One certainly can’t say Jose Mourinho had not warned his players earlier this week. On paper, a home match to Panathinaikos seemed like an easy routine job for Inter, just the Portuguese manager’s concerns had a strong smell of pre-tactical (José-patented) “mindgames”.
Instead, those concerns were well-founded. This was indeed a tough match to handle for the Nerazzurri but what no one expected above all, was how inherently unmotivated and predictable the Milanese team played tonight. On the positive front for Mourinho, tonight’s tied game between Anorthosis and Werder Bremen effectively qualified Inter for the playoff round, but the Nerazzurri will have to wait matchday 6 to determine first-rank seeding business. And the ride to Germany promises to be a bumpy one.
Tactically, Mourinho continued to put his faith in the Zlatan-Adriano striking partnership and a four-man midfield, anchored by the likes of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, and Sulley Muntari. Two months after his last starting eleven appearance in Inter vs. Catania (and coupled with Balotelli and Mancini’s relegation to the subs bench) tonight marked the return of Luis Figo in the role of playmaker. A good thing you might say, given the Porguese winger’s extensive European cup experience, but actually a bad thing if you’re looking for agile players still capable of taing defenders one-on-one.
Right from the get-go, Panathinaikos retreated back into its shell and erected a literal midfield defensive dam: Simao Mate Junior in front of the backline, Gabriel, Gilberto Silva and Karagounis behind lone striker Evangelos Mantzios. The Greeks had their defensive set-up taken care of therefore, but as for getting one past Julio Cesar that was another matter entirely. Mantzios was really too isolated up front, and the three corner-kicks obtained by the visitors in the first 30 minutes only served to warm up their crowd, 5,000 Greek fans who had made the travel to Milan from Athens.
Fortunately for Panathinaikos, Mourinho’s strikers weren’t exactly having one of their best nights either. Adriano, perhaps affected by overconfidence at getting back into Mourinho’s good graces, missed the two opportunities he had in the first half (a post in minute 11 from an offside position, and a shot wide in min. 44). As for Ibrahimovic, his last European goal was over a year ago, and even his good form in Serie A was insufficient tonight to break the goalscoring ice (not even after a lovely Cambiasso scooped pass put him right in front of the Greek keeper). All in all, Mourinho’s side really didn’t do enough to shift the Greek block of concrete put in place by manager Ten Cate to protect his defence.
After the break Mourinho decided to change his team’s formation, going to a 4-4-2 with Ricardo Quaresma (on for Muntari) on the left wing and Figo on the right. A traditional wing-attack formation, and things got a little better: Adriano headed two good crosses from Inter’s new wingers over the bar, while Maicon forced Galinovic into a save (for the first time) after 52 minutes of play. Meanwhile Ibrahimovic was doing his best Shaquille O’Neal impression (trying to turn on his defenders like a basket-ball center), and it seemed like these could be test efforts leading up to an Inter goal. In fact just the opposite. It was Panathinaikos who got one in, as Josu Sarriegi was faster than anyone to poke the ball home, following a great save by Julio Cesar on Goumas’s powerful header. 1-0 Panathinaikos.
José didn’t stand for it, it was time to bring out the heavy artillery. That is, Mario Balotelli and Julio Cruz to produce a four-striker formation. However, just like it had been unsuccessful for Fiorentina Tuesday, the Nerazzurri didn’t get much done with the move either. Except that is, for a flurry of missed chances. A Quaresma trivela nearly connected with Adriano (perhaps illegally held back by Spiropoulos), Cambiasso and Cruz (twice) tried their luck from short-range, and Adriano himself had a good chance close to goal but was stopped by the daredevil save of Pana keeper Galinovic. All close but no cigar. At the end of the day Greek supporters were jubilant and Inter qualified, but based on the night’s performance very much undeservedly so.
|GOALSCORERS: 69’ Sarriegi (P).
| INTER (4-3-1-2): Julio Cesar – Maicon, Córdoba, Materazzi, Maxwell (75’ Cruz) – J.Zanetti, Cambiasso, Muntari (46’ Quaresma) – Figo (67’ Balotelli) – Adriano, Ibrahimovic. (bench: Toldo, Burdisso, Stankovic, Mancini). Coach: Mourinho.
| PANATHINAIKOS (5-1-3-1): Galinovic – Nilsson, Vintra, Goumas, Sarriegi, Spiropoulos – Simão M.J. – Gabriel (84’ Tziolis), Gilberto Silva, Karagounis (63’ Salpingidis) – Mantzios (92’ Rukavina). (bench: Tzorvas, Mattos, Ninis, Ivanschitz). Coach: Ten Cate.