MILAN // A rather dishevelled Inter Milan confront their biggest challenge of the new year this evening. Three points from their last three Serie A fixtures is not the form of domestic champions, let alone aspiring European ones, and Inter's register of Champions League results is even poorer. They face Chelsea at San Siro with only a vague recollection of what constitutes a winning run in club football's principal competition: Inter have triumphed in only two of their last 11 fixtures in Europe.
Fresher wounds were applied to the Italian league leaders on Monday, when the Serie A authorities imposed a three-match touchline ban and a ?40,000 (Dh200,000) fine on Jose Mourinho, the head coach following his "handcuff" gesture after what he deemed to be poor refereeing during Saturday's goalless draw with Sampdoria. The two players sent off in that match, Walter Samuel and Ivan Cordoba, are facing domestic suspensions. Two more, Esteban Cambiasso and Ali Sulley Muntari, have also been banned for one match each for their protests against referee Paolo Tagliavento.
"Ridiculous," was how Massimo Moratti, the Inter president, described the punishments. "It's been done on the eve of our Champions League game with Chelsea, just to make our preparation serene and calm," Moratti added sarcastically. Mourinho's Inter do not really do serene and calm, at least outwardly. The red cards they collected at the weekend were their seventh and eighth of this season, and Inter's second "double" as it were, after Lucio and Wesley Sneijder were both sent off in the game against AC Milan last month. Serene? Calm? "The thing about Mourinho is that on the outside you see a different guy, but from the inside, we the players see a manager who's very calm," one Inter player said recently. Nights like Saturday make that argument sound less convincing.
For tonight, at least, Inter are not eroded by suspensions, and it can be guaranteed the indignation about referees that they carry around Serie A with them will have been harnessed into determination. The former Chelsea manager has made much of his intimate knowledge of the opposition, most of whom were players he worked with during his three years in London, and he has also made great play about the degree to which the Inter first XI has transformed during his 18 months in Italy. Mourinho told a story the other day about how he and his assistant Beppe Baresi last week looked over an Inter squad photograph from the beginning of the 2008/09 season and marked with an X each of the players who had left the club since then. "They numbered 14," Mourinho said jubilantly: "We have made a lot of changes."
Those changes had Europe in mind. The Inter squads of 2007, 2008 and 2009 were quite sufficient to win the Italian league. What they failed to do was make a significant impression on the Champions League. A pacier forward line, with Diego Milito's arrival represents one attempt to sharpen Inter in Europe. The addition of a another striker, Samuel Eto'o, who has two European Cup winners medals - not to mention decisive goals in two Champions League finals - is another factor that will concern Chelsea.
In this, the home leg, Mourinho needs to see more activity in the opposition penalty area than he did, say, a year ago, when his team met Manchester United at the same stage of the competition and drew 0-0, losing 2-0 in the England leg of the tie. This Inter look better equipped at the back than 12 months ago, too. Having Lucio, the Brazil captain, to marshal Didier Drogba is more reassuring than trusting that task to the diminutive Cordoba or the ageing Marco Materazzi.
Chelsea have Frank Lampard back for the tie, but the absence of Ashley Cole at left-back could benefit Maicon, Inter's adventurous right-back. Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea coach, never on the best of terms with Mourinho during his time at city rivals AC, played on his rival's unpopularity. "All of Italy, apart from Inter supporters, will be a fan of Chelsea," he said @Email:email@example.com