Jose Mourinho’s Inter may well have put a whole lot of daylight between themselves and their Scudetto rivals with their derby victory on Sunday night, but the manner of the performance also gave credence to the belief that they might have what it takes to go deep in the Champions League this year.
The 2-0 win over Milan sent the Nerazzurri nine points clear of their ‘cugini’, but almost more impressive was the way they approached the game and completely dumbfounded their rivals with expert tactics and precision, even before Wesley Sneijder’s ridiculous red card.
Inter started the game with a bang, and could have been a couple of goals up even before Diego Milito exploited Ignazio Abate’s error to open the scoring. Already we’d seen Sneijder force Dida into two saves, one a superb reaction stop, as the No. 10 pulled the strings from minute one.
This was not according to the script. In the build-up to the game, much of the media talk had been about how the Rossoneri had been thrillingly attacking of late and would cause Inter’s back four real problems. The truth turned out to be the exact opposite.
This was the kind of start few expected, and exactly the sort of beginning the Nerazzurri have failed to produce in any of their four big Champions League matches against Manchester United and Barcelona over the past 12 months. The ability to come out of the traps this well against Chelsea next month may well give Inter the edge they wouldn’t otherwise have.
And it wasn’t just about those opening 10 minutes either. They continued to exploit Milan’s weaknesses until the harsh dismissal of Sneijder in the 26th minute. My issues with the red card I will save for another day, but suffice it to say I believe it should take more than sarcastic applause for a referee to jump right in and ruin a derby.
From here on in it could have been a simple backs-to-the-wall job, reminiscent of so many away sides at San Siro this season against both Milanese giants. But instead they played the percentages brilliantly. Full-backs Maicon and Davide Santon barely got forward at all from that point, mindful of the fact that not only were their side a man down, but also of the high starting positions employed by Ronaldinho and David Beckham. This was easily Santon’s best performance of the season so far, whilst defensively Maicon played about as well as he has in months.
Inter also protected the back four superbly, with Esteban Cambiasso and particularly Javier Zanetti rising to the challenge. Zanetti continues to defy time and logic by putting in stellar midfield performances at the age of 36, and if he starts from the centre against Chelsea, rather than full-back, then he could be one of the key elements behind an Inter triumph.
Ahead of the midfield, Goran Pandev and Diego Milito worked their socks off. Pandev spent many a year at Lazio forging an excellent partnership with Tommaso Rocchi, and has so far linked up very well with ‘Il Principe’ in his early days in blue and black. The return of Samuel Eto’o in time for the European resumption can only be good news for Jose Mourinho too. The Special One will have just enough time to see how Pandev works with one or both of the usual front axis of Milito and Eto’o before the first leg rolls around on February 24.
The adaptability of this Inter squad is something that hasn’t really been talked about an awful lot this season. Instead, cliches have been used like they’re going out of fashion… “Well, they’ll just do enough in the league, but still haven’t done it in Europe”… “Yeah, but the second a big team comes around they’ll get done” etc. But who’s actually looked into the tactical set-up and come up with any great reasons for Inter to be scared? Sunday’s performance should give people plenty to think about.
Obviously Milan didn’t have a Didier Drogba on Sunday night, and Lucio’s fine form this season will really be tested when the Ivorian comes to town, but neither have Chelsea really come up against a side that has featured problems such as a Diego Milito in the form of his life, or Wesley Sneijder linking his side together with such grace and style.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t write off Chelsea, and probably still have them as slight favourites. But those who write off Inter, without giving a second thought to the tools they have in their armoury, do so at their peril.