As the new Serie A season gets under way today, all eyes in Italy are on the reigning champions, Internazionale. However, the players will not be the focus of attention at Sampdoria this evening. Instead, the spotlight will fall on a brooding, handsome figure on the sidelines.
The Special One is back.
Inter appointed the former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in May and from his very first press conference – when he spoke not just in Italian, but demonstrated a remarkable knowledge of the Milanese dialect – the first impressions he made could hardly have been better, in perhaps the most exacting football culture of them all. Since then Mourinho has employed his usual mixture of charm, wit, the odd indiscretion and, of course, a spat with a rival. The Italians think he is a very good coach.
Yesterday's press conference at Inter's training ground in Appiano Gentile was typical. There were greetings for old friends. Asked about Chelsea's Frank Lampard, whom he expected to sign, Mourinho said: "When I arrived I wanted Lampard, that's no secret. I wanted three players: two wingers and a player in midfield who could do something different. But I couldn't be happier with [Sulley] Muntari [the Ghanaian midfielder, signed from Portsmouth]. I've completely forgotten about Lampard.
"Serie A is a marathon. By December I expect Juventus, Milan, Roma and Fiorentina to be up there with us. By April, it will be Inter plus two. By May, well, Inter will be up there."
And finally there was a withering riposte to the (English) journalist who suggested Serie A was now less prestigious than its English counterpart. "All you need to do," said Mourinho, "is to watch a few Premier League games to know the answer to that question is easy."
Eighty-nine days into his three-year contract, the Portuguese appears to be relishing the challenge. Every move he has made has come under scrutiny. At his first public appearance, even his tie knot – which, being too fat for Italian tastes, was described as "like a big onion" – attracted attention.
Mourinho's penchant for a feud with a fellow coach did not take long to reappear. What was surprising was that he did not start this one. Instead, it was the normally mild-mannered Juventus coach, Claudio Ranieri, who provoked Mourinho not once, but twice. Ranieri was the Chelsea manager who had to make way for Mourinho in 2004, a sacking which deeply hurt the Roman. When Inter failed to land Lampard, Ranieri quipped that Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, "would have given me Lampard. To him [Mourinho], for obvious reasons, no."
Then, after seeing his side lose 3-0 to Hamburg in the Emirates Cup in London, Ranieri plucked his rival's name out of the blue: "I'm not like Mourinho, who has to win to feel secure about what he's doing."
Mourinho said: "He's right. I'm very demanding of myself, I have to win to be happy. Maybe this is why I have won a lot. Ranieri doesn't need success to feel secure about the work he has done and maybe that's why, at 70, he's only won a Super Cup and another small cup. He probably needs to change his mentality but he's too old to do so."
Sympathy was with the 57-year-old Ranieri. He, however, seemed quietly pleased.
Mourinho has been on the record saying that he curbed his behaviour towards referees while in England. In Portugal, however, slaughtering the referee after the match is all part of the psychology of the game and a similar situation exists in Italy. Stand by for fireworks.
To bring Mourinho to Inter, the club's owner, Massimo Moratti, sacked Roberto Mancini, a coach who had won the scudetto three times but made little impression on the Champions League. The expectation must be that Mourinho can at least deliver the Champions League. Inter last won the European Cup in 1965.
Spats aside, Mourinho has done a good job of winning respect. The former Italy and Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi provided a thumbnail sketch of Mourinho that made the Portuguese sound exactly like, well, the young Sacchi. "He's a coach who believes in the work he does and in his own ideas, who demands effort, collaboration and ability from his players. He's convinced that the collective wins. He arrived in Milan with the objective of leaving indelible memories; he wants to win, to convince, to entertain and to make history."
If Mourinho's Inter live up to their promise, Sacchi added, "It won't only be written in the almanacs but will be fixed for ever in the minds of all those who love football."
At the end of the 1980s, Sacchi changed Italian football with new tactics and training methods. Mourinho brings no new tactical ideas – he will start with 4-3-3, using 4-4-2 as an alternative – but his training methods have taken everybody by surprise. Out went the usual pre-season cross-country slogs and interminable shuttle runs. In came the ball and lots of intense, small-sided games.
The Serbian midfielder Dejan Stankovic said that "in 13 or 14 years of playing football I have never done all the pre-season preparation on the pitch. The first week it's hard but then you really fly". The Brazilian winger Amantino Mancini, Mourinho's first signing, who arrived from Roma for €12.5m (£10.1m) in July, said the training took him "back to my childhood in Brazil, where you did everything with the ball at your feet. It's beautiful."
If Inter's pre-season friendlies are to provide a guide, the team are not struggling for fitness. After the Italian club beat Bayern Munich in early August the Bayern striker Miroslav Klose asked Inter's captain, Javier Zanetti, how long the team had been training. When told Inter had been together for just 20 days, Klose was open-mouthed.
Not everybody is convinced, though. Mancini's former right-hand man, Sinisa Mihajlovic, who left the club at the same time as his manager, said: "In my career I only had one coach who used similar methods: Luis Cesar Menotti at Sampdoria. In the first five weeks of the season we were going at 2,000 miles an hour, but afterwards we could hardly stay on our feet."
Mihajlovic claims to bear no grudge against Mourinho. When Mourinho reacted to Inter's win over Roma in last Sunday's Italian Super Cup final by saying that the credit had to go to Mancini, the Serbian said the new coach had shown that he was "a great man". Mancini, too, was touched. It was one of those unexpected moments of magnanimity that Mourinho occasionally pulls out, in order to wrong-foot his critics.
Mourinho seems to be happy with his signings – Mancini and Muntari with, possibly, Ricardo Quaresma still to come, from Porto.
"In the first 45 minutes against Roma [in the Super Cup final] we played with fantasy," he said. "We had players with quality playing within an organisation, but producing moments of individual skill, of great aesthetic beauty. I haven't seen a more creative player than [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic in the last year. Some players are clever because they play for the fans. And some players are stupid because they play for the coach. But in the long run it's the stupid ones that get picked."
That said, none of the club's current midfielders seem ideal for the Lampard role. In four pre-season fixtures Inter did not concede a goal in open play, but they scored only two. Bayern's general manager, Uli Höness, described Inter's formation against his team as "10 defenders and one striker".
Mourinho appears untroubled. Asked if he was nervous about his first game in Serie A, he snorted with derision. "Why should I be nervous?" he said.
"It's just another game. It's the most important game of my life, because it's the next game. But we've worked all week to prepare for it and we're ready."
Italian job The story so far
When Jose Mourinho arrived at Internazionale he responded to criticism that he was a defensive coach by saying: "I don't understand this observation. Whoever said that is not in love with me. At Chelsea we scored the most goals and won the most matches away from home. We played a very offensive and dynamic game."
Then the football started. Inter played eight pre-season friendlies. Admittedly they were against decent opposition, and two were only of 45 minutes' duration, but they scored just five goals and conceded one. Inter played brighter football in the Italian Super Cup, but it remains to be seen what Mourinho's approach will be when the season starts for real.
24 July 1-0 v Al Hilal (Neutral)
27 July 2-0 v Bari (N)
29 July 0-1 v Juventus (Away, 45min)
30 July 0-0 v Milan (N, 45min)
5 Aug 1-0 v Bayern Munich (A)
8 Aug 0-0 v Seville (N)
9 Aug 1-0 v Ajax (A)
15 Aug 0-0 v Benfica (A)
25 Aug 2-2 v Roma (Home, Super Cup)
Sulley Muntari (Portsmouth, £12m)
Amantino Mancini (Roma, £11m)