"Please, please let's not talk about the bestia nera," urged Gigi del Neri. A bestia nera best translates as a black spot, a curse, a jinx or what the English, borrowing from French, would call a "bÍte noir". And Italians have got used to Del Neri, the Sampdoria head coach, being Jose Mourinho's black spot because Del Neri's teams have a habit of tripping up Mourinho's Inter Milan.
Last season, Del Neri did just that with his former employers, Atalanta, who inflicted a rare defeat as Inter progressed to the title. Earlier this campaign, Del Neri's Sampdoria beat Inter 1-0 in Genoa. Beyond bestias neras, form is also a helpful augury ahead of tonight's reunion at San Siro, too. Samp have won their last four Serie A matches, Inter have drawn their last two. It is nothing new to identify a spicy rivalry across the benches when Mourinho's team take to the field, but the Portuguese and Del Neri go back to well before Mourinho arrived in Italy and started accumulating spats and purposefully putting his rivals on edge.
Del Neri was the man who succeeded Mourinho at Porto in 2004, just after Porto's triumph in the European Cup had propelled the self-styled "Special One" to superstardom and a job at Chelsea. "You know," Del Neri recalled yesterday, "Mourinho actually sent me a telegram wishing me luck when I took over." Some of the Porto players Mourinho left behind were less well disposed to the Italian coach. Del Neri lost that job swiftly: "The one big regret of my career," reflected Del Neri.
That short reign at Porto was something Mourinho eagerly reminded Del Neri, and the Italian media, about when Samp recorded their 1-0 win over Inter in September. "How can he be my bestia nera," sneered Mourinho, "when he was sacked only 15 days after trying to succeed me at Porto?" More, both coaches agree, is at stake today than settling personal scores. Samp have undergone quite a revival over the past month, their campaign now back on course after the strange winter undulations that transformed them from pacesetters to mid-table.
They started the season sharp and entertaining, fell away badly, and now are poised to leap into the places that would qualify them for next season's Champions League. Moreover, they are doing it without Antonio Cassano, who is injured but also out of favour with Del Neri. That absence spares the coach the distracting debate about whether Cassano should be recalled to the national team - his chance has all but gone now - and offers the easier questions about whether the striker Giampaolo Pazzini, who has 12 Serie A goals, should go with the Azzurri to South Africa. "Yes," replies his head coach. "He can play as part of a front two, or an attacking trident. He has many assets."
Pazzini, 25, scored the winner against Inter last time around. They key to beating Inter? The manager who has done so most often in the past 18 months offers some simple advice. "Get them to worry about their defence," says Del Neri. That wisdom will doubtless be heeded next Wednesday, when Chelsea, and their Italian manger Carlo Ancelotti, come to San Siro to take on Inter in the Champions League.
With Inter seven points clear domestically, the European fixture is bound to hang over tonight's contest. Mourinho is likely to rest one or two of Wednesday's probable starters, and has doubts over the fitness of Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon. Dejan Stankovic, however, is back from his lay-off, increasing competition for midfield berths. But it is up front that the Inter head coach will be happiest with the intensity developing in the battle for starting posts.
Mourinho has given a veiled warning to Samuel Eto'o that his place in the XI who begin against Chelsea cannot be guaranteed, now Goran Pandev has embarked so impressively on his Inter career and with Diego Milito leading the division's goalscorers. email@example.com Inter v Sampdoria, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1