European football was once defined and dominated by eras, the great clubs taking turns to lord it over the rest of the continent by hanging on to the European Cup and not letting go. In the first 25 stagings of the tournament Europe's champion sides more often than not retained the trophy at least once before relinquishing their booty.

Real Madrid, Benfica, Internazionale, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were the seven sides who, up to that point, managed the feat; the six who let the side down were the one-season wonders of Milan, Real Madrid (the ye-ye version), Celtic, Manchester United, Milan again and Feyenoord.

Since 1980, though, there has been a sea change (and one normally linked to the advent of the Champions League in 1993 but that's another story). Only one team has retained the European Cup since the start of the 80s: Arrigo Sacchi's Milan, winners in 1989 and 1990. Perhaps even more strikingly, only five other reigning champions have made it to the following year's final: Liverpool in 1985, Milan in 1995, Ajax in 1996, Juventus in 1997 and Manchester United in 2009.

For one reason or another it does not look good for the European and world club champions Internazionale, who face the team they beat in last year's Champions League final, Bayern Munich, in the first leg of their round-of-16 tie at San Siro tonight.

Recent precedent suggests Champions League pain awaits sooner or later but, even if the slightly abstract concept of 31 years' worth of European Cup history does not weigh too heavily on Inter's shoulders, their Bavarian opponents' record at San Siro might: Bayern won 3-1 at Inter's stadium in the 1988 Uefa Cup and 2-0 in the 2006-07 Champions League group stages.

At least recent form gives Inter a fighting chance. After their rocky start to the season under Rafael Benítez they have won 12 of their 15 matches since losing 3-0 at Werder Bremen in the group stage of the Champions League. To be fair to the maligned Benítez, the revival started on his watch — two of the wins came at the Fifa Club World Cup, Benítez's swansong as Nerazzurri coach — and has continued under the yoke of Leonardo, who has reduced Milan's 13-point lead over Inter in Serie A to five points. Inter currently sit third in the table, with real hope of retaining their scudetto.

Bayern are also in third place domestically but are too far adrift to keep hold of the German title, lagging 13 points behind the leaders, Borussia Dortmund. But after their worst ever start to a Bundesliga campaign their form since the turn of the year is spectacular, with 22 goals in seven games. Twenty-two more reasons for Inter to be nervous?