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Apr 19, 2010

Inter's date with destiny

Outside influences have had a habit, recently, of trying to penetrate Inter's hardened outer shell ahead of their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona.

Most notably, there have been allegations about the Nerazzurri's perceived role in the 2006 Calciopoli scandal which have been brought to light by the defence attorneys for disgraced former Juventus director Luciano Moggi.

But Inter's preparations for their highly-anticipated clash with Barcelona have also been disrupted, possibly, by the news that the Catalans might not have been able to reach Italy following the cancellation of flights across Europe.

The threat of postponement, which then vanished when Barca started their journey by coach, may have distracted the Inter camp, who otherwise enjoyed an energising weekend after beating Juventus 2-0 on Friday evening, although they will not have been happy to see Roma come from behind and win the derby against Lazio, leapfrogging the Nerazzurri again at the top of the table.

But Europe is their focus now. After all, it is widely known the main reason Inter hired Jose Mourinho two years ago was their belief the Portuguese coach would lead them to their first European Cup success since 1964. Europe's top competition has been the sporting equivalent of a Holy Grail since the Nerazzurri lifted the trophy under the stewardship of Angelo Moratti, the father of current owner Massimo, and no matter how many Scudetti are sewn on Inter's shirt, winning in Europe is the priority. That makes each Champions League match contain the sort of drama you would pay to watch on prime time if it was turned into a TV series.

Ahead of their latest date with destiny in Europe, it is not easy to gain an insight into Inter's state of mind. Samuel Eto'o, for example, has gone on record as saying "Barcelona are the best team in the world and it will be almost impossible to knock them out", as if the gap between the two sides is huge.

Eto'o, who joined Inter from Barca last summer, was perhaps trying to play the kind of mind games that are usually the preserve of managers, and it would be interesting to know whether he actually believes what he said.

Inter's latest displays in Europe have been the portrait of efficiency and effectiveness, with more than a pinch of tactical acumen sprinkled in for flavour. But their victory over Chelsea tasted sour to some. After Inter won at Stamford Bridge by taking the game to the Blues, critics of Mourinho, and there are a lot of them, rushed to point out that the Nerazzurri had done nothing special, nothing revolutionary for Italian football (then again, you'd find many detractors rhetorically asking how Inter, with 11 foreigners in their most effective line-up, represent Italian football).

Marcello Lippi, after all, had shown the attacking way during the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Germany, replacing midfielders with forwards deep into extra time.

Interestingly, Inter's 4-2-1-3, which may also be seen as 4-2-3-1 depending on how you judge the positions of Eto'o and Goran Pandev - the outside men in the attacking trio - has probably been their most successful formation so far.

According to a study by Corriere dello Sport, since it was introduced in the second half at Dynamo Kiev, it has led to ten wins in 14 matches, while the 4-3-1-2 has reaped six wins in 14. It has been used away more than at home, but there is not a set pattern in its use. The big question, of course, is whether Mourinho will use it against Barcelona on Tuesday.

It requires some hard work from the forwards, as Eto'o and Pandev so splendidly demonstrated at Stamford Bridge, and can have an added element of flair and improvisation whenever Mario Balotelli comes in.

Inter's 4-2-1-3 was rewarded on Friday by a successful display against Juve, although it took them 75 minutes to take the lead against opponents who had had Momo Sissoko sent off late in the first half. Juve tried to pressure Inter high up the pitch, something Barcelona have become renowned for, so it may have been good practice for Inter in that respect, too.

Mourinho's men responded by keeping no fewer than four men up field, even when Juve had the ball. The obvious aim was to prevent the Bianconeri from sending too many players forward, and creating a foundation for quick counter-attacks whenever Inter were first to a loose ball. At times, there was too much space between the forward four and the rest of the side, which exposed Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta to the close control and change of direction of Diego.

You just wonder what Leo Messi, who is a far classier and more dangerous player than the Brazilian, would do in a similar situation, and Mourinho would have made the same observation, obviously.

There is a chance Pandev, who has not been brilliant of late, will be left out and Inter will choose a more cautious 4-3-1-2. Wesley Sneijder has been outstanding as a provider of quick, telling passes to the strikers, and perhaps three holding midfielders would help cover space better in front of the defence.

An interesting twist in tactics was heavily speculated upon by Corriere dello Sport on Sunday, though: Maicon's attacking prowess as a right-back has been so influential this season that Mourinho may use him as a right winger, as he did in midweek in the 1-0 Coppa Italia win at Fiorentina that sent Inter to the final.

This would obviously require a change in other areas of the pitch: Maicon would be free to push forward and go past opponents with less concern over his defensive duties, which could be fulfilled by either jack-of-most-trades Javier Zanetti or Ivan Cordoba, and Inter would effectively line up with a rare 4-4-2. It has to be noted, though, that while Mourinho will surely consider not conceding goals at home to be almost as important as scoring at least one, Sneijder's form and overall play almost warrant him a place in any line-up, and a traditional 4-4-2 would probably not be best suited to him.

On the defensive front, the central pairing of Lucio on the right and Walter Samuel on the left is Inter's most frequent, and remains in line with Mourinho's desire last summer, when Lucio joined from Bayern Munich, to have at least one ball-playing centre-half who can contribute with distribution at the back and help the fluidity of play. Such a strategy will come especially handy against Barcelona and their pressing from the front.

Inter's home record in 2010 has been impressive: since Massimo Maccarone scored Siena's third in the 4-3 thriller on January 9, the Nerazzurri have conceded just one goal at the Mezza, and that was Salomon Kalou's in the first leg against Chelsea. A combination of a good defence, competent goalkeeping (although Julio Cesar appears to have slipped a little after being involved in a car accident just before the return leg at Chelsea) and excellent cover from midfield has contributed to the best home defensive record in Serie A, with just 11 goals conceded in 17 matches.

Stats can only mean so much, of course, as those who saw Barcelona dominate Inter at Camp Nou last November may be quick to point out. That was probably Inter's lowest point of the season (they started out in a 4-3-1-2 both times against Barcelona, by the way), but the side's confidence has grown immeasurably since then, and there is little doubt that assured performances both at Chelsea and CSKA Moscow will have increased the sense this may be Inter's year in Europe after all.

With Roma winning on Sunday while Barcelona were making their way across the border to France, Inter's season is at a crossroads: we will find on Tuesday, perhaps, whether it will turn to ashes - no pun intended.

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