Javier Zanetti, the longest serving and perhaps the most respected senior professional at Inter Milan, was talking about what he regarded as the "unique character" of Italy's reigning champions. He was making an implicit comparison with Inter squads of the past, and Zanetti has been around the club long enough to remember the days when they were caricatured for their brittleness, their frailty under pressure.
In his 15 years at Inter, Zanetti has been in several sides derided as "bottlers", in squads which lost possible championships on the final day of the season. He has also been in the teams that for the past four seasons have made up for those near-misses with successive Serie A triumphs. But this Inter, he said after a particularly stirring comeback against Siena nine days ago, have more never-say-die spirit than any he can remember. Losing 3-2 to Siena at San Siro, Jose Mourinho's team won 4-3. Then, on Saturday, they pulled another point from the jaws of defeat, at Bari.
The bad news for Mourinho is that his side, who meet Milan in the derby on Sunday, are shipping too many goals: Five in their last two league outings. The worse news is that Milan are scoring for fun: Four more at the weekend against the same Siena who had so troubled Inter. The good news for the champions is that Zanetti's theory of indomitability looks like much more than a captain's stirring rhetoric. Inter appeared down and out with a quarter of the game left in Bari.
They had conceded two penalties within three minutes against a spirited and skilful set of opponents whose status after five months back in the top division grows and grows. Both centre-halves, Walter Samuel and Lucio, had been forced into awkward positions to give away the spot-kicks, although Lucio, who fouled Alessandro Parisi, was the more culpable. Samuel had earlier been punished for a handball that appeared accidental. The outcomes were the same: Bari's Paulo Baretto put the two penalties past his compatriot Julio Cesar for a two-goal lead.
"Conceding two penalties in five minutes changed everything," concluded Mourinho. "The match seemed lost, but once again the boys showed fantastic spirit to fight back. And we earned a point, which I have to be satisfied with given that we had to fight back from 2-0 down away from home against a quality side. But, naturally, I'm not pleased at going 2-0 down in the first place." As it was, Mourinho felt Inter might even have won, had Bari's Leonardo Bonucci been sent off for the foul that brought down Goran Pandev 16 minutes from time. "Why wasn't he?" complained Mourinho, before launching into his familiar conspiracy-theoried war cry: "There's one rule for us and another for the rest." Diego Milito converted the third spot-kick of the evening for his 12th goal of the season and, given that Pandev had scored his first goal in Inter colours four minutes earlier, that was 2-2, the recovery launched in as breathless a sequence as the earlier setback.
So to Sunday's Milan derby. Ronaldinho's hat-trick against Siena takes his record to five goals in two games. On Sunday he looked rampant. His zest has a contagious quality right now: Marco Borriello contributed the other Milan goal with a magnificent volley, and the gap between first and second place is now six points, enough to give the derby a genuine bearing on the title race, should it go to form. That title bid is, though, a two-team contest, Juventus having contrived to lose, 1-0 at Chievo, for the seventh time this season. Juve drop out of the Champions League placings, to behind Roma and Napoli. Milan is in the ascendancy and there seems no easy cure for the trouble in Turin.