Inter, Chelsea and the third incarnation of Jose Mourinho
The rehabilitation of Jose Mourinho, the worldÃ¢ÂÂs most charismatic coach, took a giant step forward in Athens on Tuesday night.
InterÃ¢ÂÂs efficient 2-0 win over Panathinaikos was exactly the kind of result the Nerazzurri so seldom produced in Europe under Roberto Mancini. With only one game played Ã¢ÂÂ and their other rivals drawing in Bremen Ã¢ÂÂ Inter already look odds on to win the group.
Bookies have Inter as fourth favourites to win the Champions League. Those odds owe more to MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs reputation than InterÃ¢ÂÂs recent European form, which has varied from barely competent to terminally mediocre.
So why do I say rehabilitation? Because this season could define MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs career.
He is loved and loathed by the public, and adored by the media for his ability to give good soundbite, but the audience he really needs to impress is that small elite Ã¢ÂÂ there may be no more than 50 of them Ã¢ÂÂ of presidents, tycoons and billionaires who can afford to hire Mourinho and who run the clubs with a realistic shot at winning the trophies he craves.
"Who, little old me?"
His exit from Chelsea enraged and disappointed fans. But chairmen and presidents, while making allowances for the Byzantine intrigue at the court of Roman Abramovich, instinctively sympathised with the Chelsea owner.
If his Inter mission ends with similar fireworks, Mourinho will find his next job that much harder to come by. He's still only 45, too young to settle for a seven-figure salary coaching in the Middle East.
So the Mourinho we see at Inter is a third incarnation of the coach. At Porto, he was a miracle worker, conquering Europe through team spirit, tactical ingenuity, meticulous preparation and a touch of gamesmanship.
At Chelsea, that team spirit, ingenuity and meticulousness was backed by AbramovichÃ¢ÂÂs millions as Mourinho proved, for a season or more, that he could build the same esprit de corps among a squad of superstars and focus ruthlessly on winning.
At Inter, with a squad that hasnÃ¢ÂÂt changed much, he is trying to prove his coaching alone can make the difference and that he can win in style.
What hasnÃ¢ÂÂt changed is the way Mourinho sets out his team. Against Panathinaikos, Zlatan Ibrahimovic excelled in the classic centre-forward role that made Didier Drogba famous at Chelsea.
"You the man!" "No, you the man!" "Yes, I am, actually"
Ibrahimovic is better and worse than Drogba. Better because he can, like Messi, destroy an opponent with the ball at his feet. Worse because he has yet to achieve the kind of consistency Drogba showed when he banged in 26 goals in 2006/07.
Ibra can be brilliant or awful. But brilliance is gaining the upper hand. Last season he scored 22 in 33 matches, including five in seven Champions League games, although he was inconspicuous as the Nerazzurri were outfought and outplayed by Liverpool.
The hug between the Swede and Mourinho after the star had made AdrianoÃ¢ÂÂs goal in Athens suggested that coach and InterÃ¢ÂÂs reigning enigma have already bonded. So maybe this season we will finally see the great Zlatan.
Supporting the Swede in Athens were Ricardo Quaresma and Mancini, switching flanks. Ibrahimovic made both goals: he created the first with Drogbaesque persistence and, with a selflessness Drogba has not always exhibited, passed perfectly for Mancini to finish first time.
His through pass for Adriano to seal the win was even better. The rejuvenated Brazilian was able to blast the ball into the net first time without even changing his stride.
In midfield, Javier Zanetti and Patrick Vieira had licence to roam while Esteban Cambiasso swept up efficiently in front of the back four. Much of the time, the centre-backs Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi and left-back Maxwell were asked to defend Julio CesarÃ¢ÂÂs goal while right-back Maicon bombed forward.
Brazil nuts: Maicon (left) and Mancini make merry
Lawrie McMenemy once said that every great team contains four violinists and seven roadsweepers. MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs Inter roughly fits that mould, with Ibrahimovic, Mancini and Quaresma as violinists, the fiendishly versatile Cambiasso and Maicon able to sweep up and play the fiddle, and the other six firmly focused on roads and brushes.
Are they good enough to win the competition? Possibly. Inter should get better as injuries ease and players get to know MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs approach. They do not have the awesome efficiency of his Chelsea side, but they are genuinely entertaining Ã¢ÂÂ Quaresma, Mancini and Sulley Muntari have injected some much-needed pace into a team that could be too deliberate in attack.
And against Panathinaikos, they showed much of the stubborness that defines MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs teams, something which Nerazzurri fans have been desperately hoping to see in Europe.
So the special one is most definitely back. And if he wins InterÃ¢ÂÂs first European Cup in 44 years he will, as Bobby Robson once said of Neil Webb, be Ã¢ÂÂspecial specialÃ¢ÂÂ.