Jose Mourinho may have seen his fierce rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, pick up his second trophy of the season a week ago, but in United’s penalty triumph over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley and subsequent victories over Newcastle and Fulham, so too would Mourinho have noticed a weakness in the European Champions’ armour.
Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon’s obliteration of Patrice Evra and Luka Modric’s influence from the left wing for the London side in the cup final would have given the Nerazzuri fresh confidence heading into the second leg of the Champions League Last 16 tie at Old Trafford on Wednesday that progression in the competition is more than possible. Evra, who has been so quick and strong in the tackle since his arrival from Monaco three years ago, was taken apart by Lennon throughout the Wembley showpiece, often rescued by his captain Rio Ferdinand, while the Croatian Modric’s probing on the opposite wing was of constant threat to the United full-backs.
Inter were outplayed and outthought by their English opponents at the San Siro last week and Mourinho will be all too aware that the second leg, a week on Wednesday, represents a golden opportunity for the Portuguese Coach to turn the tables on his managerial nemesis, a chance that would have surely been and gone had it not been for the agility of his goalkeeper, Julio Cesar.
With the tie as tight as it stands, a chancing-Coach may well hand a role to the temperamental Amantino Mancini or even the veteran Luis Figo, in an attempt to pick at the vulnerable Evra or at the speed-shorn John O’Shea in the wide positions. However, Mourinho is a cautious man and with the score grounded at 0-0, the ex-Chelsea and Porto man is likely to pack his midfield with the experience, versatility and muscle of Esten Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti, Dejan Stankovic and Sulley Muntari. After all, the Inter boss is hardly known for throwing caution to the wind. Such suggestions of a winger with pace and trickery would have seemed plausible before the league leader’s 3-3 draw with Roma at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza a week ago, where Inter and, in particular, Douglas Maicon showed worrying signs of negligent defending against Luciano Spalletti’s side – allowing the Giallorossi to take a relatively comfortable 2-0 lead at the San Siro, before Mario Balotelli’s inspired contribution brought the game level.
While Inter continue to stroll to a fourth consecutive Scudetto, Manchester United have been on fine form in all competitions of late. Ferguson’s side have won their last seven Premier League games and have only been beaten twice in all competitions over the past four months – a testament to a squad full of international players, able to rotate and obtain the same high quality of performance week in, week out.
Of course, Mourinho will know first-hand the Manchester United side he is going to face – after all Ferguson has only beaten the self-professed Special One once in all encounters, including Mourinho’s three-year stint at Chelsea. In truth, the side that Inter will face is a much superior one than the one Mourinho last faced as Chelsea manager – a penalty shootout defeat in the Community Shield 18 months ago.
United has emerged as a side with all round quality since then. Cristiano Ronaldo may have since announced himself the world’s finest player, but United’s ability to change winning teams’ week in, week out and maintain their fine form, make them favourites for Wednesday’s clash. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are arguable Europe’s finest centre-back pairing, Michael Carrick has emerged as a world class playmaker, Ryan Giggs continues to defy age, and in Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez they possess a strike-force bettered by very few.
However, United’s weakest positions are arguably the fullbacks. Evra is undoubtedly a fine left-back but his recent injury lay-off and subsequent poor show against Tottenham could give Mourinho more incentive to allow Maicon a little more licence to venture forward should the French international be struggling. Right full-back remains a problem position for United and no more so since losing the talented Rafael da Silva to injury. The experienced Gary Neville and Wes Brown are both injured, while the versatile O’Shea is also feeling the effects of a long season.
Mourinho may start with Muntari in his 4-3-2-1 formation again, but he will be wary of repeating the same mistake at the San Siro, where his side were too narrow and lacking in any real pace or guile down the flanks to impose themselves on the game. The 4-3-3 option certainly looks a risky one to use going to Old Trafford and it would be surprising to see Inter adopt this given the balance of the tie.
Ferguson has claimed that Inter will play for penalties at Old Trafford, but while the Special One is a cautious Coach it is unlikely that he will want to take a chance of a lottery shoot-out away from home, and at a side whose last two shoot-outs have ended in domestic and European silverware. The Nerazzurri boss does have options. Inter’s draw with Roma and 2-0 defeat of Genoa once again showcased both the talents of Balotelli with his third goal in two games, and Figo’s improving, albeit cameo, performances. Both could give the Serie A champions a much-needed sense of direction at Old Trafford – even if their impact is likely to be restricted from the bench.
The loan of Ricardo Quaresma to Chelsea and the distrust in the enigmatic Mancini leaves Inter with few players able to cause problems on either flank by running at players. Certainly, in comparison with United’s Ronaldo, Nani and the industrious Ji-Sung Park, Inter’s side looks truly devoid of much wing wizard quality. Figo remains a sensible option, a player with plenty of know-how and experience, but whether the former Real Madrid star has the legs as a match-winning winger anymore is another matter. Balotelli’s two goals against Roma and performance at Genoa showed that he is an alternative to the one-dimensional Adriano upfront, but United’s Ferdinand and Jonny Evans dealt well with the Brazilian and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the first leg – leaving Mourinho in the knowledge that one more mistake this time round will cost Inter their European aspirations for another season once again and possibly the man his job.