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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Inter 0 – 0 Manchester United: The Lordly End of Zero

It felt like a bracing rally from Inter in the second half, but let’s keep that fact in perspective: It felt like a bracing rally because Manchester United’s first-half performance had completely rewritten the pre-match expectations. That is, if Inter were a crippled underdog, a kind of Fulham of the mid-week, then what they did in the second half verged on the heroic. But if they were Man Utd’s equals, as, at the start of the match, we basically thought they were, then the fightback had something pitiful about it. It’s no wonder everyone uses matches like this as a referendum on the relative quality of the Premier League and Serie A. That was maybe 25 minutes of competent football from the three-times-defending champions of Italy, playing at home, under a coach who’s essentially made Manchester United the undercarriage of his ego.

I don’t mean to be negative; it was fluid, fast, entertaining game, as nil-nil draws between good teams often are. It’s just that the mystery of Inter’s underperformance in Europe is starting to look like one of those one of those computer vertexes in which a green graph cones down on itself in the middle and all the little Tron houses start sliding over the rim, and it’s getting hard to separate the various concrete elements (psychology, personnel, tactics) from each other and from the aspect of the mystical that’s starting to loom over the facts. It’s true that, as Derek Rae and Tommy Smyth repeatedly pointed out, Alex Ferguson is not going to cherish the lack of an away goal in a fixture they could have finished off by the 25th minute. But on the strength of recent history do we really see Inter going to Old Trafford, murdering the ghost of Banquo, and getting the 1-1 draw? Again, their good stretches in the second half were a heroism of Fulham, not something that would keep a Busby babe from getting a decent sleep.

My questions when I saw the lineups were: Could Park handle Maicon? And could Davide Santon, an 18-year-old right-back deployed for this match on the left, contain Cristiano Ronaldo? I should have asked why Rooney was starting on the bench, but after United’s Barcelona adventure last season (in which I’m pretty sure Rooney played as a sweeper) nothing really surprises me in Ferguson’s European teamsheets. I definitely should have asked why Rivas was playing in favor of Cordoba, because even though I knew the answer (Mourinho just hates Cordoba), it turned out to be the major tactical gaffe of the match, which Mourinho was forced to remedy at halftime.

Park, who has some special terrier gene that he only activates in important European away games, was a step ahead of, and into, Maicon for most of the night. This crushed Inter, especially in the first half: their few breakaway chances were largely down the left, where Santon (again, an 18-year-old playing out of position) did not pose the same kind of attacking threat as arguably the world’s top right-back. (You know I don’t mean it, Dani Alves.) Ibrahimović kept drifting left to try to pick up the slack, which isn’t unusual in itself, but it meant that Inter’s only threat in the box for much of the game was the pale and confused Adriano, who was counting by different digits and missed the team’s second-best chance of the night. (The first was Cambiasso’s awkward attempt to chest the ball into the open net.)

Santon had a good game against Ronaldo, but it didn’t really matter, because Ronaldo charged around everywhere anyway (just not so much down the right). Obviously his name was going to be heard a lot given the number of close-range free-kicks Inter surrendered, all but a couple of which he almost scored from, but Rivas and Chivu were about as effective as holograms in the second half, and every time he cut inside it seemed to be him versus empty air and Júlio César’s nervy genius.  If it weren’t for César’s twitch save he would have scored with that wrecking-ball header in the 5th minute, and if it weren’t for Cordoba’s having been brought on to replace Rivas at halftime he would have scored (after leaving Chivu for the vultures) in the 75th.

The other bright spot for Inter—and my choice for man of the match, if César wasn’t it—was Ibrahimović. More than any other Inter player he has a reputation for dwindling in the Champions League, but he was brilliant tonight, dropping halfway down the pitch to win the ball, picking out teammates with some of the most dangerous passes of the match, at one point holding three United players on a string before clipping Jonny Evans with the shot. Other than that, as far as Inter’s shooting was concerned, van der Sar could have spent most of the match writing his memoirs. But it’s at least one good sign for the Italians’ Old Trafford hopes that Ibra seems switched on, and actually kind of happy, playing in the Champions League.

The managers looked grim and impassive, Ferguson in his black coat, Mourinho in his snowdrift of a gray scarf. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re more illuminated a couple of weeks from now.

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Inter 0 – 0 Manchester United: The Lordly End of Zero

by Brian Phillips · February 24, 2009

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