Mourinho's Inter punching weight with Europe's best

MILAN - Inter Milan's transformation from Champions League also-rans to serious title contenders can be traced back to the day coach Jose Mourinho sauntered into town less than two years ago.

The road has been a bumpy one but Tuesday's vibrant 3-1 win over holders Barcelona in their semi-final, first leg left home fans in dreamland having witnessed one of the great European nights at the famous old San Siro.

The rafters literally shook as 75,000 supporters bounced up and down in sheer delight after goals from Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Diego Milito gave Inter the edge ahead of next Wednesday's second leg at the Nou Camp.

World player of the year Lionel Messi, who scored four goals in the last round against Arsenal, was almost completely nullified by Javier Zanetti's constant harrying and Inter's ability to break so quickly that the ball was often behind him.

"We did a good defensive job on Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and we created lots of chances," Argentina's Milito told reporters after also being involved in the first two goals.

"My goal? I prefer to talk about my assists. It's great to set up goals for my team-mates."

Milito's work-rate and willingness to chase lost causes sums up the attributes Mourinho has instilled in his players during a run of six straight European victories, including two against Chelsea.


Inter had grit in Serie A under former coach Roberto Mancini but were like rabbits in headlights when it came to Europe's premier competition, where they last won back-to-back titles in 1964-65 before a most recent final appearance in 1972.

Mourinho proved he was a European master by winning the trophy with unfashionable Porto in 2004 and near misses as Chelsea coach only served to intensify his desire at Inter.

Last season was a work in progress in Europe as instead he made sure of a fourth successive Italian title, but this term the Champions League has moved centre stage with the side now trailing AS Roma in the Serie A title race.

Almost every Inter fan, who only had UEFA Cup success to crow about in the 1990s, would swap a fifth scudetto for a place in next month's final in Madrid let alone winning the trophy.

But the Nerazzurri know that against a team as skilful and resourceful as Barca, the tie is nowhere near over.

"We tried to neutralise their play and we succeeded, but now we will have to do the same in Barcelona," striker Milito added.

Thousands of Barca fans might have wondered why they battled through the travel chaos caused by an Icelandic volcanic to watch their side lose by a two-goal margin for the first time under Pep Guardiola.

However, the Guardiola is confident they will be out in force next Wednesday given Barca already beat Inter 2-0 at home in the group stages in November.

"90 minutes is very long time. The stadium will be full. Of course we can overturn this," he said.

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