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FA Cup quarterfinal draw

FA Cup
By ESPN Staff

Shock and derision for Inter

Nothing stirs the emotions of Italians fans like the Champions League. Traditionalists may be shaking their heads at this simply statement of fact, but the buzz emanating from big Euro matches has slowly been surpassing that from domestic encounters, not least in these times of total domination by a single side on the Italian front.

Which, of course, brings us straight to Inter and their defeat at Anfield the other day.

Intriguingly, it was shaping up to be a seminal match for both sides: Liverpool may have gone through a bad spell on and off the pitch and looked at renewing their great tradition against European competition with anticipation, but the tie had taken on an enormous importance for Inter, too, for reasons that were correctly analysed by many, British newspapers included, in the run-up to the first leg.

Having again established an unassailable lead in Serie A, where despite the whiff of refereeing mistakes in their favour they are by far the best side, Inter have not tasted success in Europe for many years, their last significant trophy being the 1998 UEFA Cup.

Their best result in the Champions League has been reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals in the last five years, but since both times it was local rivals AC Milan knocking them out it's a memory best forgotten.

The pressure on Inter and coach Roberto Mancini to perform well in Europe, perhaps even go all the way in the club's centenary year (the exact date is Sunday, March 9, but since Liverpool visit the San Siro two days later Inter had to bring forward the home match v Reggina to the Saturday) has been huge all season.

Last year, the Nerazzurri conceded a late equaliser at home to Valencia then failed to score in the return leg of the first knockout round, a disappointing development for the Serie A leaders.

This time, the urgency to do well in Europe and validate their dominant form in Serie A is even greater and this is why the 0-2 reversal at Anfield, even under the mitigating circumstances of Marco Materazzi's harsh dismissal after half an hour, was greeted by shock among Inter's faithful and derision, once again, among the many fans who have turned against Inter for the holier-than-thou attitude they displayed - correctly, by the way - during the Calciopoli scandal which broke out two years ago.

Among Milan supporters departing en masse for London on Wednesday the glee when clips of Inter's defeat at Anfield the previous evening were shown on news bulletins in the airport departure lounges was evident, and others in Italy, mostly Juventus fans, will have chuckled when Materazzi was sent off and Inter let in those two late goals, a fate compounded by the loss of defender Ivan Ramiro Cordoba, a staple of the right side of Inter's central defence, with a cruciate ligament injury.

Inter's attitude was disappointing, as even before Materazzi's dismissal they had shown little of the enterprise and sheer power that had been their traits throughout the last eighteen months.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a playmaker and striker who is probably the best creator in the side alongside Dejan Stankovic, and the fading Luis Figo, again failed to duplicate his domestic form, which has some narrow-minded observers talking of him as a possible winner of that Italian obsession, the Ballon d'Or.

And obviously Mancini's choice of Maxwell as a left-sided midfielder in a 4-4-2, not Inter's best formation, spoke of his desire to keep Liverpool under control more than take the game to them.

Which can hardly be faulted if you're playing at Anfield in a European competition. It's a plan that had worked right until the minute Dirk Kuyt's shot went past Julio Cesar; so on one hand Inter had done well with ten men, but, again, their profile in Serie A at the moment means anything less than an emphatic win everywhere they play is seen as a disappointment.

And Mancini, who may leave Inter anyway at the end of the season, may be right in believing there is an undercurrent of scepticism towards him and his side in the media which means each and every flaw is magnified. Look, and listen, closely and you will see there does seem to be a meaner streak towards them in some quarter.

There is a feeling, though, that Inter still have a chance to qualify since their home form has been so good, and hopefully there will be none of the lowlife tactics that were adopted 42 years ago when Liverpool last paid a visit to the Nerazzurri; then, as former Reds defender Tommy Smith recently pointed out in an article for the Daily Telegraph, Liverpool had to endure harsh treatment off the pitch and were on the receiving end of controversial decisions from Spanish referee Jose Maria Ortiz de Mendibil, who was rumoured to have been'convinced' by the Italians that it would be in his best interest if the Nerazzurri went through.

For the same reasons that were outlined earlier, Inter's performance was scrutinised, apparently, more than Milan's at Arsenal and Roma's against Real Madrid. There was basically a sense that the Rossoneri had managed to keep Arsenal at bay with the kind of professional, composed showing Carlo Ancelotti's side have been displaying in Europe, but then the same could have been said about Inter, who were a man down.

When Kaka is not fully fit or out of sorts, as he's been lately, Milan's chances of creating are significantly lower, and the newly-acquired Pato, at just 18, cannot be asked to put the side on his shoulders as others may be more qualified and experienced to do.

At the San Siro, Milan will have to increase by at least 20% the percentage of possession they had at the Emirates Stadium while trying to keep a clean sheet against an exuberantly athletic side, which is why there is a feeling Inter still have a better chance of progressing than their Milan neighbours, which on first thought defies logic.

As for Roma, the popularity of English football in Italy has meant the Milanese ties against Arsenal and Liverpool have overshadowed the Giallorossi's meeting with Real Madrid. The Giallorossi display was an encouraging one after they had all but relinquished their role as Inter's main rivals by going down easily at Juventus on the Saturday, their second consecutive away defeat.

Roma, when in form, are one of the better Serie A sides to the eye, but one of their problems has been saving the day when their well-oiled engine starts sputtering. The lack of a traditional centre-forward means movement on and off the ball is paramount, and oddly enough Roma was found lacking many times against Real, who dominated possession, but capitalized on a couple of good chances, one of them created for Mancini by Francesco Totti, who hasn't been going through the best of spells.

Daniele De Rossi's continuing excellence in a holding role in midfield means Roma have found a leader - and local lad, an added bonus in such a fiercely partisan place - who can replace Totti when the captain is not in the best shape, but even the young Daniele knows Roma will have to step up their performance at the Santiago Bernabeu, where few expect them to survive.

Having conceded possession at home and won, they may be confident they could score at least once in Madrid, but the wiser heads around the dressing room have already reminded everyone what happened the last time the Giallorossi won at home 2-1 against a better side and approached the return leg with confidence.

They went down 7-1 at Old Trafford, so a low profile may, indeed, be for once Roma's best choice in the next fortnight.

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