Ibra the pilum for Inter

Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

Now that the dust has settled on the amazing draw that took place in Nyon, Switzerland for the Last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, the usual suspects have much to ponder.  I can not recall such an attractive looking bunch of fixtures at such an early stage of the competition.  The pick of them being holders Manchester United, who just won the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan, against Italian champions Inter Milan.

A match-up between old drinking buddies, Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho seems as interesting as those on the park.  Mourinho has had the better of Ferguson in the recent past, however, a second place finish in the group stage for Inter cost them a home return-leg, which might make all the difference in the end.

In big games there are always touches of brilliance from both players and managers.  Mourinho was brought-in to win the Champions League, make no mistake about that.  He past Man United on his way through to the 2003/2004 trophy and would wish for the same kind of luck this term.

Mourinho’s man-management has been outstanding at Inter.  Once again, he (with his backroom staff) has come in and dominated the domestic league.  The Inter player’s know exactly what is at stake and where they stand in Europe.  Nothing but a date in Rome at the Stadio Olimpico in May will suffice for the Nerazzurri and the player to get them there is Zlatan Ibrahimović.

The Swedish striker has been one of the true greats of the game since joining Inter from the Calciopoli-striken Juventus.  His first-touch is quality, his vision and deftness of passing likened to a ballerina.  For a player of his size and stature, he really is a freak with the ball.  But for all his class, he often goes missing in big matches, instead choosing to showcase his talents against minnows like Chievo Verona.  Ibra needs to really step-it-up if he wants to be in the running for next year’s Ballon d’Or.

Inter are flying in Serie A – perhaps not for their style of play but for their graft – they are taking 3-points from almost every match.  A narrow 1-0 defeat to household rivals, AC Milan, their only pointless contest.  A bullet-header by Ronaldinho separating the sides.

Tactically the game has become deeply strategic in Europe.  Mourinho and his men will have to concentrate and take good decisions in order to stop the Red Devils.  Even that might not be enough.  The Portuguese is a battle-hardened leader who gives as much as he can to his maniple.  The Roman soldiers used to hold a spear or javelin-like weapon in ancient times called a pilum.  This pointy object would thrust forward and strike the enemy in close combat.  Look for Ibra to be that instrument as Mourinho fights for the Club’s survival and his own reputation.

Inter has a deep enough squad to win the Champions League.  Mourinho’s philosophy and methodology has led him to favour a 4-3-3 formation, however, he has had more success with a 4-4-2 diamond.  Summer signings, Amantino Mancini and Ricardo Quaresma have not been the wide-men he expected.  Instead, Brazilian full-backs Maicon and Maxwell have been bombing forward and creating chances, even scoring a few special goals.

Leadership and experience will count in this tie, Man United have plenty of that.  Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand will be called-upon to ready the troops for battle in Milan.  A goalless draw, the most likely result if all goes to plan.  However, an injury-free Inter is a formidable opponent, add the form of midfielders, Sulley Muntari and Esteban Cambiasso and we’re in for a contest.

Argentina’s most capped player, Javier Zanetti, is the quarter-back Mourinho needs to spread the word on the battle field.  The ageless Zanetti looks hungrier than ever to fight for the trophy which has eluded him at the San Siro.  His legs will be needed as will his mental toughness.

Attack may be the best form of defence for Inter – they need to score at home in the 1st Leg – in order to have a chance away at Old Trafford.  Centre-back pairing, Iván Ramiro Córdoba and Walter Samuel will have a tough task against striker’s Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez.  Then, there’s some guy named Ronaldo!  So it’s up to Ibra to ease the pressure by scoring some goals.

For the neutral, these two matches may not live-up to the hype, they’ll be tight and tense in every way imaginable, even boring at times, I have no doubt.  But for the diehards, this tie is mouth-watering.  We’ll have to wait until late February for this one, let’s pray that both sides can field their first choice 11.  Mourinho will have a nice bottle of Portuguese red ready for Sir Alex after the match at Old Trafford regardless of the outcome but I’m sure he’d enjoy the drop in Fergie’s office that much more with a ticket to the Quarter-Finals ready and waiting.

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