Claudio Ranieri recalls his days with Joe Cole at Chelsea fondly, and still has an appreciation of the Lille winger.
Familiarity breeds respect between Inter coach Ranieri and Cole
"Ah, yes," said Claudio Ranieri, a twinkle in his eye, "Joe Cole. I know him very well. I signed him for Chelsea, you know."
For a coach like Ranieri, who has held so many jobs in so many different countries, the fact of crossing paths with a former colleague is nothing rare.
But the circumstances of the second of his reunions in the Champions League with Lille's Cole are unusual. English players do not travel abroad in great numbers.
They go and play at top French clubs even less often.
"A champion," Ranieri calls Cole, who joined Chelsea in 2003, in the first of the summer transfer markets in which Roman Abramovich, then the new Chelsea owner, spent lavishly. Under Ranieri, Cole did not quite become the Premier League champion that he would later be, in successive seasons - 2005 and 2006 - but he did earn the trust of his Italian manager.
In Cole's first campaign at Chelsea, he played more games than in any other. While Ranieri became known as "the Tinkerman" for many changes to line-ups, Cole had a relatively untinkered status.
"I felt lucky," Ranieri said, "to have Joe Cole in my team."
There were some memorable adventures, not least in the Champions League, when the Chelsea of Cole and Ranieri reached the semi-final.
Against Monaco, they entered it as clear favourites. In Monte Carlo, the underdogs, down to 10 men, stunned the Premier League visitors by coming from behind to win 3-1.
Chelsea took a 2-0 lead in the return in London. It might well have been more, had Cole, with a miss-hit slice that both he and Ranieri will still remember vividly, not spurned an excellent chance.
Monaco came back to draw 2-2, and Ranieri left Chelsea two months later.
He returned to the Champions League again with Valencia, then Juventus, then Roma and now Inter.
Cole would play in a Champions League final in 2008 with Chelsea.
Participation in the competition was a motivating factor for Cole to join Lille, where he is on loan for the season from Liverpool, although as he surveys the tall grandstands of San Siro tonight he knows Lille's European expedition is teetering. Defeat at home to Inter on the previous match day left the French club at the bottom of Group B.
Lille are yet to win in Europe and Rudi Garcia, the head coach who rested Cole from the starting line-up for Sunday's goalless draw in Ligue 1 against Valenciennes, is perturbed.
"If you play against Inter like we did in our last game, we will lose, that's for sure," he said.
"I expect most people predict a defeat for us in Milan, but I think things can only get better for us. We played badly at the weekend and came out with a point, which is something."
The strain of being involved in Europe's elite competition was always likely to tell on Lille, who won last season's championnat with an unusually small first-team squad.
Garcia pushed for the signing of Cole towards the end of the last transfer window because he wanted extra nous and experience in his attack.
He has Dimitri Payet, with whom Cole competes for the outside right position in Lille's 4-3-3 formation, fit again, but is expected to prefer the Englishman on Wednesday night.
That is certainly what Ranieri anticipates.
"With Cole and Eden Hazard on the wings, Lille have a lot of fluidness going forward," said the Inter head coach, who has own problems to contend with - Inter lost 2-1 at home to Juventus at the weekend, and sit just one place above the Serie A relegation zone.
"The important thing now is not to look at the table," Ranieri said of Inter's domestic plight. "Against Juve, I did not see a vast gap between the two sides, and Juventus are the form team at the moment."
Ranieri did acknowledge "some problems with our energy levels", though, but the home team have had a day extra to prepare for tonight's encounter, as Inter-Juve was on Saturday. Much to Garcia's annoyance, Valenciennes-Lille was played on Sunday.
Julio Cesar, Inter's first-choice goalkeeper, remains injured and Maicon, the full-back, is missing, too.
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