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Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli was on target in the 2-0 win against Rubin Kazan on Wednesday.
Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli was on target in the 2-0 win against Rubin Kazan on Wednesday.

Jose's a hard man to please

He may be a temperamental striker but Balotelli's talent demands the same attention as Joe Cole got from Mourinho at Chelsea.

At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho's man-management style was often deemed inspirational by his playing staff. Yet it could be argued that his treatment of Joe Cole was bewildering to say the least. A first-choice for England, Cole struggled initially to make the same impact at Stamford Bridge after Mourinho took over. He was even criticised after scoring in a game against Liverpool - for neglecting his defensive duties.

Mourinho wanted to harness Cole's individual flair into his team ethic. It eventually paid off - and there are echoes of this scenario at Inter Milan as the Portuguese tactician tries to handle problematic young striker Mario Balotelli. Mourinho was gushing in praise for his Inter side after they secured a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League with a 2-0 victory over Rubin Kazan on Wednesday.

Yet the master of mind games was still reluctant to single out Balotelli, 19, who was the architect of the crucial victory that saw them progress, along with holders Barcelona, from a difficult Group F. "This is a victory for a group that knew how to stay together and suffer together," said Mourinho. "Balotelli, as always, played his match with positive and negative aspects." Balotelli may be temperamental, have a ridiculous haircut - a blond Mohican tuft - but there is no doubt he has an outrageous amount of talent that demands the same attention.

This was clearly evident in the San Siro. The Italian striker's backheel flick on the byline to set up Samuel Eto'o for the opening goal was sublime. His 30-yard swerving free-kick for the second was spectacular. But still Mourinho was not satisfied. He demands class as well as consistency. Last month, Mourinho rated Balotelli's performance against Roma as " close to zero". The Inter coach, frustrated by the player's seemingly selfish attitude.

But Mourinho has been backed in his approach by Massimo Moratti, the Inter president. "Mourinho has faith in Balotelli's qualities and I think the method he uses with him is right," he said. "Mourinho can sometimes seem harsh on him, but in the end he named him as a starter in a Champions League game. I admire Mario for his talent, but he still has to grow." Ivan Cordoba, the Inter defender, added: "The coach has great experience. Mario just has to listen, learn and do his best like he did here [against Rubin]. He has to express himself in a team that loves him."

Mourinho showed little love afterwards. More trouble lies ahead as Inter look to claim the prize that has eluded them since 1965. The last 16 will see them face one of the group winners, such as Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United or his former employers Chelsea. "Last year, I said I preferred to get Manchester, not because they were champions of Europe, but because facing that team could have been an extra motivational factor," he said.

"I really don't know which team I prefer to face [this time]. Chelsea because they are part of my history? I don't know if Chelsea are part of my history, or if I am part of Chelsea's history." Olympiakos, 1-0 victors over Arsenal, and Stuttgart, who beat Unirea Urziceni 3-1, also confirmed their places in the next stage. Fiorentina claimed top spot in Group E with a 2-1 win at Liverpool.

With Arsenal to face in a decisive Premier League match on Sunday, it was not the confidence boost that the Reds manager Rafa Benitez wanted. But he was lifted by an encouraging first start from Alberto Aquilani and the return of striker Fernando Torres. So too Steven Gerrard, who said: "It's massive for me that Fernando is back, massive for the club, massive for everyone here. He's our main man. He's our top scorer, so we need him back fit and firing. If that happens then I'm sure we'll move up the league and get in the top four."

@Email:akhan@thenational.ae

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