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Jose Mourinho reaches crossroads at Inter Milan

Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Massimo Moratti
Jose Mourinho faces old adversary Carlos Ancelotti in the Champions League, under the watchful eye of Inter owner Massimo Moratti

By Jonathan Stevenson

As football's most quotable character since Brian Clough, Jose Mourinho has rarely shied away from stating the outrageous.

Once, while at Chelsea, the Portuguese said he believed a manager should take no more than three months to get a new team playing the way he wants.

But, as Mourinho prepares his Inter Milan side to face the Blues in the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League on Wednesday, he might have cause to reassess that particular statement.

Inter expect Mourinho to have Champions League success - that was why they sacked Mancini and appointed him

Ex-Inter star Olivier Dacourt

When he stepped into the hot seat at the San Siro in the summer of 2008, Mourinho was charged with the task of leading the Nerazzuri, who had won three league titles in a row, to their first European Cup triumph since 1965.

Even the self-proclaimed Special One, however, could not turn around Inter's fortunes on the continent straight away as a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Manchester United in his first season saw them exit in the last 16 for the second successive campaign.

"You can't just turn up and expect to win the Champions League just like that," said Mourinho in the aftermath of defeat at Old Trafford.

"You must build a team over the course of time. It is a process and getting to the top is a consequence of the hard work you put in."

For the last 11 months, Mourinho has been busy putting in the hard yards.

Inter's record in Europe over the past few seasons is by no means poor, but there was clearly room for improvement after two quarter-final appearances in 2005 and 2006 were followed by two defeats in the last 16, with Liverpool doing the damage in 2008.

Mourinho's first major decision was to allow star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to leave for Barcelona for about £60m in the summer, a move Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti believes has made Inter a stronger all-round unit.

Samuel Eto'o, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito have replaced Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Inter
Eto'o, Sneijder and Milito have replaced Ibrahimovic at Inter

"Inter effectively sold Ibrahimovic and replaced him with Samuel Eto'o, Diego Milito and most of Wesley Sneijder," Marcotti told BBC Sport. "I think those three are better than the one they lost, however good Ibra was.

"Inter now are less one-dimensional than they were last season. It was Mourinho's first at the club and I think he overdid it a bit in terms of focusing on results.

"His grand plan at the start was to go with the two wingers in Ricardo Quaresma and Mancini, but that flopped badly.

"So his plan became to pack the midfield, get the ball to Ibra and wait for him to do something. They have obviously lost a great player, but they are more of a team now in my opinion."

More of a team maybe, but still with one standout player whose fabulous form this season is threatening to make Inter very serious contenders for Europe's most coveted crown.

Unwanted at Real Madrid, Sneijder cost Inter about £13.5m and he has repaid the fee with some captivating performances as the creative heartbeat of Mourinho's new-look team.

"Only once when I was at Ajax did my then boss Henk Ten Cate make me feel really important," said Dutchman Sneijder, recently. "Mourinho allows me to play exactly in the position where I can do what I do best."

French midfielder Olivier Dacourt, who left Inter last summer after a three-year spell in Milan, concurs with Marcotti that selling Ibrahimovic was a clever piece of business.

"It was a risk to sell Ibrahimovic, but they are still top of the league so they are no worse off without him," said the 35-year-old Frenchman.

"Everyone is important, but no-one is indispensible."

No-one apart from Mourinho, of course.

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The charismatic coach could only pat himself on the back after their 2-0 derby win over city rivals Milan in January, cruising to victory despite playing for more than an hour with 10 men after Sneijder was sent off.

"This team is better than last year," Mourinho emphatically announced. "It's much better. If everyone is in good shape, we have more solutions. This is now my team, a team in my image."

After Inter were knocked out of the Champions League by United last season Mourinho's side went on to win Serie A and a second consecutive title is on the cards, as they lead Roma by five points after the weekend's round of games. But with domestic domination almost a given, the desire grows ever greater for European success in the Inter corridors of power.

In the 1960s, under the ownership of current president Massimo Moratti's father Angelo and coached by the genius of Helenio Herrera - the man who made the defensive system of Catenaccio famous - Inter ruled the continent.

