x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mourinho's Inter heroes have hiccups on home front

One of the hardest tasks for head coach Jose Mourinho is to keep his players focused on the precarious lead they hold in Serie A.

Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli makes the trip to Sicily.
Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli makes the trip to Sicily.

The Gazzetta dello Sport, Italian football's most respected chronicler of the country's favourite sport, yesterday produced a free poster of "The Heroes of Stamford Bridge". Quite a fuss has been made in Italy of Inter Milan's success in overcoming Chelsea to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and, as Inter learned the identity of their next opponents in Europe - they meet CSKA Moscow - one of the hardest tasks for head coach Jose Mourinho was to keep his players focused on the precarious lead they hold in Serie A.

Inter are in Sicily tonight to play Palermo, eight days after a defeat on the island, 3-1 at Catania, compromised their advantage in the league dramatically. They now stand only one point ahead of AC Milan, who play Napoli tomorrow, and the lead has been steadily eroded. Inter have won only once in their last six Serie A outings. Heroes of Stamford Bridge they may be, but there were several hiccups in the month preceding their excellent triumph in London.

Mourinho has restored Mario Balotelli, dropped for the trip to London, to the party who flew to Sicily, and a fair guess is that the young and controversial striker chose not to sit next to Marco Materazzi, the older and no less controversial defender. Materazzi, who Mourinho has cited as an example for Balotelli on how to patiently appreciate opportunities in the first team even if they don't come to a player every week, said in a television interview after the win over Chelsea that Balotelli "ought to thank us all for putting him in the Champions League quarter-finals".

The veteran defender added: "Mario is a great player, and we all want him to be part of this strong group of players. But if he does not want that, the president has always shown he will not close the door on anybody who wants to leave." Balotelli has let it be known he wants improved terms if he is to commit himself long-term to Inter. His opportunities in the short term have not been especially advanced by the European form of the attacking front four Mourinho deployed against Chelsea, with Samuel Eto'o having returned to goalscoring ways at Stamford Bridge, in a lively showing, and Goran Pandev unselfishly offering support to Diego Milito from a wide position. Wesley Sneijder, meanwhile, returned from London with the applause and praise of most of his teammates ringing in his ears.

What Balotelli can look at with optimism, however, is the forthcoming fixture list for Inter. Palermo away is the first of nine games, in Serie A, Champions League and Coppa Italia within the next month. Mourinho will need to rest and rotate his resources. To those he hopes shortly to add Christian Chivu, the Romanian defender who is recovering from surgery, and Davide Santon, with the young full-back a possibility to return this evening.

Sulley Muntari is suspended following his red card at Catania. One notable return is that of Mourinho himself, who is permitted to take his place on the bench after his ban for gestures about the refereeing during last month's goalless draw with Sampdoria. "His presence is important," said Inter's captain, Javier Zanetti. Inter may well need all Mourinho's energy and guile. Palermo, fourth in the table, have yet to lose at home in Serie A and must have been encouraged by the fatiguing and frustrating evening Juventus endured at Fulham as they were knocked out of the Europa League on Thursday by a 4-1 defeat in west London.

Juve are the team closest to catching Palermo in the table, and with that fourth place, possible Champions League football in September. sports@thenational.ae Palermo v Inter, 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport +1