José Mourinho was in ebullient mood ahead of FC Internazionale Milano's first knockout round encounter with Manchester United FC, insisting his charges will take on the European champions at San Siro with "no fear".
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José Mourinho was in ebullient mood ahead of FC Internazionale Milano's first knockout round meeting with Manchester United FC, insisting his side would take on the European champions with "no fear" in what promises to be a close encounter at San Siro.
The similarities between Inter and United are striking; both are domestic titleholders, both boast clear leads in their title races, and both have suffered just two league defeats all season. But the one glaring difference, standing out like a beacon, is European form. United won the UEFA Champions League last term and are one match away from a record 20-game unbeaten sequence in Europe's premier club competition. Conversely, Inter have continually flattered to deceive, falling at this hurdle in each of the last two campaigns.
The Nerazzurri also struggled to get through the group stage, finishing second to Panathinaikos FC after two wins, two draws and two defeats. Yet Mourinho lost only once in ten matches against United during his three years in charge of Chelsea FC and is convinced he can continue that impressive run. "I have told my players not to be afraid of being knocked out, but instead to go into this match thinking that in 15 days we can celebrate beating the European champions," he said. "I'm an optimist – always have been – but I'm right to be confident because whenever this side has been in difficulty it has responded well. We have no fear."
They certainly responded well against Bologna FC on Saturday as Mario Balotelli, just on as a substitute, fired in a decisive late free-kick moments after the hosts had made it 1-1. That helped maintain Inter's nine-point cushion at the top of Serie A, though the Nerazzurri were equally indebted to goalkeeper Júlio César for keeping Bologna at bay in a frenetic finale. United had fewer problems as they too prevailed 2-1, at home to Blackburn Rovers FC. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo scored as the Red Devils went seven points clear at the Premier League summit, but the points came at a price as Jonny Evans went off with an ankle knock, adding to Sir Alex Ferguson's defensive concerns.
"With Wes Brown [ankle], Rafael [ankle] and Gary Neville [virus] out, and Nemanja Vidić suspended, it's a worrying moment for us but we've accepted it and we'll get on with it," said Sir Alex. "The challenge of playing in a stadium with a fantastic crowd will help the players – I'm sure of that." With Fabio likely to come in at right-back and Anderson (ankle) still sidelined, the United manager admitted a degree of tactical tinkering would be required although he denied Mourinho's claim that his side play "less offensively in Europe".
The Portuguese coach was full of confidence throughout the news conference, only really letting down his guard when he conceded that the tie "will probably last longer than 180 minutes". Sir Alex retorted by saying: "It'll be all over tomorrow if we get the away goal." The early exchanges between two of Europe's leading managers have only served to heighten the anticipation.