They won Serie A in 1963, 1965 and 1966 and claimed back-to-back European Cup triumphs in 1964 and 1965, beating Real Madrid and Benfica respectively, before losing the 1967 final to Celtic in Lisbon.

Dacourt, who is without a club after leaving Standard Liege earlier this month, says Mourinho must accept that a crucial part of his remit upon taking the Inter job was to lead them to Champions League glory.

INTER'S RECENT EUROPEAN RECORD
2009: Lost to Man Utd in last 16
2008: Lost to Liverpool in last 16
2007: Lost to Valencia in last 16
2006: Lost to Villarreal in q-finals
2005: Lost to AC Milan in q-finals

"It wasn't easy for Mourinho to take over from Roberto Mancini, because everyone was already used to winning the league and he had some pressure to do that again," he said.

"But what they expected was that Mourinho would have success in the Champions League because that is the reason they signed him. That's why Mancini was sacked and that's why Mourinho was his replacement.

"Moratti's father won it twice, it was a golden time for the club back then and I'm sure the current chairman would like to emulate those feats. He's done well to win Serie A so many times, but the Champions League is the Champions League..."

The challenge for Mourinho may not actually be to win the European Champion Clubs' Cup, but to get Inter into a position where they are a serious contender for the trophy each season, like Chelsea have been over a period of five or six years.

Marcotti believes this could be the key to Mourinho's long-term future at the club, with his contract due to run out in 2012.

"I disagree with those who says Mourinho definitely needs to win the Champions League to keep his job," said Marcotti. "I think he needs to put together a side that looks like it can win the competition.

"If Inter play very well against Chelsea and get knocked out but then play really well for the rest of the season, win the league and show great promise, I think he'll get another crack.

"But if Inter embarrass themselves and then go flat in Serie A then yeah, they might feel it is time for another change."

Inter boss Jose Mourinho
Mourinho has been at his entertaining best once again this season

As the pressure builds on Mourinho, so the mind games really begin. Last week, he announced that Chelsea would win the Champions League "if not this year, then next year" in a typical attempt to increase the pressure on the Blues.

But his words are likely to fall on deaf ears, with Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti well-versed in Mourinho's own brand of psychological warfare having faced him as AC Milan manager last season.

The two were involved in a long-running war of words while they managed the Milan giants, with Ancelotti branding Mourinho a "stirrer" and the Inter coach saying Ancelotti was "no friend of mine".

Asked recently what the difference is between the Chelsea he left and the Chelsea of today, the now Inter coach said simply: "That Mourinho is no longer there".

But perhaps Mourinho is the one really feeling the pressure, six years on from his sole Champions League success when he was manager of unfancied Portuguese outfit Porto.

"Saying Chelsea will win it is stock Mourinho," said Marcotti. "Put pressure on Ancelotti, praise your opponents, blah blah blah. He's done it time and time again, but it won't work with Ancelotti because that guy is just impervious to everything.

"Mourinho will have been there for two years this summer and this is the time when you are entitled to expect to see Inter play like a big team and not one who relies on individuals."

Inter expects, and Mourinho must shoulder the burden. Chelsea have been warned.



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see also
'Handcuff' gesture costs Mourinho
22 Feb 10 |  Europe
Nine-man Inter take derby spoils
24 Jan 10 |  Europe
Mourinho rules out instant return
31 Dec 09 |  Europe
Mourinho unmoved by Chelsea draw
19 Dec 09 |  Chelsea
Draws as they happened
18 Dec 09 |  Football
Ancelotti unfazed by Mourinho return
18 Dec 09 |  Chelsea
Clubs learn Champions League fate
18 Dec 09 |  Europe
Wednesday's Champions League review
09 Dec 09 |  Europe
Chelsea 2-2 Apoel Nicosia
08 Dec 09 |  Europe
Man Utd 2-0 Inter Milan (agg 2-0)
11 Mar 09 |  Europe
Inter Milan 0-1 Liverpool (0-3)
11 Mar 08 |  Europe


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