Inter's win proved Chelsea have still not banished the ghost of Mourinho
It was not quite David Beckham’s return to Old Trafford.
But then Jose Mourinho’s homecoming at Stamford Bridge was always going to be too dangerous to celebrate.
When Beckham went back to Manchester United last week, it was as part of an AC Milan side that was already beaten.
Last night was very different to that. Last night was loaded with all sorts of significance and awkward questions.
Could Chelsea disprove the idea that they have never been the same since Mourinho left?
Could Carlo Ancelotti carve out his own special place in the club’s history by vanquishing the ghost of Mourinho?
And could this Chelsea side take a giant step closer to the trophy that Mourinho could never deliver for them?
The stadium announcer tapped into the tension before the kick-off with his song selection.
The strains of Rainbow echoed round the stadium Mourinho used to rule. “Since you’ve been gone,” they sang, “out of my head, can’t take it.”
But when Mourinho was introduced to the crowd before the game, it fell a bit flat. The former Chelsea boss stayed in his seat in the visiting dug-out and even though the Chelsea supporters chanted his name briefly, their singing soon faded away.
This was business, for Mourinho. Like he said, for 90 minutes, he knew nobody. He had no friends here, nothing. Just a tie to win.
Still, for much of the first half, it was obvious that Chelsea and their fans were struggling to adapt to the idea of Mourinho being in the visiting dug-out.
Mourinho won two Premier League titles in his time at Stamford Bridge but almost as important, he gave the club a new identity to go with its success.
It was an identity separate from the vast wealth that Roman Abramovich had brought when he bought the club in 2003.
It was a style that legitimised Chelsea’s riches because he created a fierce team spirit at the club not just a collection of lavishly-paid individuals.
Mourinho was something new to the English game, a man whose confidence was so brazen that he called himself The Special One and who transmitted that confidence to his players.
And even though many people loved to hate Chelsea, they found it hard to dislike Mourinho. There was a Simon Cowell kind of narcissism about him that seemed harmlessly self-regarding.
So when he left in 2007, suddenly and silently, it took the club a long time to recover. Some, including Mourinho, maintain they are still trying to recover even now.
Avram Grant, Luis Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and now Carlo Ancelotti have all tried to fill the void in the last three years and, more for reasons of personality than football, have failed.
Mourinho’s dynamism burns brightly. He establishes a cult of personality around him that demands total loyalty from players and supporters alike. He’s a hard act to follow.
That’s why there was so much riding on last night. For Ancelotti and for Mourinho.
For Ancelotti, it was a unique chance to break the spell that Mourinho still holds over the club and forge on towards the Champions League final in May, the one trophy that Mourinho could not deliver.
For Mourinho, it was an opportunity to keep Chelsea in his thrall for at least another season and keep his reputation as strong as ever in English football where he will surely return one day.
Mourinho picked a side packed with attacking power last night that suggested he thought the Chelsea defence was vulnerable.
By choosing Diego Milito, Samuel Eto and Goran Pandev in the same Inter starting line-up, Mourinho was making a statement and it was that Inter were not afraid.
Chelsea did not start well. If was as if they were intimidated by Mourinho’s selection and by Inter’s physical approach which was a mirror of the way his Chelsea sides used to play.
Esteban Cambiasso was magnificent in the holding role and Inter harried Chelsea out of their rhythm in the first half, pressing them constantly, forcing them into mistakes in possession that made the crowd increasingly impatient.
On the bench, Mourinho just about kept his cool. He leapt from the dug-out a couple of times, turning away in melodramatic frustration when marginal offside decisions were given against Inter.
And when Chelsea were awarded a free kick 35 yards out, he worked himself into a frenzy of agitation on the touchline as he tried to marshal his defence. Alex’s effort was charged down.
When a couple of first half decisions went against Inter in quick succession, Mourinho began to adopt that familiar expression that suggested he thought there was something suspicious about the officiating.
But his luck held until the interval. Chelsea were denied two strong appeals for a penalty, the kind of close decisions that so often seemed to go Mourinho’s way at the Bridge.
That was part of the spell he exerted while he was here. Last night, he cast it again and helped turn this tie into a battle to the end.