Inter: Serie A's saving grace

While Italian football has hardly restored its reputation, it at least has something to shout about after Milan's win over Chelsea.

The players of Inter Milan returned home early on Wednesday morning on a wave of optimism. A win at Chelsea is quite a scalp, and though the rest of Italy had hardly suggested before Inter completed their 3-1 aggregate victory over the London club in the last 16 of the Champions League that the Serie A champions were carrying the full support of the nation with them.

Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea's Italian manager, said every Italian except the interisti would be supporting the English side but Inter have done their league a significant favour. Italian football was in danger of becoming the frail, forgetful dodderer of Europe's elite competition. One of its clubs is now confidently talking about winning the Champions League and the rest of the contenders, in a field shorn of some significant heavyweights, are taking that seriously.

Samuel Eto'o, the scorer of the only goal of the night at Chelsea, announced: "We are a team of champions and have shown we can go to any venue and win." Stamford Bridge is Inter and Serie A's bridge to renewed self-belief in Europe. Coupled with Fiorentina's triumphs earlier in the competition against Liverpool, including at Anfield, it is Italy's rope-ladder back to respectability in a cup that in the past 20 years produced 12 Italian finalists, but in the past two years had only put one club, on one occasion, even as far as the last eight.

The fact that Inter and Fiorentina secured home and away wins over English clubs whose home grounds have a particular fortress reputation is genuinely good reason for some breast-beating. The Italians have developed almost a phobia about the Premier League, given that three Serie A teams were eliminated by three English clubs at the last-16 stage a year ago, and that, a season before that, Liverpool knocked out Inter, and Arsenal overcame Milan before the quarter-finals, where Manchester United duly undid Roma.

Taking up Eto'o's theme, Inter captain, Javier Zanetti, sees a door opening for a club who, for all that they have strung together four successive Italian titles, have not reached the last four of the Champions League for the last five years. Zanetti, an Inter player since the 1990s, knows better that anybody the frustrations of the European Cup for his club, and, though cautious in his clairvoyance, sees the result as "a signal".

"For everybody, this victory means something special," said Zanetti. "Inter performed really well and showed great character, which we needed. It is not easy to beat Chelsea twice." Indeed. Nobody has beaten Chelsea in both legs of a knockout stage tie in the Champions League for more than a decade. All these startling figures make it look like a watershed. Eight days after Milan's humiliating defeat to Manchester United in the same competition, it still takes a lurch of the imagination to herald a renaissance for a Serie A which is self-conscious about indications it lacks strength next to Spain's Primera Liga and England's Premier League, the other members of the trio of domestic competitions that command most global respect. And Inter would still be concerned about being paired with United, or indeed with Arsenal, in tomorrow's draw for the quarter-finals.

As for even calling their triumph at Chelsea an Italian Job, Italy's national coach, Marcello Lippi, was quick to point out yesterday, it is not quite that. Inter's Portuguese head coach on Tuesday assembled a starting line up made of four Brazilians, four Argentines, a Dutchman, a Macedonian and a Cameroonian. There was a cameo appearance as a late substitute by one of Lippi's Italian World Cup holders, the veteran Marco Materazzi, but also a notable absence from the substitutes' bench of the Italy Under 21 international Mario Balotelli, who was left out of the squad after yet another row with Inter head coach Jose Mourinho. A little sourly, Lippi asked: "What is there Italian about a team that includes no Italians and has a Portuguese coach?"

Had he looked through the reactions among the defeated, he would have found an answer. In England, where pundits sometimes cling a little too eagerly to national stereotypes, Inter's performance was said to owe much to the traditions of tactical rigour, careful planning and effectiveness on the counter-attack associated with Serie A. Mostly, the triumph was said to owe a huge debt to Mourinho. If he delivers the Champions League to Inter, Italy will owe him a good deal, too.