So that’s what it’s like to lose to José Mourinho. All those teams he left trailing in his wake were joined by Chelsea tonight, as goals from Diego Milito and Esteban Cambiasso either side of a Salomon Kalou strike handed Inter Milan the advantage in this Champions League First Knockout Round first-leg match.
On the balance of play, a draw would probably have been the fairer result, but with Chelsea grabbing an away goal, the Blues will be confident of nullifying Inter at the Bridge in three weeks time and progressing to the latter stages of the tournament.
The big news ahead of the game – on the pitch at least – was the absence of any recognised left-back in the Chelsea squad due to injury worries, which meant that Florent Malouda was asked to step-in to the berth usually occupied by Ashley Cole or Yuri Zhirkov. Kalou was also given a start in what appeared to be an attacking line-up.
With Carlo Ancelotti looking to reclaim the San Siro, after being somewhat of a nuisance to Inter in his Serie A days, it looked as if he had sent out Chelsea to get a foothold in the two-legged tie and lay down a marker for the 180 minutes of football which would follow.
He would not have been pleased with Inter’s 3rd minute goal then. Before many of us had taken our seats at the San Siro or gotten over the fact that we were to be treated to Gareth Southgate’s dulcet tones on ITV1, Milito picked up the ball on the left of the box, easily jinked inside John Terry, and slotted past Petr Cech. The Czech stopper was beaten at his near post, and it looked as if he started to dive to his left, before watching helplessly as Milito’s shot went to his right.
This was anything but a sign of things to come in the first-half though. Malouda in particular was allowed to set up camp inside Inter’s half of the pitch, while Kalou was also pleasingly lively. The often out-of-sorts Ivorian set up Anelka for a shot, and also tested Inter ‘keeper Julio Cesar inside thirteen minutes.
If Kalou was surprising though, Drogba was his usual devilish self, unsettling the Inter defenders from the first whistle. His shot from a free-kick after fifteen minutes rattled Inter’s crossbar for a good two or three, with Julio Cesar beaten.
While Drogba was enjoying a number of half-chances, Inter’s attacking play was seldom seen. Milito looked like troubling Ricardo Carvalho in the box at one point, but after working his way past the Portuguese, Milito decided to emulate Steven Gerrard, ridiculously diving – arms outstretched and all – and picking up a booking rather than a penalty.
The home side’s next chance also had a touch of comedy to it, with Wesley Sneijder drilling in a low cross towards Samuel Eto’o, who had gotten away from Terry. Eto’o, one of the most fearsome strikers in world football, mis-kicked from less than six yards out, and Chelsea escaped.
There was just one major talking point of the half, and it came right at the death. A long Branislav Ivanovic throw-in was missed by the Inter defence, and Kalou ran through on goal. From a tight angle, he attempted to control the ball in the box but was hacked down by a desperate challenge from Walter Samuel. Definite penalty, criminally not given, and memories of a certain Norwegian referee came flooding back in an instant.
The second-half continued where the first left off, with Chelsea pushing forward. Although it took slightly longer after the whistle than it did for Inter, the Blues were soon celebrating an early goal of their own six minutes after the break.
Ivanovic – who had been rampaging forward often in the first 45 – was allowed to run at the backtracking Inter defence, and with the Serb seemingly born with a layer of armour beneath his skin, he kept hold of the ball despite several nicks at his heels. Ivanovic fed Kalou on the edge of the box, and the resurgent number 21 curled past a despairing Julio Cesar for the equaliser. The Brazilian ‘keeper, sporting black eyes from a car accident on Sunday evening, added red to the shading of his face.
But if Chelsea thought that it would signal a goalscoring frenzy, they were wrong. Or at least, they were with regards to which side would bag the next goal.
Just four minutes after Kalou’s goal, Inter were back ahead. Midfielder Cambiasso was allowed two shots from just outside the box; the first hit Ivanovic, the second beat Cech. With the Chelsea ‘keeper already committed after diving for the first effort, he stood no chance of making the eventual goal-bound strike. 2-1, and back to square one.
Mourinho responded to the goal by throwing on another striker, Mario Balotelli. But while Inter showed their hand freely, Chelsea were forced into a change when Cech landed awkwardly after throwing the ball out. Enter Hilario, to take the place of the stricken Cech.
But if Hilario thought he was stepping into a potential onslaught, he was very much mistaken. His evening’s work was restricted to just a couple of scuffed goal-kicks as chances dried up for both sides.
Nicolas Anelka – infuriating and genius at different points tonight – combined with Drogba, with the ball eventually finding a fully-stretched Lampard in the box. The free-scoring midfielder could only poke his effort straight at Julio Cesar however.
Drogba also burst into the box minutes after that chance, but he was outmuscled by Samuel.
With Malouda penned back by Balotelli, who was infrequently threatening at the other end, Chelsea had to work for their chances, but they were often foiled by the near-unbeatable Lucio.
Maicon – who was talked up before the game as a potential tormentor of whoever was to fill in at left-back – blazed a shot over from range, before John Mikel Obi shot from the edge of the box, with the end result very much the same.
A late Chelsea corner came to nothing after a flick-on from Ivanovic caused a mild glimmer of hope, and the whistle blew on a decent evening for Chelsea. A defeat it may have been, but we’re only at half-time.