Ahead of their opening UEFA Champions League group game against FC Barcelona in September, José Mourinho said his FC Internazionale Milano side were still "a work in progress". Now the Portuguese coach will have the chance to test the status of that toil when the two sides meet again in the semi-finals. One thing, however, has surely changed, as according to Mourinho, "now the mentality is right".
It is difficult to argue with that especially after comparing Inter's performances in the group and knockout stages this term. The Nerazzurri won only twice in Group F, fighting hard to hold the European champions to a goalless draw in Milan and losing 2-0 at the Camp Nou.
Ahead of the decisive pool game against FC Rubin Kazan and remembering recent disappointing campaigns in the competition, president Massimo Moratti told the players that "Europhobia was not an excuse" in case of another failure.
If Europhobia was the illness, Mourinho seems to have found the cure. The Nerazzurri have won all four knockout games since overcoming Rubin, two against Chelsea FC and two against PFC CSKA Moskva, to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2003. Defeating rampant Barcelona will probably require further improvements but Mourinho can look at the tie with confidence.
"Anything can happen in the semi-final or final, but the first foot Inter will put into this competition will certainly be full of confidence," he said after the win in Moscow. "
If we don't win this year, Inter will win in a few years time because this is the path."
Inter have not lifted the European Champion Clubs' Cup since 1965 and Mourinho was appointed in 2008 as a replacement for Roberto Mancini, whose side had struggled in Europe despite winning three successive Serie A titles. Mourinho added another Scudetto to Inter's trophy cabinet during his first year in Milan but once again the Nerazzurri failed to go further than the last 16 in the UEFA Champions League.
It took longer than expected but now the side seem to have learnt the lesson, prompting Mourinho to say: "It's a total change from Inter's history in the Champions League in recent years." Inter, however, will need all their fresh confidence against Barcelona considering what the holders did to Arsenal FC in the quarter-finals, overwhelming their hosts in the first half of the opening leg.
"A part of their superiority was down to our inhibition at the start of the game," Arsène Wenger explained after the 2-2 draw in London which led the way to a 6-3 aggregate win for Barcelona. It was a statement not dissimilar to Mourinho's thoughts on that 2-0 defeat at Barça in the group stage. "I expected less fear from my players," he said.
However Dejan Stanković believes Inter will not make the same mistake this time. "It will be a hard-fought tie," the midfielder said. "We have worked hard on our mental approach to convince ourselves we are a great team. In the last few games we proved we are eager to go all the way.
We don't have to fear Barcelona. Respect them, but not fear them."
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