Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Inter Milan v Manchester United, 24 February, Champions League

I remember a press conference from Mourinho’s time at Chelsea after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United. Quoting from memory, he said, “It was a very easy game to comment upon. In the first half, Manchester United play well, they score a goal. In the second half we play well, we score a goal.” I had been expecting the CL clash between his Inter and Manchester United to follow the same script and it did. Though someone erased the part about the goals.

The Red Devils lined up in a 4-4-2 (or maybe a 4-4-1-1) and thankfully for them, injury scares Evans and O’Shea managed to start. O’Shea underlining his versatility by now taking up the right back role. A central midfield of Carrick and Fletcher with Ronaldo on the right was the option that Sir Alex chose to go with and it was also little surprise to see Park Ji Sung in the starting eleven, given the responsibility of the left side of the midfield. Park is an amazing battler and has tons of energy and it’s not uncommon to find him engaged in a defensive battle one second and popping up in the box the next. Sir Alex tends to give him a start whenever attacking threat from the flanks has to be nullified and in Maicon, Inter had a potentially dangerous attack minded right back. The big surprise of the evening was Giggs playing the supporting striker role to Berbatov and while Giggs has been immense at times this season, most of those performances have come from the centre of the park.

Inter lined up with a midfield diamond, which was a formation that Mourinho had used rather reluctantly at Chelsea when it seemed he was being forced to pair Sheva up front with Drogba. At Inter, this has been his preferred approach and has obviously paid dividends. Inter’s own central defence was impaired by the loss of the likes of Walter Samuel and Burdisso and so we had an inexperienced Rivas pairing up in central defense with Chivu. Maicon and the young Davide Santon lined up as right and left fullbacks respectively. The diamond had Cambiasso at the base and Stankovic at the apex with Zanetti and Muntari as the right and left midfield points. Up front were Ibra and Adriano, two absolute bulls of strikers.

That Manchester United completely outplayed Inter in the first half is an understatement. The narrow Inter midfield allowed space for Evra and O’Shea to charge forward and link up with Park and Ronaldo but that was to be expected. What was not a result of the tactics was the absolute submission of the ball in the centre of the park by Inter, where they had numerical superiority. Both Fletcher and Carrick not only saw a lot of the ball but were also able to create play without too much protest. Having said that Carrick was brilliant at times and this is coming from someone who almost always feels that Carrick is overrated. The pass that freed Giggs up for a shot on the goal was a beauty and it would be delightful to see him make them more consistently.

Ronaldo was enjoying himself and on many occasions could have scored had it not been for some great work by Júlio César in goal and some narrow misses. Inter’s defence was stretched at the best of times and looked completely disjointed more than once. Rivas especially looked completely out of place and if they had allowed Ronaldo any more free headers, they may as well have started scoring own goals. But for all that Manchester United failed to score and they must have been fuming at half time for not having made their superiority count.

Having said that, I was not at all surprised to see Inter turn it around in the second half. Mourinho’s teams have often played two halves as differently as pink and blue and the Inter that came out for the second half was a completely different opposition to deal with than in the first. Rivas made way for Cordoba and that did improve the confidence at the back but the major change for Inter was in the midfield.

Cambiasso, Zanetti and especially Muntari improved in leaps and bounds and began looking to win the balls for the first time in the game. Within minutes of the restart they had threatened the Man U goal more than once and had come close to getting a penalty which some referees may have been kind enough to award. Cambiasso made a great impact all over the pitch and suddenly the front three started seeing a lot more of the ball.

In Ibra and Adriano, Mourinho has two Drogba clones in terms of strength and the ability to hold a ball. Ibrahimovic was hard working and showed why he is rated so highly by being able to hold possession in dangerous positions under any amount of pressure. Adriano was the striker always around in a useful position to finish anything that looked like half a hance. Trouble was that barring his positioning, he had little else going for him and he managed to embarrass himself multiple times when in a good position to score.

While the second half belonged to Inter, Man U were nowhere as marginal to the proceedings as Inter were in the first half. They did have their good moments but the swagger and the spark had diminished to the point of disappearance. With Inter contesting the balls much more than before, possession in midfield became difficult to come by and with time the fluency in passing was gone which meant that possession was lost far more easily than before. Under such circumstances it was a little surprising to see Wayne Rooney come in only as the game entered into its last twenty minutes but Sir Alex must have had his reasons and it is never wise to question his tactics.

It ended goalless and much like that Chelsea-Manchester United encounter, was an easy match to comment upon. Funnily, while I expected Inter to raise their game in the second half, I also had the feeling that they would not be too desperate for a goal. Mourinho likes to let his CL games be decided in the second leg (sometimes with disastrous results) and I felt that the second half Inter performance was more of a show of strength than a goal scoring endeavor.

And so it goes into the second leg with all outcomes still possible. Manchester United will take heart from the fact that Vidic will be back, Rooney will be available for ninety minutes and the Old Trafford crowd will make life very difficult for Inter. Also while the defensive problems for Inter may be sorted out for the next leg, Stankovic is probably not the greatest player at the top of the diamond anymore and that will make life easier for the hosts. He can still be explosive at times, but I think Ferguson will be happy with the fact that Inter didn’t land Lampard in the summer.

Inter, will know that one goal may mean the world to this tie and I expect their focus to be completely on defence till they find the opportune moment to strike. They may have been outplayed for large parts at home by the same opposition but I do not think that would have created any fear in Jose’s side.

It will again be tight and tactical but being one who rather enjoys such matches, I am already looking forward to leg two. The result I think will be determined by the form of the Inter strikers on the night. Manchester United will get many chances and will probably score. Inter on the other hand will soak up a lot of pressure and create few chances. How they take them will decide who goes through.

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