17 March ~ Having held a grim-faced silenzio stampa (press silence) for the past week, Jose Mourinho's relationship with the Italian media had reached a new low on the eve of Inter's Champions League return leg against Chelsea. A touchline ban, a pitiful display against Catania and ongoing grief with Mario Balotelli had formed a simmering backdrop to the game, with the Nerazzurri lumbered with the added burden of being Italy's sole survivors in the competition.
Few commentators really fancied them to go through. Mourinho, who in recent months has started to resemble a partner who constantly harks on about an ex ("These things don't happen in the Premier League," "Of course it's different in England," "When I was at Chelsea..."), has found himself under increasing fire from a sceptical press, many of whom have already lined up Laurent Blanc as a more simpatico replacement in the Meazza hot seat.
This morning, however, lo Speciale was firmly back on his pedestal. Gazzetta dello Sport led the praise for Inter's compact, attacking style, for taking the game to Chelsea, squeezing the space and rarely letting their hosts take the initiative. "Chelsea were trapped in Mourinho's web," said Gazzetta, who paid the ultimate accolade by referring to him as Il Mago (the wizard), the nickname of Helenio Herrera, architect of the great Inter team of the 1960s.
In a special editorial, Corriere dello Sport claimed that "the true victor is Mourinho. He bravely chose an Inter of three attackers, plus the delightful and formidable Sneijder... Inter were impeccable. Chelsea were without rhythm and without depth." This, the editorial continued, was "a victory for all Italian football. Not just because of this blessed European ranking which is becoming a nightmare, but because finally one of ours has stopped the rot. It's a victory that gives oxygen to calcio."
Corriere della Sera, with the headline Inter, Mission Accomplished, believed that Inter won through sheer force of will ("it would be wrong to regard this victory as only a question of tactics"), singling out Wesley Sneijder, "the total midfielder that Lampard no longer knows how to be, that Ballack has only ever shown glimpses of and that Joe Cole has never managed to become." Tuttosport, a staunch Juventus paper, said that Inter "played with an intensity light years from their displays in recent Serie A games." Chelsea were "imprecise in defence, slow on the wings, muddled in the midfield and dull in attack."
A touch over the top? Most certainly yes, but calcio's dismal showing in Europe over the past few years has been a real source of national anguish. La Repubblica, under the headline Eto'o Saves Italy, perhaps summed up the mood best of all. "Il Mister leaves Stamford Bridge with his head held high," it said, with everyone "finally honoured to be Italian after a game of football". Matthew Barker