How would you feel if you were Roman Abramovich after this evening’s Champions League match between Chelsea and Inter? When he disposed of Jose Mourinho just over three years ago, it was reportedly a show of player power the likes of which the English game had seldom seen before. Mourinho, however, has never quite gone away. He remains a ghost-like presence at Stamford Bridge, clever enough to know that revenge is a dish best served cold. He was coolly pragmatic about his choice of words when he left the club. The Champions League is the trophy that Abramovich really wants, but it took until the start of this season for Abramovich to work his way through Scolari, Grant and Hiddink before finding a little stability in the form of Carlo Ancelotti. Tonight, though, was the night that Mourinho took his revenge.
This may just have been the first match at which the pre and post match press conferences were as eagerly anticipated as the match itself. The press love Jose Mourinho. He is as ready with a quote as Brian Clough was at the peak of his powers, yet the applecarts that he upsets are usually inconsequential ones. Sometimes he gives the impression of talking too much and saying too little. Sometimes he leans too heavily upon playing to press expectations of what he will say. Sometimes the fake modesty is too grating, and sometimes he gives the impression of being little more than a sulky teenager. Tonight, however, he plays a blinder.
Life goes on. I keep winning important things… They win… something.
He shrugs his shoulders. It’s the next morning’s headline that the assembled hacks have been waiting for. Meanwhile, however, there is a football match set to take place. Chelsea are 2-1 down from the first leg, but the away goal and the narrowness of the lead gives them a slight advantage. A 1-0 win will be good enough to see them through on away goals. Of late, however, by the exceptionally high standards that they are now required by the gulf in quality between the best and the rest, they have wobbled. The familiar brushings aside – Arsenal and West Ham United in the Premier League, Stoke City in the FA Cup – have been present and correct, but there have also been signs of a slump. Defeats to Everton and Manchester City have seen them dragged back into a three-way Premier League challenge. A couple of months ago, it somehow wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Inter have not come to Stamford Bridge to park all eleven of the players on the goal-line and hope for the best, and much of the first half feels like a sparring fight between two high quality boxers that are just feeling each other out and trying to figure out where the opposition’s weakness this evening might be. If anybody seems to worked the answer to this more quickly than the other it’s Inter and, ten minutes from half-time they create the best chance of the first half. Maicon crosses and John Terry misjudges the header to such a great extent that Samuel Eto’o seems surprised to find it coming to him and his header sails harmlessly over the crossbar.
The second half begins much as the first started, with both teams prodding and poking at each other rather than trying to seize the match by the scruff of its neck. As time starts to wear on the and teams finally start to defrost, however, it’s Inter that start to look the more likely to score. Pandev has the ball nicked off his toe by Zhirkov and then, in the clearest chance of the match up to that point, Sneider releases Milito, but the ball bobbles and he shoots wide. Inter, however, are killing the game stone dead and Chelsea, who usually play at such a high tempo that they often seem to give the impression of wearing their opposition down, haven’t got much of a reply to give.
With twelve minutes to go comes the sucker punch. Sneider, outstanding all evening and by some distance the best player on the pitch, plays Samuel Eto’o in and Eto’o finishes with coolness and calculation. Game over. There is a vain throw at getting back into the game, as the players are exhorted forward by a crowd that has seen little evidence over the previous seventy-eight minutes that Chelsea are going to be able to muster two goals in the last dozen. The last flickering of the flame flickers out with three minutes to play, when Didier Drogba is sent off for apparently stamping on Motta. A handful of replays prove inconclusive, but it is academic, really. Chelsea have nothing left to give, and the full time whistle comes with Stamford Bridge already starting to empty.
Those with their eyes on Mourinho at full-time will be disappointed. He is off down the tunnel like a shot. Perhaps there is no need to say too much when your tactical game has spoken volumes for you. This evening was the polar opposite of Manchester United and Arsenal’s imperious performances in the same round of the same competition, and there is no ready explanation for this. It seems unlikely that there is a massive gulf between Internazionale and Porto and Milan. Perhaps this evening Chelsea were too much in awe of Mourinho this evening. If football is a game of confidence, the Premier League’s domination of the Champions League over the last few years has been fuelled by a dismissive arrogance on the pitch. Was Mourinho’s shamanic aura enough to throw them off their scent tonight?
Chelsea now have to pick themselves up for what promises to be a Premier League title race that will go right to the wire as well as a tricky FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa. If they don’t, then his shadow will be cast even longer over Stamford Bridge – for the time being, at least. Internazionale, however, for once looked like the polar opposite of what their teams have been traditionally regarded as for many, many years – greater than the sum of their parts. On the evidene of this round of the competition, they will be the team that Manchester United and Arsenal will be keenest to avoid in the quarter-finals. For Roman Abramovich, however, the Champions League may just be starting to take the appearance of a holy grail.