Jose Mourinho's loyalists in London have been happy to declare themselves ahead of the Portuguese's return to Stamford Bridge tonight. "Inter Milan," said Chelsea's Frank Lampard, totem of the Chelsea team that Mourinho guided to two Premier League titles, "are a team with real character. It's easy to see who their manager is."
Lampard of course was talking about the Inter who defeated Chelsea 2-1 in the first leg of the last 16 tie in the Champions League. His comments were delivered, and taken, in praise of a side who took an early lead at San Siro a fortnight ago, and came back from Salomon Kalou's equaliser to give themselves a narrow advantage to bring to London. Yet in Serie A lately, it has not been quite so simple to give tributes to the character of Inter. Indeed it has not been easy to see who Inter's manager is, quite simply because he has been banned from the touchline.
So the Mourinho on whom the spotlight falls so unavoidably tonight is a man from whom Italy has heard unusually little recently. No taunting press conferences, no loud complaints about referees, the type that led to his suspension in domestic matches. Some in Italy have even started to miss the weekly theatre Mourinho creates around him. Inter's players may also have missed the man Lampard describes as the best coach Chelsea ever had. With Mourinho exiled to the grandstand, the Italian champions have continued an alarming run of form that stretches back to the beginning of February. Inter have won only one of their last six league matches and saw their lead in Serie A cut to a single point at the weekend.
Last Friday's 3-1 loss in Catania certainly had a character, but it was a wild, wayward and indisciplined one. Not only did Inter suffer the third defeat in the league, they also suffered their ninth red card of the campaign, when Ali Sulley Muntari was dismissed within 85 seconds of appearing as a substitute. They failed to hold a lead, too, having gone ahead through Diego Milito in the second half.
These are not characteristics Mourinho likes to be associated with. But a brittle Inter have been seen before, with Mourinho very much active from the dugout and not exiled to the grandstand. Inter's rash of red cards tell of a ruggedness that players like Lampard would recognise as part of what Mourinho instilled in Chelsea. But they also indicate a recklessness. Muntari contrived to collect two yellow cards in his brief time on the pitch. Ivan Cordoba was sent off three weekends ago against Sampdoria when he took a matter of minutes to follow up one caution with a tackle guaranteed to bring him a second yellow card. Mourinho's tendency is to berate Italian referees for his side's alarming disciplinary record. In Europe, indeed, Inter have seemed better behaved, but tonight's official, Wolfgang Stark, may well be busy should the score remain tight until the later stages.
It is a game charged with extra electricity because of Mourinho's history. A warm ovation is expected from the Stamford Bridge crowd for a manager who brought a first league title to Chelsea after a gap of almost half a century. Comparisons between Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, the current Chelsea manager, can hardly be avoided. Above all, Stamford Bridge loyalists, like Lampard, will know that Mourinho teams tend to protect leads extremely effectively - the Catania collapse really was unusual - and that although 2-1 is a slender margin in a knockout tie where away goals could become significant, it is a lead that will seem to grow the longer Chelsea go without scoring.
Mourinho does not bring a full-strength Inter to London, with Christian Chivu, the Romanian defender, his most important long-term absence. With Davide Santon still coming back to full fitness, left-back remains a problem position for Inter, and indeed for Chelsea, who are missing Ashley Cole. Ancelotti fielded his third-choice goalkeeper Ross Turnbull in the victory over West Ham United at the weekend, but was yesterday nursing some hope that Peter Cech, injured in the first leg against Inter, may be ready to return.
"It will be important to stay calm," said Ancelotti. "The game will have a lot of pressure around it and we have to have control of this pressure. "Before the game, Mourinho will have a very good reception. But, as soon it starts, Chelsea fans will support their team." email@example.com Watch Chelsea take on Inter, 11.45pm, on Aljazeera Sport +4