History provides a poignant backdrop to Celtic being drawn with Internazionale in the Europa League knockout stages, but the current circumstances of both clubs make it an intriguing tie in its own right.
Between now and the game in February, there will be plenty of reminiscing about Jock Stein’s Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967 by beating Helenio Herrera’s Inter side 2-1 in Lisbon. Nostalgia will always be the initial reaction to the two teams being drawn together.
There are personal connections to revive, too, since Ronny Deila spent time with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City’s training ground in November 2010. They shared lunch and talked about football management, with the visit being part of a developing link between Stromsgodset and the English club.
Both men have moved on, but the opportunity now is for Deila to show that he is on the right road to follow the Italian in terms of accomplishment and status. The two managers are engaged in rebuilding work, with the Europa League providing a measure of how far they have progressed.
Celtic had the head start, with Deila beginning his work in the summer, whereas Mancini is only six games into his second spell in charge of Inter. The Italian club needs reviving, since they had fallen to 12th in Serie A when Walter Mazzarri was sacked and the owner, Erick Thohir, has yet to oversee a coherent and contemporary football strategy since buying the club from Massimo Moratti in October 2013.
Inter yearn to be back at the forefront of Italian football, where Mancini led them during his previous four-year spell at the San Siro between 2004 and 2008. He oversaw three Serie A title wins, two Coppa Italia triumphs and two Supercoppa Italiana wins, but only once did Inter reach as far as the Champions League group stages.
Mancini has won a cup competition with every club he has managed and has accumulated 12 trophies since retiring from playing. His record in Europe is less impressive, though, and that merely brings another dimension to the meeting with Celtic.
The Italian has not ruled out qualifying for the Champions League by finishing high enough in Serie A and Inter are only six points behind third-placed Lazio, but Monday night’s 2-0 win over Chievo was Mancini’s first in the league since returning to the club. He drew his first game, against AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina, only to then lose to Roma and Udinese.
Mancini believes that the Europa League presents a credible opportunity for Inter to qualify for the Champions League as winners and the team was unbeaten in the group stages – although Mancini was only in charge for two of those ties, a 2-1 win over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and a 0-0 draw with Qarabag.
There are pressing flaws to address, though, not least a recurring fragility in defence and a state of mind that robs the players of their assurance for long periods of games. This has undermined Inter this season; as well as the concession of goals – only five Serie A sides have lost more this season – the team has tended to perform well for one half or another in games.
Mancini was known as a defensive, controlling coach during his time in charge of Manchester City, but perceptions are relative. In Italy, he is considered more attack-minded and less hidebound by ideology than his predecessor, Mazzarri.
The back-line needs work, but Mancini is renowned for his training ground work with the defence and it is also likely that Nemanja Vidic will be shipped back to Manchester United in January, having failed to impress since his move to Inter. Mancini wants to do more squad renovation during the transfer window and Alessio Cerci, the Atletico Madrid attacker, is a target.
Inter are also reportedly keen on Lucas Leiva, the Liverpool midfielder, and are monitoring Diego Perotti of Genoa, Chelsea’s Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s Fabio Borini and the Arsenal pair, Joel Campbell and Lukas Podolski. Any moves will need to be loan deals, though, since further transfer activity could put Inter at odds with Uefa”s Financial Fair Play rules and the club’s managing director, Marco Fassone, met with governing body officials during his trip to Nyon for the Europa League draw.
Mancini’s first obligation is to bring stability to Inter, with the club having seen 10 managers come and go in the seven years before Mancini’s arrival. He has switched the formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2 and has been working on building the players’ self-confidence.
There is a strong spine to the side, with Samir Handanovic, the Slovenian international goalkeeper, Andrea Ranocchia, the Italian international defender, the Croatian Mateo Kovacic and the Brazilian Hernanes in mdifleder, and Mauro Icardi, the Argentine striker up front.
“Actually, he [has]looked so much different from his first experience at Inter,” says Alex Frosio, the Gazzetta dello Sport journalist. “Now he appears to be very relaxed.
“Mancini believes that winning [the]Europa League could be an easier way to get a Champions League spot, more than getting third in the league. Inter is expected 100% to knock Celtic out.”
Past glories are important to Inter and Celtic, but the present is about building new eras. Both sides would consider progressing in the Europa League as evidence that they have the right manager in charge to achieve that.
Celtic v Internazionale: Past meetings
1967 European Cup final, Lisbon
Celtic 2-1 Internazionale
1972 European Cup semi-final, first leg, Milan
Internazionale 0-0 Celtic
1972 European Cup semi-final, second leg, Glasgow
Celtic 0-0 Internazionale (Inter won 5-4 on penalties)