Mourinho's Inter seize Champions League initiative

Inter show much-needed adventurous side

November 5, 2009
By Andy Brassell

The grand, pillared entrance to the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium in Kiev, with a large image of Lobanovskiy himself resplendent on one side, gives the old stadium a presence far beyond its sub-17,000 capacity. The chill wind from the adjacent Dnipro river is equally foreboding. Old Trafford or the Santiago Bernabéu this is not, but the team from the black-and-blue half of Milan have seemed ill-at-ease at just about any Champions League venues of late.

Jose Mourinho
GettyImagesJose Mourinho reacts with delight as Inter snatch victory.

The spectre of continued failure in Europe for one of the world's biggest-spending clubs exerts considerable pressure on their players, and on José Mourinho. Inter president Massimo Moratti frequently plays down the necessity for Champions League success but, after Roberto Mancini was ruthlessly fired in the wake of three successive scudetti, this is the competition in which Mourinho's tenure will be made or broken.

That pressure is acute at the moment. Inter arrived in Kiev on a run of eight Champions League games without a win, a period taking in a humbling last-16 defeat at the hands of Manchester United last season. Dynamo and Inter have relatively recent history. While the Italian side's present coach lifted the trophy in 2003-04, a late Diogo Rincón equaliser for Dynamo in the final group game dumped Inter out of European competition completely. A pre-match look at Group F, with Inter bottom again, spoke volumes for how little progress they've made since their last visit to the Ukrainian capital.

All is typically serene on the domestic front. After just 11 games, they're already seven points clear and, pertinently for a team whose aesthetics have been regularly panned under Mourinho's charge, their style has caught the eye. Five-goal shows against Genoa and Palermo, plus a 4-0 win in the Milan derby, are starkly juxtaposed to the Portuguese's fabled preference of going two up and killing the game. This Inter, following the exit of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the arrival of two more supply-dependent goalscorers in the shape of Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito, are being forced to play.

They started positively in Kiev, and Wesley Sneijder's left-footer skimmed the bar inside the first two minutes, but it quickly became apparent why they have struggled so much in this competition. Dynamo's young side gave their leaden-footed visitors a lesson in pass-and-move, delightfully pinging the ball around their bemused opponents. When they took the lead on 21 minutes via elder statesman Andriy Shevchenko's looping volley, it was fully deserved.

It had to be Sheva. Ever since his first derby goal for Milan in October 1999, he has taken special pleasure in destroying Inter. This was his 15th goal against the old enemy, and his fourth against them in the Champions League alone. His latest strike served as a brutal reminder that two quarter-finals and a semi is the best Inter have to show from a decade in which their city rivals have won the trophy twice and been losing finalists on another occasion.

Inter could hardly have had a worse first half, and Mourinho for one had no desire to see it repeated. His double substitution at half-time, replacing Cristian Chivu and Esteban Cambiasso with Mario Balotelli and Thiago Motta, went against what many would describe as the coach's natural conservatism. Three up front, with Javier Zanetti plucked out of midfield to plug the Chivu-shaped hole at left back.

Dynamo, so bright and confident, were clearly taken aback by the Italians' aggression and drive, and markedly ceded territory as Inter broke their rhythm. And the chances came. Eto'o headed wide of an open net after Stanislav Bogush had missed his punch at a corner. Walter Samuel hit a post, and Balotelli and Eto'o went on to miss further sitters.

At the heart of all this was Sneijder. It sounds too simplistic to say that one player - and a Real Madrid cast-off to boot - could transform a team's mentality, but Sneijder is beginning to do just that. He not only provides a much-needed creative fulcrum, but relieves the playmaking burden on the likes of Dejan Stankovic and Balotelli, who are ill-suited to the task.

Wesley Sneijder
GettyImagesWesley Sneijder celebrates his late winner.

Sneijder is a thoroughly modern playmaker, a visionary passer but a pragmatist, who also bosses set-pieces, which are so important to Inter. Someone, in other words, most suited to their functionality. Moved on from the Bernabéu as part of an attempt at post-galáctico book-balancing, Pellegrini's side may well regret binning the Dutchman, particularly if the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo endures much longer.

Vast improvement notwithstanding, the glut of missed chances betrayed a lack of confidence borne of such a wretched run in Europe. With time running out and another painful post-mortem on the horizon, Sneijder found Milito with another devilish through-ball, and the Argentinian slotted home. After receiving tangible reward for their toil, Inter continued to press, and fittingly it was Sneijder who scrambled home the winner after Bogush's scruffy efforts to keep out attempts by Sulley Muntari and Milito.

Relief exploded as the winner hit the net, with Mourinho, staff and substitutes all leaping joyously onto the pitch. Champions League success is not just about scratching Moratti's itch or satisfying the fans, but about defining Mourinho's legacy. How special would the Special One be if he never repeated his 2004 win?

A tactical evolution, sampled to scintillating effect in the second half in Kiev, is as important to the coach's long-term reputation. There was a tentative attempt to change last season, with the purchases of Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma suggesting the implementation of a more extravagant version of his 4-3-3, or even a 4-2-4 against weaker opponents. Mourinho's exasperation with the ensuing defensive frailty, particularly after the 3-3 draw with Anorthosis Famagusta, put an end to this, but there are signs that Inter could be ready to transfer their more expressive side from the domestic to the European stage. That would seem prudent, after the first-half dross served up in Kiev by the old-style Inter.

Maybe Mourinho has changed - he and Shevchenko seemed to find closure on their awkward relationship outside the dressing room after the game, their embrace speaking of a rarely acknowledged mutual respect. If Mourinho is to further enhance his image in Europe, an adventurous new Inter is a necessity.