovic’s.” Ronaldo raged. An exciting subplot will ensue on Tuesday with both talismen capable of conjuring something special and winning the match for their side. Mind you, both have been criticised for not exploding on the big occasions – especially Ibra who has yet to score for Inter in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
As for the line ups, Inter will almost certainly want to go with the same side that started against the Rossoneri last weekend, welcoming back Christina Chivu who sat out the trip to Bologna as a precaution. However, Walter Samuel’s fitness is in doubt after he pulled out of Saturday’s game during the warm up with a calf problem. If the Argentine defender misses out then compatriot Nicolas Burdisso would be favourite to replace him with Ivan Cordoba the other option.
United’s line-up is less predictable. The defence looks set to include Evra and Rio Ferdinand while much is dependant on Evans’ and O’Shea’s availability as to the other slots. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs tend to start the big matches with Carrick anchoring the midfield, unless he finds himself at centre back. The attacking trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov is a certainty while Edwin Van Der Sar will return to goal after being left out at the weekend.
It all makes interesting reading for what will surely be a tremendous occasion. Most fans and pundits alike are tipping current holders Man Utd but it is likely to be a tight contest and with Mourinho’s record against his counterpart you’d be a fool to bet against his Inter side. Will Mourinho triumph over Fergie once more? Will Ronaldo prove to Ibra he truly is the World’s best? Can United keep their Quintuple dreams alive or will Inter finally end their European misery?
And more importantly – Will you be watching on Tuesday night?
You should be.