By Patrick Hart in Milan
It is fair to say that Internazionale FC's progress to the last four of the UEFA Champions League has not met with universal approval. Along the way, their coach, Héctor Cúper, has faced at least as many brickbats as bouquets.
After the first leg of the scoreless semi-final against AC Milan last week, one Spanish critic was moved to ask whether, in the event of penalty kicks deciding the tie, either set of players would actually deign to shoot on goal. A more direct question came on the eve of tonight's second leg, when another Spanish journalist demanded to know if Cúper considered himself a defensive coach.
More to the game
The Argentinian's answer revealed the pragmatic approach which has characterised Inter's advance to their first semi-final in the competition in 22 years. "Is it so bad to get to the Champions League final playing defensive football? Is it such a bad thing to defend what you have got?" Cúper replied. "
Passing, rhythm, tempo - these aren't the only aspects of the game.
"In Spain, you can afford to pass the ball around 3,000 times because they want you to play with it. But in Italy, you hit five passes and then the crowd are screaming for an end product. I like my teams to defend. But I also like them to play well and to win."
It would be wrong to think of Cúper solely as a counterattacking force. His Inter team are the leading scorers in Serie A, with 24 of their 60 goals coming from the division's leading marksman Christian Vieri. The centre-forward is missing tonight as Cúper delays his comeback from a knee injury sustained in the controversial quarter-final win at Valencia CF.
In his place will be Hernán Crespo, still the third top scorer of this Champions League season despite having failed to add to the nine strikes he had registered before Christmas. Now back after injury, Crespo said: "Of course, I miss scoring goals; I also miss having the chances to score them. The derby will be both cruel and beautiful. One team will go out, the other will go on."
Oil and water
Cúper added: "I want Inter to reach the final. Whether it is [Iván] Córdoba, [Marco] Materazzi or someone else who scores isn't important." Which is just as well when you look at both teams records. Inter have drawn their last three league games - 1-1 against S.S. Lazio, Atalanta BC and Parma AC. Milan have endured stalemates against the likes of AC Chievo Verona, Brescia Calcio and Reggina Calcio. Since claiming the 'winter title' at the halfway stage of the campaign, Milan have let their lead slip to the point where Juventus FC are champions.
The pressure is mounting on coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose early season promise of flair-filled attacking football has evaporated in recent weeks. Where once the midfield boasted the talents of Rui Costa, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Rivaldo, now Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso man the engine room.
Ancelotti, however, has vowed to stick to his principles and attack Inter, even though a score draw would suffice to see the visiting team through. "We always try to go forward," he said. "
We have a responsibility to play as well as we can." But Dutch international Seedorf admitted that even Milan would eschew style for success. "Milan's project is not a one-year wonder," he said, "But all I want now is to get into that final."
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