Two impressive unbeaten records are on the line as FC Porto tackle FC Internazionale Milano tonight.
By Paul Saffer
Two impressive unbeaten records will be on the line when FC Internazionale Milano visit UEFA Champions League holders FC Porto for the first time on Wednesday.
While Porto are yet to lose a European game at the Estádio do Dragão since making their bow there a year ago - a run which helped them to triumph in last season's tournament - no team has defeated Inter in 2004/05 in any competition.
Admittedly, Porto's progress through the group stage this term was unconvincing considering their status as continental champions, although the Dragão fire returned in their final match as they came from behind to beat Chelsea FC - and former coach José Mourinho - to save their campaign. The same could be said of their group stage form in 2003/04, but when they opened this stadium 12 months ago with a 2-1 first knockout round victory against Manchester United FC, it set Porto on the road to Champions League glory.
However, while Olympique Lyonnais, RC Deportivo La Coruña, Paris Saint-Germain FC, PFC CSKA Moskva and Chelsea have since failed to come away from Porto's revamped arena with victory, on the domestic scene it has been a different story. Arch-rivals Boavista FC, SC Beira-Mar and SC Braga have all prevailed at the Dragão in Portugal's SuperLiga.
The Braga defeat at the end of January ended Víctor Fernández's six-month reign as coach, and he admitted: "We have been very inconsistent at home. The players are not handling the pressure well. We have a lot of young players and for them playing at home is a problem."
Indeed, successor José Couceiro's only home game so far was a 0-0 draw with Vitória SC. Couceiro said: "We are a bit uneasy at home, but we have to overcome that. Porto are a great team and I know the players will start to deal with their home form."
Inter, by contrast, are looking very comfortable and remain on course to equal AC Milan's feat of 1991/92 by negotiating a Serie A season without defeat. Even if they have drawn 16 of their 25 league matches and lie eleven points behind their city rivals in the table, the Nerazzurri cannot be written off either at home or abroad.
Whereas before Christmas Roberto Mancini's men had won just four of their 16 league fixtures, in 2005 there have been five Serie A victories in eight games, plus Coppa Italia triumphs at Bologna FC and Atalanta BC. And in the Champions League group stage, Inter produced some stunning form, scoring 14 goals in six outings, including a 3-1 victory at RSC Anderlecht and 5-1 rout at Valencia CF.
What has been particularly impressive about Inter's run is that it has not been based on frustrating opponents - there have been just two stalemates in the league, against seven 2-2 and two 3-3 draws. Thrilling comebacks have also featured, notably three added-time goals to turn a 2-0 deficit against UC Sampdoria into a 3-2 win last month, one of four recoveries from two down to avoid defeat.
Esteban Cambiasso forms a superb ball-winning midfield partnership with Cristiano Zanetti, and believes a tenacious attitude is the key to their success. "I think we are a very organised side," Cambiasso said. "We are still in contention for three trophies and we strongly believe we can go a long way in every competition we play - especially because we never give up and always play to win."