x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Busy Inter have no margin for error

They face a cold front in Europe, a hot front in Serie A and a warmish one in the Coppa Italia.

Inter Milan hope to be playing two matches a week for the rest of April, starting tonight in Moscow where they take a 1-0 lead into the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final. They face a cold front in Europe, a hot front in Serie A and a warmish one in the Coppa Italia. The treble is still on for Jose Mourinho's team, and he will feel encouraged his squad showed itself deep enough at the weekend to cope with the perils of fatigue that can erode even the most robust champions at this stage of a season.

Saturday's 3-0 win at San Siro over Bologna was headlined by the goalscorers who came in from the sidelines. First, there was Thiago Motta, who struck two goals from midfield. Motta has had a specific role under Mourinho since he signed from Genoa in the summer, and it would be fair to report that goalscoring had not been the key component: the pair against Bologna were his first since August. Motta seems valued for his pugnacity, a characteristic that sometimes got the young Motta, a graduate of Barcelona's famed academy, into trouble. At Inter, it has been used carefully, and is prized in the Champions League, where Mourinho seems less hesitant to give Motta a starting place in what is a competitive battle for midfield berths.

Motta has an elegant left foot - and a powerful one, as his first goal, struck from 25 yards, bore witness - and has the height to be useful enough in the air that at stages in his career he has been asked to provide cover as a centre-back. He is tough, too. Nine yellow cards in 21 appearances this season say as much, but by Inter's poor disciplinary standards the fact that he has passed through the campaign without being dismissed counts as a feather in his cap.

Motta, who missed the first leg of the Moscow tie through suspension, is eligible tonight, hopeful that his form will keep him in the XI. Mourinho had several senior players unavailable against Bologna. Suspensions ruled out Javier Zanetti, Lucio, Maicon and Samuel Eto'o, injury had kept Wesley Sneijder on the substitutes' bench. The coach had to recall the troublesome Mario Balotelli, who returned after almost a month's absence, after a contrite apology for the surly attitude towards his employers lately. He scored, although his celebrations might have been a little more enthusiastic if he wanted to win over those Inter fans who have endured his displays of affection for Milan, the club he grew up supporting, with annoyance.

Mourinho and the teenager exchanged amicable congratulations after the goal. The coach insists that the controversial striker "has had a problem not with me, but with the club". Which sounds a bit like Mourinho's latest statements about his own tetchy relationship with his working environment. "I like Inter, but I don't like Italian football," he said last week, stirring the speculation that this is the beginning of his exit plan.

Mourinho knows that the next seven days are crucial in how Inter rank him among the dozens of head coaches who have taken on the job of styling this club as a superheavyweight in world football. The Treble would elevate him almost as high as any of them. The margins are tight. He takes a one goal advantage to Moscow. He takes a one goal advantage into Inter's Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Fiorentina next Wednesday. He takes a one-point lead at the top of Serie A to Florence on Saturday in the league. Any of these could be eroded by a bad moment, a slip, undermined by a red card or a spate of injuries.

Mourinho needs all his resources available, and motivated, for the weeks ahead. sports@thenational.ae