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Inter ready to rock Barcelona



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Like Barcelona, who claim to be more than a club, Jose Mourinho has always cast himself as more than just a football manager. Speaking at a press conference on Friday, the Special One even had the temerity to suggest he is much better at knowing what footballers are thinking than any shrink in the business.

“I am the best sports psychologist,” Mourinho quipped. “I am better than those I have spoken to. They have a theoretical knowledge while I have a much more practical insight. I have worked in football all my life and the best sports psychologists are the managers.”

Speak to his players and they only ever have positive things to say about him. Ciro Ferrara, the Juventus manager, even admitted during a recent interview that, were he still a player, he would relish an opportunity to play under Mourinho. Zdenek Zeman, the former Roma and Lazio tactician, has also argued that Mourinho is a better communicator than coach.

It comes as little surprise then that Mourinho is doing everything in his power to lessen the significance of Tuesday night’s all-important Champions League clash with Barcelona at the Camp Nou.  “Three weeks ago there was the away match against Dynamo Kyiv, and for us that was the game of life. The game against Barcelona isn’t because we have two games to get three points.”

Inter currently top Group E, although only by a point, but it’s fair to say they can board the plane to Catalunya brimming with confidence. Normal service was resumed on Saturday following the interruption caused by the international break. The Nerazzurri eased past Bologna, winning 3-1 at the Renato Dall’Ara, even without Wesley Sneijder.

Alberto Cerruti, the chief football writer for La Gazzetta dello Sport, wrote: “Welcome back to the championship and welcome back to its queen, who seems to have returned from a beauty farm rather than an international break, with players loaned out to various countries across the world.”

In many ways, the manner of Inter’s victory showed just how far they have come under Mourinho in the past year. This time last season, the Nerazzurri made desperately hard work of Bologna, needing a save of the season from Julio Cesar to hold on to a 2-1 lead and ultimately the three points. On Saturday, Cesar was rarely, if at all, called into action, prompting one pundit to say he was almost unemployed.

Moreover, Inter showed brain as well as brawn and technique on top of physicality, firing as many as 11 shots on target, striking the woodwork twice and putting a real stamp on their victory, which came through the fruits of the collective rather than the skills of the individual.

Far from being boring boring Internazionale, the Nerazzurri have now scored a quite incredible 102 goals under Mourinho – 32 in 13 games so far this season, averaging 2.46 a game. Those statistics suggest Inter were justified in selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Barcelona in the summer and let me explain why.

By getting rid of the big Swede, who, incidentally, has taken to life at the Camp Nou much better than Samuel Eto’o has at the San Siro, Inter have to play more as a team. All too often in the last three years, give the ball to Ibrahimovic was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

Now, with Eto’o, Mario Balotelli and the brilliant Diego Milito up front – all of whom are forwards who can’t as easily conjure something out of nothing as Ibrahimovic – Inter quite simply have to find alternative routes to goal and are a much better footballing unit as a result.

Tactics and generally playing to a high standard aren’t everything at the Camp Nou, though, according to Mourinho. “Now we must concentrate on Barcelona. I left my assistant in Milan so he could best prepare the training regime with the players. Now it’s down to me and I hope the squad will be relaxed,” he told Sky Sport Italia after Saturday’s win.

“On the bus ride home we’re already working on Barcelona. I was there for three years and in that stadium your head is more important than your tactics. Stepping into that arena and saying you want to entertain is a difficult test in a player’s career. It’s going to be a real challenge of our character.”

It’s up to Mourinho, the sports psychologist, to ensure Inter – a team that has been so mentally fragile on the continent since the late 1990s – actually go to Spain aware of their own undeniable strengths.

The pressure of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1965 has often been too much to bear, but you get the feeling that with Yaya Toure and Eric Abidal definitely out with swine flu, and Lionel Messi and Rafael Marquez both touch and go, there is surely no better time for Inter to play Barcelona than on Tuesday night.

Talking Points

  • Fiorentina boss Cesare Prandelli is inextricably linked with Parma. He managed the Gialloblu for two very memorable years, consolidating his reputation as one of the finest coaching talents in Serie A. Since moving on, he has always tried to add a bit of parmesan to his sides, no more so than at Fiorentina where he has signed Alberto Gilardino, Adrian Mutu, Marco Marchionni and Sebastien Frey, all of whom played under him at Parma. However, it’s unlikely he enjoyed watching the Gialloblu put one over Fiorentina on Saturday, winning 3-2 at the Artemio Franchi and in so doing, consolidating their reputation as this year’s revelation.
  • During the week, Milan Vice-President Adriano Galliani revealed he has a different name for Leonardo’s uber-attacking 4-2-3-1; he calls it a 4-2-Fantasia. Aside from expressing his delight at Milan’s new offensive set up, Galliani did admit that playing with four very attack-minded players has often left him with his heart in his mouth. One expects that happened on Sunday afternoon when Milan came back from behind again to beat Cagliari 4-3 at San Siro.
  • If ever a team were dependent on one player, then Francesco Totti is that man for Roma. The 33-year-old, as is all too often the case, rushed back from knee surgery and promptly returned to being a real protagonist, scoring a fantastic hat-trick in a 3-1 victory over Bari. Totti has now scored 19 goals in 13 games in all competitions so far this season. Incredible.
  • Juventus managed to stay in touch with Inter at the top of Serie A, recording a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Udinese. Alessandro Del Piero and Momo Sissoko returned from injury, but the night belonged to Fabio Grosso who bagged the winner. The gap now stands at five points and Juventus will be hoping to capitalise on Inter’s tough schedule, which takes in Barcelona and Fiorentina in the next seven days.
  • The Derby di Sicilia was something of a damp squib in comparison with more recent encounters, ending in a disappointing 1-1 draw. It could yet spell the end for Palermo manager Walter Zenga who was in charge of rivals Catania last season. Talks with Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini will be held on Monday and given his somewhat infamous past as a mangia-allenatori [manager-eater] one wouldn’t bet against changes being made at the Barbera.
  • Inter full-back Douglas Maicon could miss the Nerazzurri’s top-of-the-table clash with Juventus on December 5 after getting sent off against Bologna in injury time on Saturday. The Brazil international protested a decision made by the fourth official and was told to go away. According to Inter, Maicon responded by telling him to do the same, but the fourth official thought he said something else entirely and notified the referee, leading to a red card.
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Having lived in Rome for much of his life, James decided to pick up his pen and write about Italian and European Football in 2007. He has written for the Guardian, Observer Sports Monthly, Four Four Two and Champions magazine as well as Calcio Italia.