At 9/5 to win at home, back Inter Milan to strike first blood against Chelsea

Inter Milan v Chelsea, Champions League, February 24, 2010

Inter Milan 9/5; Draw 11/5; Chelsea 2/1

“The whole of Italy, Inter fans excluded, will be supporting Chelsea tomorrow night.” – Carlo Ancelotti.

Without doubt, Inter Milan versus Chelsea is the match of the Champions League this week. The obvious news sees spotlight-hungry Jose Mourinho reclaim the headlines as the Special One faces his old club. But under the surface there are many more important issues bubbling about, particularly whether Inter – Italy’s perennial Champions League failures – can actually rewrite the history books and beat a big English team in the knock-out stages of Europe’s premier club competition. (Inter are 7/4 to qualify the tie, Chelsea 4/7.)

In short, that objective was the whole reason Mourinho was brought into the San Siro.

Italian football has been wallowing in the mire in the Champions League for years, with only AC Milan prospering in the last decade with wins back in 2007 and 2003. The Rossoneri’s home defeat to Manchester United last week placed a large nail in Leonardo’s CL hopes for this season, leaving Inter the last realistic hope for Serie A in this year’s tournament. And, without doubt, the league as a whole is in desperate short term need of a boost as, reflecting on last week’s results as a paradigm of the current wider problem for Italian football, Juventus were the only Calcio side to claim victory in European competition.

Just at a time when Inter could do with some belief that they can knock out Chelsea, the Nerazzurri arrive into the match with the Pensioners off a run of three straight defeats. Those bare facts fail to tell the whole story of Inter’s recent form, particularly with regard to the goalless draw last weekend to Sampdoria where, the black and blues were forced to play over an hour of football with just eight outfield players. But, sidestepping the details, its hardly form to inspire much confidence for Inter.

Perhaps the biggest pre-match comfort for the Italians is the fact that Maicon, the tremendous Brazilian right-back who loves nothing more than taking on his opponents down the right wing, could likely be up against Florent Malouda at left-back in the absences of Ashley Cole, Paulo Ferreira and Yuri Zhirkov. Maicon can profit down the Inter right and, should he work the space down his flank, Chelsea could find themselves under a barrage of crosses – which has been their Achilles heel all season long. (Inter are 14/5 to score in both halves.)

Up-front, Inter also look capable of causing Chelsea serious problems. Long-gone are the days of over-reliance of Zaltan Ibrahimovic, which is commonly cited as a major reason for Inter’s previous Champions League failures. With Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Goran Pandev all available, the Italians look to have all the attacking ingredients to cause John Terry and co. trouble defending their own goal. (Inter are 8/1 to win both halves.)

Special mention also needs to be made for Inter’s player of the season, Wesley Sneijder. All season long the Dutchman has been the puppeteer for Mourinho’s men, providing the link from midfield to attack. With three goals and a hatful of assist to his name this term, Sneijder is a definite danger-man for the Italians.

Turning to Chelsea, Inter can also spot reasons to believe they can get one over on the Premier League leaders. Domestically the Blues have wobbled this season, especially away from home, having sunk to four away defeats as well as picking up draws at relegation strugglers West Ham and Burnley. Chelsea’s shaky away form was evident in last weekend’s 2-nil win at Wolves, where effectiveness rather than swashbuckling skill, helped the Blues pick up the three points.

Playing down Chelsea’s talents though is a dangerous game. Didier Drogba has been magical all season, and one of world football’s best strikers will probably cause the likes of Ivan Cordoba and Walter Samuel serious problems on Wednesday night. Even if Drogba was to have an off-night though, Chelsea have alternative attacking option with Nicolas Anelka bolstering the west Londoners front-line. The Pensioners will also be encouraged by the return of Frank Lampard to the team after his absence with a knock last time out. (Chelsea are 3/1 to score in both halves.)

Howeve,r while it is easy to point to Chelsea’s positives, their negatives also need mentioning.

Joe Cole has been struggling for form ever since returning from a long term injury several months ago. Further, Petr Cech has continued to leave the doubters wondering whether he is good enough to lead his team to Champions League success, while the midfielders Michael Ballack, Salamon Kalou and John Obi Mikel remain outside the bracket of the creme de la creme.

And that is before we even address the off-field smut which has dogged Chelsea in recent weeks.

Inter need to win at home if they have any chance of advancing past Chelsea into the quarter-finals, and for the sake of Italian football at large, many will be hoping that Mourinho can prove his Specialness once more.

101gg predicts: Inter Milan 3 – Chelsea 1 (35/1)

Inter Milan 9/5; Draw 11/5; Chelsea 2/1

Full match odds here.