--"May the best team win!"
--"I certainly hope not!"
The 2nd quote from above was the response to a naïve journalist looking for a fair game from an anonymous Italian coach of a bygone era. The cluelessness of it suggests that the reporter probably came from England. It’s as telling as it is relevant to the game last night. The best team last night didn’t win. However, the best prepared team, perhaps the more tactically aware team and the luckiest team did.
Most Champions League games are pretty boring, I think. It’s like the World Series of Poker. Everyone knows that the longer you hold out, the better the payout. No one plays great because of nerves, no one wants to risk too much too soon and because the teams are mostly of good quality, comebacks are relatively rare.
Last nights game wasn’t like that. I felt that I was watching a good game between 2 good teams. The ball went up one end and back down the other. Both teams went on the attack, both teams played defence. The ball went through the center of the midfield, the ball went up the flanks of the midfield or the ball bypassed the middle all together. All aspects of both teams’ game were tested, prodded and evaluated. The verdict was the least surprising part of last night – both teams were good, solid and talented.
My Inter Players of the Match. Some might argue that only one of these guys deserves it, but I disagree. Both did the work of two men, to paraphrase our President:
Stats Home Team First
Shots (on Goal) 9(3) 18(6)
Fouls 14 18
Corner Kicks 0 3
Offsides 4 1
Time of Possession 40% 60%
Yellow Cards 2 1
A quick look at the stats suggests that Chelsea had the better of the play, which it did… and it didn’t. Most, by a great margin, of Chelsea’s shots came from outside the area – which was by design. Inter’s defence used the Penalty Area as a sort of Maginot Line that actually worked. Lampard had a shot from around 13 meters that he absolutely flubbed to match Eto’o’s miss from a similar spot on the other end. Those long range shots, with one notable exception, didn’t test Cesar, which was the point after all. Close range shots, few as there were, from Chelsea seemed to be forced and not well hit. Both yellows by Inter were well earned; Motta kicking Ballack in the face was pretty classic though.
The worrisome stat is our dearth of corner kicks. Here’s why this is worrisome: it means that we didn’t press forward with the ball sufficiently to make them desperate enough to decide that a clearance to the endline was better than the possible result of the attack.
Here’s a stat in our favor that you won’t find in many places. Chelsea outran us by a little over a kilometer. Good for them right? Wrong. They did more running than we did, they looked more tired than we did at the end and people don’t pass and shoot as well as when they have been run ragged. We saved our energy for defending at the end and it showed.
Cesar: Considering the car crash, absolutely amazing, but he – and I – have to be disappointed by the crappy goal – from a crappy player – that he let in. And I mean he let it in, although to be fair, he probably saw it late as it had to pass through about 3 players. 6.5
Maicon: Apart from his shooting from 35 meters out – especially considering the quality and relative position of our strikers at the time – he had a good game. He was able to push forward and he and Mario worked well together to keep that left fullback honest and away from our end – after about 25 minutes into the game, unfortunately. 6.5
Lucio: He actually wasn’t matched up on Drobga as much as the English press thinks. But he did everything else. He worked off of Samuel well enough to intercept passes, knowing that there was support behind him. He pushed the ball forward, often 20 or 30 meters to midfield. And one of his strengths is that he moves sideline to sideline taking excellent angles and doing so with purpose – winning the ball. He has the ball skills to school several of the Chelsea forward elements to clear the ball to safety. 8.0
Samuel: Samuel’s rating could have been different if he had been called for that penalty and sent off, but he was able to do it in such a way that he created some doubt in the ref – of course he was helped by some of the worst acting this side of Prime Time Television. Here’s a tip to the young’ens: don’t throw your hands up and bow your back when the guy who’s fouling you is to your left side. Just fall to the right and then takes your shot. Other than that incident, he was able to use his physical strength to hang with and sometimes onto Drogba. Well done. 6.5
Zanetti: Zanetti was special last night. He had to support Motta, who was in front of him and pretty up and down – impact-wise. He made his trademark runs forward to put instant pressure on the Chelsea midfield and he protected the flank pretty well for a 36 year old – although most of the time he was just watching Ballack. He played a great game that was all the more apparent when contrasted with his only mistake of the night a mistrapped ball that harmlessly went out. 7.5
Motta: Motta, I think had a very up and down game. I thought that he was pretty ineffective on the goal, but on the other hand he made the pass to Eto’o that went to Milito for the first goal. I thought the rest of his night was pretty uneventful, excepting the boot to Ballacks head. And I am not sure how to grade that. 5.5
Cambiasso: Cuchu was the only midfielder that I thought had a good game. He was doing the running for at least two other players. I thought that he was also the only midfielder to stand up to the Chelsea midfield. His goal was a thing of beauty. 7.0
Stankovic: I admire the guts that Deki showed even lacing up. But after about 25 minutes I thought he was pretty invisible. My problem is that I can’t think of anyone that I thought would be good here. Muntari would have lost it as physical as this game was and this would be Mariga’s first Champions League, which could have been bad. The Mario substitution for Deki was inspired. 6.0
Sneijder: As much as Sneijder tried to influence the game I don’t think he really made that much of a difference – except in his effort as an example to the rest of the team that I really think inspired them. Watching him take knock after knock and running after stray passes that everyone else gave up on really showed everyone what the right attitude and energy level was. 6.5
Milito: Apart from being largely invisible for the second half, his goal schooling John Terry and making Cech forget basic goalkeeping 101 was sweet. 6.5
Eto’o: This could have been Eto’o’s Arrival. If Eto’o hits that sitter from under 10 meters it’s 2-0 and Chelsea is swirling clockwise down some tubes and is in serious, serious trouble. Luckily, Lampard misses one too, kind of canceling this out. He does make the pass that Milito makes the first goal. 6.0
First things first. I think that Samuel committed a penalty, but he didn’t make the decision easy for the referee. He didn’t tackle the legs from behind. He didn’t reach out and jerk the guy back. He got his shoulder on the Chelsea players shoulder and did his best to disturb the shot.
