Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho will again lock horns as Manchester United host Inter in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League showdown. The first leg in Milan saw United dominate for long periods of the game, but they were unable to convert their possession into a crucial away goal. Ferguson, however, will have taken heart from his side’s spirited display and will be confident of progressing to the quarter-finals on home soil.
Much has happened in the fortnight since the first meeting. United continued their quest for an historic quintuple by adding the League Cup to the FIFA World Club Cup won earlier in the season after a penalty shoot-out win against Tottenham. Inter meanwhile, experienced mixed fortunes, first being dumped out of the Coppa Italia by Sampdoria, before making amends with a league win at Genoa to keep up their title charge.
The Red Devils’ dominance both domestically and in Europe has seen them lose just once in their last 29, but if anyone is capable of putting a halt to their incredible run it is likely to be the Special One, who boasts the better record against his counterpart from his time in charge at Chelsea. Ferguson tasted victory just once in ten outings against Mourinho, who also infamously led Porto to a quarter-final win at Old Trafford en route to guiding them to Champions League glory in 2004. Despite several inconsistencies, the Portugese Tactician has led the Nerazzurri to the top of Serie A in his first season in charge. Inter, like United, currently lie seven points clear of the chasing pack and look likely to regain their Scudetto crown at the expense of Juventus and rivals Milan.
The last time the two sides met was at the quarter-final stage in United’s treble-winning season of 1999. The first leg took place at Old Trafford with the home side winning 2–0 thanks to a Dwight Yorke brace, despite Inter threatening to pull a goal back in a thrilling tie. The return leg in Milan proved even more dramatic than the first, as Inter at one point led 1–0 and were pushing for a second before Paul Scholes popped up with two minutes remaining to send his side into the semi-finals to face Juventus.
If they are to succeed at Old Trafford, Mourinho will have to contain the European Champions’ attacking threat. Fergie is presented with a pleasant selection headache as the potent quartet of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tévez and Dimitar Berbatov are all fit. However, he encounters major issues at the other end of the pitch as he faces an anxious wait over the fitness of defenders Rio Ferdinand and John O’Shea – both doubts after hobbling off at the weekend. Nemanja Vidic will be available for selection having being suspended for the first leg. Inter too have injury problems of their own at the back, after both Marco Materazzi and Nicolas Burdisso limped off against Genoa. Their announced recovery time means both will be unavailable for the clash, which combined with the doubts over Walter Samuel and Cristian Chivu leaves the Portuguese Tactician struggling for natural centre-backs.
Even though both sides are facing concerns over the fitness of important players, there will still be an array of world class players on view on Wednesday night that will provide fascinating battles all over the pitch. One that will no doubt be the subject of interest will be United’s FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and Inter’s leading scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ronaldo has, by and large, failed to reproduce the breathtaking form that saw him score 42 goals and inspire United to a league and Champions League double, although he has still played an integral role in their attempt to regain both trophies this season. Conversely, Ibrahimovic has flourished under Mourinho’s guidance and scored the opening goal against Genoa at the weekend for his 15th league goal of the season. Mourinho’s attempts to get a rise from the United camp led him to claim that his striker was the best player in world football (on more than one occasion). As if this was not enough, he also added further fuel to the fire by suggesting United would go to the San Siro to play for a draw in the build up to the first leg. Ferguson, not to be outdone, retaliated by predicting his side would win the tie in Milan as they ignited their friendly war of words.
It is Ferguson versus Mourinho, England versus Italy, Champions of England against the Champions of Italy, as two of Europe’s most successful sides bid to reach the semi-finals. It makes for a mouth-watering clash that will go some way to determining which manager has the last laugh come the end of the season.