x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Can Mourinho keep his balance?

The Portuguese's Inter Milan go to Lazio today with the possibility of a treble, but they cannot afford to falter.

Jose Mourinho is surrounded by Inter fans before his team's Champions League victory over Barcelona on Wednesday.
Jose Mourinho is surrounded by Inter fans before his team's Champions League victory over Barcelona on Wednesday.

MILAN // There were few shades of grey in how the rest of the continent responded to Inter Milan reaching their first European Cup final for 38 years last Wednesday night. In many places, Jose Mourinho walks the critics' red carpet right now, the master strategist who is perceived to have made a brittle club strong, solid, determined and disciplined. In others, he is a ghoul, the tactician whose team's ultra-defensive approach in the second leg of Inter's semi-final against Barcelona might stop folk watching football, even sport, forever if it crushes the instinct for entertainment like that.

In Italy, longer memories and attention to the unfolding drama at the top of Serie A is bound to caution against either extreme. Inter are not always so ugly or so negative at they were in Spain. Nor are they always so super-resistant. Mourinho's team go to Lazio today with the possibility of a treble - Champions League, Coppa Italia and championship - very much on their agenda, while at the same time knowing that not even Mourinho has discovered a failsafe formula that means an adrenalin-charged and energy-sapping epic such as Inter endured at Camp Nou is not easily followed by a limp 90 minutes next time out. Much of the task today is managing fatigue, physical and psychological.

The scudetto, Mourinho will remind his players, is still very much Inter's to lose, since Roma last Sunday lost their advantage at the top and Claudio Ranieri's team's 24-match unbeaten run ended with defeat at home to Sampdoria. With Roma moving back above Inter with a 2-1 victory over Parma last night, twin uncertainties linger around tonight's fixture for the Champions League finalists. One is the ghost of a famous Lazio versus Inter precedent. At the beginning of the last afternoon of the 2001-02 Italian season, the top of the Serie A table read like this: Inter had 69 points, Juventus 68 and Roma 67. It had been a compelling run-in, but the die had apparently been cast. Inter, then coached by the tough Argentine Hector Cuper, had also received a fillip for the final few expeditions of the campaign with the return from injury of Ronaldo, the great Brazilian striker who was in his fourth season there but in and out of the side with a series of fitness problems for the last three of those.

Lazio, it was felt, might be happy to oblige Inter, given that Roma could benefit from a positive Lazio result. Sure enough Inter took the lead. Lazio pulled a goal back, but Inter led again. Then things turned surreal. The final score was a 4-2 victory for Lazio. Juventus became champions, Roma finished runners up, Inter ended up not just traumatised by the loss of their best chance of a league title in 13 years, but with third place, their summer holidays shortened by the need to pre-qualify for the next Champions League.

That day is remembered not just for its drama but because it confirmed the reputation for brittleness under pressure that Inter, through a dozen changes of head coach, had acquired during the first 10 years of Massimo Moratti's presidency. It remains a fact that, thanks to the capitulation at Lazio eight Mays ago, no club in Serie A history has thrown away the Italian title on the final day more often than Inter.

And there have, for all the defiance that characterised Mourinho's squad in Barcelona, been some symptoms of that brittleness in the current Inter's domestic form. They allowed a 14-point advantage over Roma to evaporate before they recovered three of those points last weekend. The unit that "delighted" Marcello Lippi, the Italy head coach, for "their determination and fighting spirit in the pursuit of a single objective" have, safe to report, had some days off from showing that sort of corporate gumption during their league campaign. The atmosphere at the Olimpico will partly be shaped by earlier events. If the results of the clubs below Lazio have hoisted the Rome club closer to safety from relegation, some home fans have warned they will urge their team to go easy on Inter, just to make sure the chances of arch-rivals Roma stealing up to seize the scudetto stay nice and slim. sports@thenational.ae Lazio v Inter, 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1 & +3

Lazio (A)
 Chievo (H
) Siena (A) Roma
 Cagliari (H)
 Chievo (A)