The draw for the latter stages of European competitions took place on Friday morning, and threw together some intriguing tussles.
The tie of the round is arguably the clash between Inter and Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho squaring up against his former employers for the first time since his acrimonious sacking in 2007. The first-leg at the San Siro will also see Carlo Ancelotti return to his old stomping ground, whilst his previous team, Milan, face a meeting with Premier League champions and last year’s beaten finalists Manchester United.
The draw represents a tough ask for the Milanese duo, paired against two of the strongest sides on the continent, and two of the favourites to triumph come May. What will also be interesting is to once again see how the Italian sides fare against the English. Over the last few seasons, barring Milan’s defeat of Liverpool in the 2007 final and United in the semis the same year, the English have dominated proceedings, both in terms of results, and progression through the tournament as a whole.
On the face of it, little appears to have changed since the same stage last season when Chelsea desposed of Juventus and Inter bowed out meekly to United. If anything, Chelsea are stronger than they were during Guus Hiddink’s infancy at the club. Ancelotti has successfully implemented the diamond formation and restored Didier Drogba to full working order. Barring some wobbles from set-plays, the Londoners appear ominous, and Mourinho will need to remind us just how special he actually is.
Just this week Nerazzurri General Manager Ernesto Paolillo stated that the Portuguese Coach’s future at Inter was not directly related to their performances in the Champions League. Which is probably just as well given that Mourinho’s European record since being at the helm is average at best. After taking over from Roberto Mancini an instant emphasis was placed upon Mourinho to improve on his predecessor’s failings in Europe. Although no direct mandate was issued by the club’s top brass, the impression was that Mourinho would elevate la Beneamata to the level of Europe’s elite – so far, progress falls somewhere between slow and none existent.
Getting knocked out by Chelsea may not be an immediate threat to the Special One’s position, but it would certainly not help at a time when he continues to attract negative press. His recent sending off at Juventus and exchange of pleasantries with a journalist has further bolstered the ranks of the anti-Mourinho brigade. As he will attest from his Chelsea dismissal, elements of his personality can grate on people inside, as well as outside the club. Fail again in Europe and he will also find few hiding places in the media.
As opposition, Chelsea could be deemed to be the best and worst possible outcome. If Inter do not raise their game from the paltry offerings of the group stage, they will be beaten. Therefore, both Mourinho and his players go into the tie knowing vast improvement is needed. Defeat Chelsea, and the psychological barriers which seem to affect inter in Europe can be overcome. With each team’s tacticians knowing the other side’s game in fine detail, the clashes could end up being cagey affairs, and more likely to produce fireworks are the Devils of Manchester and Milan. The old boys reunion theme is continued with David Beckham returning to Old Trafford to face a team his new club have eliminated from this competition twice in the last five years.
A couple of Hernan Crespo goals for the Rossoneri sent United packing in 2005, before a Kaka masterclass devastated Sir Alex Ferguson’s men in 2007. This year, il Diavolo will again need a Brazilian to fire – or two of them if possible. Alexandre Pato has suitably impressed enough this season to suggest he can ruffle a few of United’s defensive feathers, whilst Ronaldinho saves his stellar performances for such spectacles. Prior to last week’s home reverse to Palermo, Milan had seen an upsurge in fortunes following a sluggish start to the campaign. That spell of results saw them win in the Bernabeu and hold Real Madrid at home. Those displays should inspire Milan against a United side not wholly convincing after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, but despite coming out unscathed with the Galacticos, Milan contrived to take only one point from six off group whipping boys FC Zurich. Such inconsistencies can produce shocks, but not trophies.
Overall, on paper and in practice, Inter and Milan give a lot away to the English duo, but both are capable of causing a relative upset, and bringing a glimmer of pride back to the Peninsula.
Elsewhere Fiorentina are rewarded for their endeavours by meeting Juve-conquering Bayern Munich, whilst the Bianconeri meet Ajax in the Europa League last 32 with Roma playing Panathinaikos.
This week sees the conclusion of the first half of the season’s fixtures before the winter break, which, conveniently enough comes at a very welcome time for Ciro Ferrara. After nose-diving out of the Champions League and losing more ground on Inter, the pressure on Ferrara has been cranked up a couple of notches. Quotes attributed to the agent of Russia manager Guus Hiddink have suggested la Vecchia Signora had been in touch enquiring about the Dutchman’s availability, which prompted Juve to release this fairly innocuous statement: “We have never taken into consideration any trainer because Ciro Ferrara enjoys our utmost trust.” Very reassuring, Ciro.
We also have the chance for a little bit of history this week, if Alessandro Matri can once again find the back of the net. The Cagliari ace headed home during Week 16’s draw with Napoli, meaning he’d struck in seven consecutive Serie A games, equalling a club record set by Rossoblu legend Gigi Riva. One more against Udinese at the Friuli and it’s eight in a row, the club record outright, and a strong chance of a call-up to la Nazionale. Good luck, Alessandro.
News from the Peninsula
Week 6-7 –
Milanese managerial mess – September 27 – October 3
Week 7-International week (Rep. of Ireland vs. Italy, Italy vs. Cyprus) –
Cannavaro stung by doping claims – October 4 – October 10
International week (Rep. of Ireland vs. Italy, Italy vs. Cyprus)-Week 8 –
Lippy Marcello blasts the tifosi – October 11 – October 17
Inter-spective look at Mourinho’s European Nerazzurri – October 18 – October 24
Life begins at the quarter – October 25 – October 31
Inter late show keeps the Euro fire burning – November 1 – November 7
Week 12-International week (Italy vs. Holland, Italy vs. Sweden)
The human side of the modern day footballer – November 8 – November 14
International week (Italy vs. Holland, Italy vs. Sweden)-Week 13
Giovanni Trap-ped as Thierry hands France a place in South Africa – November 15 – November 21
The bad, the bad and the ugly – November 22 – November 28
Italy gears up for a pivotal week of Calcio – November 29 – December 5
Friends reunited for Anglo-Italian Champions League clashes – December 6 – December 19