Of course the Chelsea player didn’t do himself any favors either. The guy got the ball from outside the area dribbled to the far right of the area cutting his own angle and slowed down trying to invite contact. Then he threw his hands up in such a way that shouts to everyone “Do not give me a penalty!”
On top of all this Chelsea didn’t make things any easier on themselves either. The degree to which they castigated every ref they had last season in the Champions League made those refs that officiate their games anxious as hell – so it was a conservative mindset, safety first and let the players play.
On a much more personal note, I have no sympathy. Materazzi got thrown out for gently touching Torres’ shoulder and getting thrown out playing Liverpool 2 years ago. Burdisso got thrown out in a different game in that tie. Against Manchester, Patricia reached out to bat the ball away with his hand and Scholes should have gotten thrown out for leg scissoring from behind. O’Shay nailed Balotelli around 12 times in the game in Manchester and somehow finished that game. So, if things worked out in our favor this once, then that’s tough. The fact that it came against an English club was just poetic justice.
Mourinho got the tactics exactly right this game.
English teams have a reputation for being pretty tactically naïve. For example, ManU’s Ferguson is famous for using old Milan tactics against his opponents. Even with Ancelotti now, Chelsea aren’t much more tactically astute than they were last season. If the football field they were playing on last night was an NFL field, Chelsea wouldn’t venture much wider than the hash marks and with a significant lack of creativity that reminds me of Inter from last season.
But they have a very strong midfield, are all huge and physically tough. Mikel, for example, knocks down Sneijder every time he got close to him. Ballack tried to push, kick and intimidate Motta until Motta kicked him in the head. Lampard even pushed down Eto’o to get the ball. This is a physical game, so I’m too upset at the contact, but jeez our guys are so small compared to them.
But given the characteristics of Chelsea – that even I figured out considering my indifference to the BPL – Mourinho changed the way that Inter play from their Serie A games. On defence, he collapsed the centerbacks and fullbacks - assuming no outside threat – and used the 3 Inter midfielders to harry and pester in a second line of defence just in front of the back 4. Chelsea didn’t have any answers and were just unable to go to an outside winger to cross or dribble into the penalty area. They also didn’t have any answers to the defense through the front. The goal was actually good defence that Cesar just fucked up.
Once the defence collected the ball, we looked like a flower opening in spring as we spread out and up the field. Inter either attacked over the midfield bypassing the tough ball winners there or, they attacked up the wings where the Chelsea midfielders were clearly uncomfortable to roam. Javier had acres of space to run up and down the left repeatedly. Maicon, towards the midpoint of the first half and Mario in the second half were able to maraud up the right at will.
Once on the attack, Milito’s and Eto’o’s movement and ability to play off each other made life very difficult for the Chelsea defence. It was very clear that they weren’t exactly used to playing against forwards who would move around the area that much and were able to break down defences with skillful passes and dribbling.
At the end of the day, this was a different Inter than Ancelotti remembered from last season. Was this the reason that Chelsea had such a hard time? I don’t know, but it brings up a very good point. We aren’t the same team that we were. Mourinho discovered a way to completely overhaul the roster and the mindset all the while keeping us a competitive team. I have said over and over that Mourinho had changed the squad by the middle of last season. Some didn’t believe but I hope that this is the proof that we can put all this sort of talk all behind us and just enjoy the metamorphosis into an even stronger team.
So where do we go from here? Well, any Inter win in England and we progress. Any draw and we progress. We progress on a loss only if we lose by one point and we score except that 2-1 forces extra time. Results to be avoided? 1-0 to Chelsea or any multiple digit difference in the Chelsea and Inter score in London. For example, 3-1 to Chelsea. If we keep it close and we score we have an excellent chance to progress despite what those who can't do math might say...