FC Internazionale Milano coach Roberto Mancini is looking forward to hearing the deafening sound of a packed Stadio Giuseppe Meazza when he leads his side out to face AFC Ajax in the second leg of their finely-poised UEFA Champions League tie.
The Italian team played their three home group games behind closed doors following the misconduct of their supporters during last season's quarter-final, when AC Milan goalkeeper Dida was hit by a flare. It did not appear to affect them too adversely as they collected maximum points from the matches, but Mancini is nevertheless delighted to welcome back Inter's "12th man" as they look to book a last-eight meeting with Villarreal CF.
"We were starting to get used to playing without support," Mancini joked. "Actually, in all seriousness, we really need them as the match will be tough. Inter and Ajax are similar teams, they like to attack and Ajax will come here looking to do just that." The Dutch side certainly did so in the first encounter three weeks ago, when goals from Mauro Rosales and Klaas Jan Huntelaar gave the hosts a 2-0 lead inside 21 minutes at the Amsterdam ArenA.
The blistering start raised many eyebrows, but Mancini took it in his stride. "It was no surprise at all," he said. "We know Ajax play good football, even if they do have several youngsters. The club have a rich footballing history and have been playing in the same attacking style for years - with or without big-name players." The in-form Huntelaar may not be a household name just yet but his first-leg strike - one of ten in six games for the 22-year-old - suggested he soon could be.
"To be honest, I didn't know much about Huntelaar but he looks to be a very good striker," admitted Mancini, who goes into the return without the suspended Iván Córdoba, while question marks hang over the fitness of Juan Sebastián Verón, Alvaro Recoba and Luís Figo following Saturday's testing 1-0 victory against UC Sampdoria. "Huntelaar has some way to go before he's as good as Marco van Basten though."
The 41-year-old's tendency to draw from the past seems appropriate, as recent history is kind to the Nerazzurri. Inter are unbeaten in nine home matches in the UEFA Champions League, winning seven, and have reached the quarter-finals three times in the last four years. Ajax coach Danny Blind will be equally aware that his team have not triumphed in Italy in seven visits but the former Netherlands defender is determined to end that sequence.
"We need to score so we'll attack, although maybe not from the start," the Dutchman warned. "This is the game for us." Ajax have been in fine form in the Eredivisie and although a goalless weekend draw with PSV Eindhoven ended an impressive winning run, the Amsterdam outfit took heart from a sterling performance against the Dutch leaders. "We're growing in confidence," admitted Blind, who welcomes Nourdin Boukhari back to the reckoning, with Hedwiges Maduro, Steven Pienaar and Johnny Heitinga still sidelined.
The first leg certainly fuelled aspirations, despite Inter's comeback through second-half strikes from Dejan Stanković and Julio Cruz. "Inter have always had quality and, under Mancini, they are more of a team," said the Ajax coach. "But anything can happen in knockout competition and although the first-leg draw didn't do us too many favours, the door is always open." Ominously for Ajax, however, so too are the San Siro turnstiles.
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