The battle was won, the war is far from over. Except this was never really a battle, or a war. The chief protagonists were quiet and respectful, and the perceived grit and brimstone of both sides was relaxed to enable a fine, free-flowing game of football. Come the final whistle, José and Carlo shook hands, and I dare say retired to the Portuguese’s quarters for a drop of claret.
It was all very amicable given what was at stake. Two clubs, desperate to lift Europe’s top prize, ably led by two Coaches headhunted to duly deliver. In three weeks time only one party will be satisfied, the other will need to reflect on what will widely be deemed a failure. Elimination would be more critical for Mourinho, and knowing this, he and his side put in a hell of a shift to take a slender lead over to London for the return. As has been frequently scripted, Inter’s performances have simply not been good enough in the Champions League over the past few seasons. They have looked well of the pace of the sides who eventually win the competition, and have demonstrated very little evidence that they are about to break into the elite. So, has anything changed since Wednesday night?
The answer certainly has to be ‘no’. Nothing is ever changed by one result, one performance, one evening’s good work, yet what would have been most satisfying for the Interisti is that José Mourinho finally displayed the sort of tactical acumen which convinced President Moratti to bring him to the club. Prior to this clash, Mourinho had done very little in Europe with the Nerazzurri to warrant such a huge reputation and salary. Last season’s surrender to Manchester United was listless, and when faced against Barcelona this time around, il Biscione were nothing above timid. With the jury very much still out, Wednesday was judgement day.
All over the peninsula and certainly back in England, there are those Inter detractors keen to point out a few truths. It is hard to deny Inter were on the back foot for most of the game. Chelsea had the majority of possession and shots, but that was only because circumstances dictated. After all, la Benemeata were in front for almost 80 minutes of this game. Penalty? Of course, even Walter Samuel and Mourinho said so, but this was just a case of luck going your way. The week previous, Milan and Fiorentina fell foul of fortune, did anyone really back against Mourinho to come up smelling of roses?
Things could have gone differently but you can only judge on what can be controlled, and Mourinho showed his worth. After taking the lead, Inter allowed Chelsea the ball in innocuous wide areas, surely a pre-meditated plan. The midfield quartet led heroically by Esteban Cambiasso suffocated the Blues’ lifeline through the centre – rarely has Frank Lampard so subdued. Again, credit the boss. And once Inter retook the lead, where was Chelsea’s response? With their main weapons on the night, Florent Malouda and Branislav Ivanović pinned back by a three man attack, Ancelotti’s team were forced to bundle their way through the middle, only to be rebuffed by some excellent individual Inter performances. The astute switch to a bold front-three alleviated the growing pressure the Nerazzurri backline were likely to come under, once again, well done Mourinho.
There were many factors which resulted in the win, factors which Mourinho can and cannot take credit for – what he will be required to do is replicate that tactical nouse at Stamford bridge for the second leg. After all, one goal behind with an away goal is a decent perch. At home this year, Chelsea have seen off Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – all without conceding a goal. On Wednesday the Premier League leaders were strong, they showed a quality and temperament to wrestle the game away from Inter for large parts and they are certain to do that again. Nothing has been changed by one game, and a collapse at the Bridge would drop Inter back to square one. However they have proved they can mix it with the big boys, and with another good performance, some smart tactics and a bit more look, the inquisitive questions will be heading Ancelotti’s way.
Another Italian clash with a West London side is now on the cards after Juventus and Fulham progressed in the Europa League. The Bianconeri ground out a goalless draw with Ajax to supplement a 2-1 away win, and will now have a chance to visit Harrods after the Cottagers impressively got the better of UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar Donetsk. The game did not please many neutrals, but new Juve Coach Alberto Zaccheroni was delighted with the clean sheet his side played for, “It was imperative we kept a clean sheet. I haven’t been here long, what I ask of the team is that they remain tight. Now we can read games in a certain manner and adapt.” Zac is still unbeaten in six games since taking over from Ciro Ferrara and has seen the team climb back into fourth spot and the all important Champions League places. Their new found resolve will be tested this weekend by Palermo, who along with Napoli and Sampdoria, is tracking la Vecchia Signora for a top four finish.
Beyond the joy of the defeat of Chelsea, Inter now find their lead at the top of Serie A cut to just four points with Milan winning in Florence. The Nerazzurri visit Udinese with numerous suspensions after last week’s chaos against Sampdoria. Walter Samuel, Iván Córdoba, Esteban Cambiasso and Sulley Muntari are all banned, as is Mourinho after his handcuff gesture. After Sampdoria and Chelsea, who knows what is going to happen at the Friuli, three points would complete a week, that even for José, would have been a Special One.