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Even Mourinho can’t halt Serie A decline as England dominates
The sight of Serie A sides flopping in the Champions League has become a familiar one and although the three teams eliminated this week were a little unlucky, a mental block against English opposition is developing.
Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho, who won the trophy with Porto in 2004, was hired in June largely to boost their hopes of challenging Europe’s elite after years of failure.
However, his confident nature and man-management skills can only go so far and he acknowledged that the Italians need something extra if they are to really threaten the continent’s best teams.
The former Chelsea boss talked of his side lacking the necessary “intensity” after being eliminated in the last 16 by holders Manchester United on Wednesday following a 2-0 defeat.
“We need something more to win this competition, but I will talk about this with the club. I will open my heart,” the Portuguese told reporters.
United manager Alex Ferguson was scathing about his side’s first-half performance, but the fact they dispatched the strongest team in Italy with plenty to spare speaks volumes of the widening gulf in class.
“The interesting thing for me is that we played a team close to its maximum potential in terms of their experience and they played to their maximum,” Ferguson told reporters after accusing his players of playing “suicide football”.
“To get through is a big plus because we will be better in the next round, we can play far better than that.”
While four English teams can plan ahead for the quarter-finals, their Italian counterparts are left to go back to the drawing board and work on ways to become more competitive in Europe.
First and foremost, Italian-based defenders need to learn how to deal with crosses into the box. United’s Nemanja Vidic and Cristiano Ronaldo both scored from headers on Wednesday with Inter defenders nowhere to be seen.
Serie A is becoming more direct and Inter’s physical presence is a big reason why they are heading for fourth straight Serie A title, but they still cannot match the English.
Italian daily Tuttosport made a joke on Thursday about Mourinho calling himself the ‘Special One’ when he became Chelsea coach five years ago.
“Special Zero, with Mourinho nothing changes,” it said.
In fact, something has changed. Inter put up more of a fight at Old Trafford than they did at the same stage last year when losing to Liverpool, which led to Roberto Mancini’s dismissal.
Inspirational striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to let himself down in the really big games but if his first half header had gone in and not hit the bar, and Adriano’s shot had sneaked in off the post, the result could have been different.
AS Roma were equally unlucky against Arsenal on Wednesday when they lost 7-6 on penalties having won the second leg 1-0.
Coach Luciano Spalletti was without a host of first teamers and lost goalscorer Juan to injury in the first half.
The hosts had a good shout for a penalty turned down and had as many chances as the London club, who beat 2007 winners AC Milan in the first knockout round last term.
Juventus were also not outclassed by Chelsea when they went out to last season’s runners-up on Tuesday. Claudio Ranieri’s side could easily have grabbed a goal in the 1-0 first leg defeat at Stamford Bridge before drawing 2-2 in Turin.
Ranieri pointed out how far Juve had come given it was their first season back in Europe since their 2006 Serie A demotion.
That match-fixing scandal and a lack of massive wealth compared to Premier League clubs, is a major factor behind Serie A’s struggles in Europe.
But just like it took 10 years for English teams to recover from the Heysel ban, Italian teams are improving.
“England can be very proud to have four teams in the quarter-finals for the second year, but we have not to be fooled,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “The games with the three Italian teams, Juventus, Inter and Roma, were very close and it looks like Italy is coming back.”
The problem for Serie A is that United, Chelsea and Arsenal were not at their best this week and still progressed.
This has led Italian media to speculate that Serie A players have psychological issues against English teams.
Mourinho has hinted the best solution is to try to sign some English-based players in the close season.
PHOTO: Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho looks at the ground before their Champions League match at Manchester United, March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Max Rossi