MILAN – A last-minute injury to a team-mate and an unexpected call propelled Cristian Chivu into the starting line-up shortly before one of the biggest games in Inter's recent history.
The Nerazzurri were warming up for their Champions League semi-final return leg against Barcelona at Camp Nou on 28 April 2010 when Goran Pandev picked up a muscle problem. Jose Mourinho was forced to rejig his plans and switched to a 4-2-3-1, with Chivu the man chosen to come into the attacking left midfield berth.
The Romanian turned out to be a key cog in Mourinho's tactical masterpiece – first out wide in the position initially handed him, and then, after Thiago Motta's sending off, in the holding role. Where he swept up balls, battled away and generally worked his socks off. Ten-man Inter lost the game but went through on aggregate: a tremendous achievement for the Nerazzurri, and for Cristian more than anyone.
Less than five months previously Chivu had fractured his skull in an unfortunate clash of heads with Sergio Pellissier during the match against Chievo on 6 January. It had been a long, slow return – aided by the Nerazzurri medical staff and the strong support of his team-mates and coach.
In an interview with La Repubblica, Chivu revealed that a few days after Inter celebrated their semi-final success at Camp Nou, Mourinho took him to one side and told him: “You're not playing in the last two league games – I need you for the final.”
And so it was. Cristian was there – in a more usual left-back berth – on that magical night at the Santiago Bernabeu, wearing the same protective headgear he'd had since his first game back against Livorno on 24 March. That triumph in Madrid, holding the Champions League trophy aloft, was the pinnacle of Cristian's Inter career.
Chivu was 27 and widely considered one of Europe's best defenders when he joined Inter in 2007. He had come a long way since starting out a decade earlier at his local club CSM Scolar Resita, where his father Mircea had once coached.
He made his debut in the Romanian top flight with Resita aged 17 before switching to Universitatea Craiova the following year. It was there, in 1999, that he impressed Ajax's scouts with his technical skills and ability to guide his team-mates, both from centre-back and full-back.
Cristian stepped straight into the first team at Ajax and in 2001 was made the club's youngest ever captain, aged just 21.
Already a stalwart of the Romanian national side – he kept a certain Luis Figo quiet at Euro 2000 – he further honed his defensive skills in the Netherlands under the guidance of Ronald Koeman. He captained Ajax to the domestic double in 2001/02 and helped the club reach the Champions League quarter-finals in 2003. When Roma came calling.
Cristian settled into Serie A immediately, forming a formidable defensive partnership with Walter Samuel and, later, Philippe Mexes. After four years of impressive displays in the capital there was no shortage of offers on the table for him, including from Real Madrid and Barcelona, but after winning the Coppa Italia in 2007 he opted for Inter. “A life choice,” he explained as he left Rome to move to Milan in July that year.
During his seven-year stint with the Nerazzurri, Chivu won virtually everything possible: three league titles, two Coppa Italias, two Italian Super Cups, a Champions League and a Club World Cup.
Rather than his opponents, the only thing that held him back was injuries. It was a foot problem that, in March 2014, finally made him decide enough was enough – it was time to place his boots on the peg for good.
He bid farewell with a letter thanking staff, team-mates and fans. The same ones that celebrated with him - and thanks to him - on that epic night in Barcelona.