Jose Mourinho and his doubts
Oh, how all occasions do inform against me!
For much of the last six months, Inter Milan's talented coach Jose Mourinho has been doing a more than passable imitation of the Prince of Denmark, seemingly prone to Hamletian angst, notwithstanding the fact that his team continued to win.
On the eve of arguably Mourinho's biggest game of the season, Inter's return leg second round Champions League tie away to Premiership side Chelsea on Tuesday, it would seem that his Hamletian paranoia was justified after all. Just as Inter come into their biggest game of the year, everything seems to have gone wrong.
For a start, his side comes into this game after their worst run in the last five years. In the last month, Inter have played six, drawn four, won one and lost one.
The good news is that the match they won was their first leg tie with Chelsea, where the Argentines Diego Milito and Esteban Cambiasso did the damage for a 2-1 home win. The bad news is that they match they lost was their last competitive outing, beaten 3-1 last Friday by little Catania, who are currently fifth-last in Serie A, seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Indeed, all of a sudden, things are not looking quite so straightforward for them in Serie A. At the end of January, Inter seemed to have the title sewn up, with a nine-point lead over city cousins AC Milan in the wake of that humiliating 2-0 derby triumph. Following a spectacular injury-time goal from Milan's Dutchman Clarence Seedorf in a 1-0 win Milan defeat of Chievo on Sunday night, that lead has been reduced to just one point.
Inter fans are praying and hoping that the problems of the last month are linked to just one consideration. Namely, that Mourinho and his men have been distracted by the club's desperate desire to do well in the Champions League. The fans, and owner Massimo Moratti, hope that to a certain extent Inter have taken their eye off the Serie A ball in order to concentrate on the Champions League ball.
Certainly, such an analysis explains how Inter managed to beat Chelsea but yet lose 3-1 to relegation battlers Catania. Somewhat fortuitously 1-0 in front in the second half of the Catania game, Inter subconsciously eased the pace only to be caught out by a lively Catania side that had nothing to lose.
On top of that, and this is where Hamlet Mourinho's paranoia comes into play, the Gods appeared to have decided against him. It was bad enough that Inter lost concentration, conceding a 74th minute Maxi Lopez equalizer to Milito's 54th minute opening goal. Worse still was the performance of substitute, Ghanian Sully Muntari, brought on in the 79th minute, at a moment when Inter were still trying to win the match.
Muntari pulled off a rare coup by managing to concede a penalty (handball in a free kick wall) and get himself sent off (second yellow card offence) after only two minutes on the pitch. In effect, in the space of just seven minutes, from the 74th to the 81st, a distracted Inter went from being handy 0-1 winners to 2-1 down and outs.
As warm-ups for the most important game of the year go, this was hardly ideal. On top of all that, on the eve of the match, there was the seemingly inexplicable decision to drop talented striker Mario Balotelli from the squad, apparently for as yet unspecified disciplinary reasons.
One can only hope that there is method to the madness of wizard Mourinho. Certainly, it would seem that he would have his work cut out to get this side back into a winning mentality for Stamford Bridge. For much of the last month, his Inter have looked very much like him, seemingly shut off and convinced that everyone out there is against him. But then, perhaps that is part of the plan. Backs to the wall and we can do it.
As far as Italian football is concerned, it very clearly is a case of backs to the wall.
With Juventus, Fiorentina and Milan all eliminated from the Champions League, with Milan humiliated in an aggregate 7-2 drubbing by Manchester United and with Roma managing to concede six goals in a Europa League elimination by Pananthinaikos, Italian football is doing a pretty reasonable imitation these days of the Tower of Pisa, not quite collapsed but certainly listing badly.
Inter are required to re-float national fortunes. At Stamford Bridge, Italy expects. Can Mourinho deliver?
About the Author
Paddy Agnew has lived and worked as a journalist in Rome since 1986. Since 1992, he has been Rome correspondent for the Irish Times, and for 15 years he worked as a soccer commentator for Italian state broadcaster RAI. He is a regular contributor to the BBC World Service radio, Irish broadcaster RTE, London-based TalkSport and many other radio stations, and he is the Italian correspondent for the monthly magazine, World Soccer. Agnew is also the author of "Forza Italia, A Journey In Search Of Italy and Its Football" (Ebury Press, 2006).