MANCHESTER // Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson were in agreement that Inter Milan played to their potential. Manchester United, castigated by their manager for their showboating and wastefulness in possession, did not. Yet United progressed to the last eight of the Champions League with comparative comfort.
Therein lies a tale, and it is one of United's seemingly unstoppable momentum as well as the distinctly unequal rivalry between England and Italy. Manchester United have a seven-point lead in the Premier League, Inter an identical advantage in Serie A. Even with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick proving uncharacteristically sloppy with their passing, United advanced. Rather than being ended, their chances of an unprecedented quintuple were endorsed by Mourinho.
"They are stronger than us," Mourinho said. "Maybe people don't want to admit it." His critics among the Italian media did not want to. In the context of the English dominance of Europe, United's victory scarcely represented a shock. Yet with Italy, for the first time in seven years, unable to provide a quarter-finalist, a manager hired for his pedigree in the Champions League appeared a plausible scapegoat. The margins were narrow - both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano struck the woodwork - but some of the verdicts were damning.
"You can't just turn up and expect to win the Champions League like that," Mourinho, insisted, citing United's continuity. As he deflected questions about a return to Chelsea, it amounted to an argument for more time. That the precocious Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli should develop strengthened his case; that Javier Zanetti, Luis Figo and the waning Patrick Vieira are unlikely to improve weakened it.
United's age profile appealed to Mourinho. Yet, while he believes a core of players aged between 26 and 28 is beneficial, the prognosis may not be healthy for Inter, whose starting 11 contained only three men ostensibly at the peak of their careers: Maicon, Ibrahimovic and Esteban Cambiasso. That may not bode well, though the latter reasoned: "There will be many positive aspects to be analysed, but at this time there is only disappointment."
Nevertheless, in United's variant on the generation game, he was nullified by a 35-year-old after exerting an influence in the first half. It was further proof of Ryan Giggs' enduring excellence, the Welshman moving infield after the interval to track Cambiasso. Before Cristiano Ronaldo completed victory, Giggs provided United's opening goal. Nemanja Vidic headed in his corner for a fifth goal of the season. "I've definitely not scored more than I have this season, so I am happy," said the Serb.
"But I can't really explain why I've scored so many. It's something that's just happened. I can say we have had great crosses this year, and then I try to take up a position to score a goal." To compound Inter's defeat, Greater Manchester police yesterday announced that Mourinho was under investigation for an alleged assault on a supporter after the game. "Shortly before midnight last night a man reported that he had been punched in the face outside Old Trafford," a police statement read.