Imagine being part of one of the biggest clubs in one of the major European leagues. Before the season starts you would sit down and discuss at a boardroom and coaching level what would constitute a good season and what you would consider a bad one. Surely finishing in the bottom half of the league and coming far closer to relegation than you would imagine would come under the heading ‘disaster’? However, with your city rivals dominant in the domestic league, would winning one of the other major competitions make the season a success? Inter Milan managed to do both in 1993/94 in a case of calcio schizophrenia on an epic scale.
Since their last scudetto success in 1990, the Nerazurri had seen their Milan rivals firmly establish themselves as one of the best teams of a generation. In 1992, Inter appeared to have made a wise choice of manager in Osvaldo Bagnoli. His credentials were excellent having guided Verona to an astonishing scudetto in 1985 and guiding Genoa to European qualification in 1991/92 – the Rossoblu’s best post-war finish in Serie A. His first season as coach had shown signs of progress. Though they never really threatened to challenge for the title, a late charge saw them finish second only four behind the Rossoneri. Ruben Sosa, an explosive Uruguayan forward signed from Lazio, made a useful habit of scoring braces in Nerazurri victories. On the surface, there appeared to be a real contest ahead for the following season. A double signing from Ajax – the skillful playmaker Wim Jonk and the gifted and mercurial Dennis Bergkamp – ostensibly added much needed flair to an already gifted squad. They had been key players in Ajax’ 1992 UEFA Cup win, and with Nicola Berti and Igor Shalimov providing attcking threat from midfield – with Salvatore Schillachi also available in attack – Inter looked set to challenge.
Two wins and a draw first three games seemed a good enough start even if Reggiana and Cremonese put up more of a fight at San Siro than was expected. By Christmas Inter were fifth in Serie A – having lost only three out of sixteen games – having also successfully negotiated ties with Rapid Bucharest, Apollon Limassol and Norwich in the UEFA Cup. Performances were not great, but the expectation was that the second half of the season would be better than the first, a belief fortified by Berti’s return from injury. However, what followed after Christmas was a bizarre sequence of result. In amongst nightmares like the 1-0 loss at Reggiana were some genuinely good performances like back to back wins over Foggia and at Cremonese. What did for Bagnoli was an awful ten days in which Inter went out of the Coppa Italia at Sampdoria, required a stoppage time goal to salvage a draw at home to Cagliari before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at home to Lazio. Ernesto Pellegrini had seen enough and Bagnoli was dismissed. Giampiero Marini, a youth coach at the club, was named as his successor until the end of the season, with Inter sitting in sixth position in Serie A.
Piacenza was a difficult place to go to and so a 2-1 loss there, while hardly desirable, did not represent a catastrophe in Marini’s first game. What was worrying was that points on the road were becoming strictly off-limits. Inexplicably, this did not include European matches, which saw their best performance of the season in a 3-1 win in Dortmund in the UEFA Cup Quarter Finals. They would eventually edge an unusual tie in which both away sides won. In the league, a 1-0 win at home to struggling Udinese would take on added significance at the end of the season as Inter lost their next four matches to sit just two points above the drop-zone. A tightly-fought Milan derby had seen the form book launched out of the window until Daniele Massaro stole the points a minute from time. Fortunately, whipping boys Lecce were next up at San Siro and they surrendered tamely in a 4-1 Inter win, a victory that would ultimately be the difference between survival and the unthinkable. Amidst the poor domestic form, Jonk and Bergkamp inspired a 3-0 victory over Cagliari to send the Nerazurri into a UEFA Cup Final with Casino Salzburg.
The loss at Sampdoria and Massimiliano Cappioli’s late equaliser for Roma at San Siro meant that incredibly, the Nerazurri went into the last round of matches with the possibility of facing a relegation play-off. Meanwhile, Berti’s neat volley on the turn had secured a 1-0 win in Austria and a huge advantage in the two-legged UEFA Cup Final. Many of the players who had hidden in Serie A games appeared to gain a different identity in continental competition. As it happened, Inter were safe once they knew that Piacenza’s derby at Parma had finished goalless. It was just as well as they were beaten by Atalanta in their next domestic fixture. To complete an almost comical juxtaposition, Inter then won the second leg against Salzburg, again by a solitary goal. Even in those two games Inter had not exactly inspired, but they had won Europe’s second most prestigious club competition in a season that would probably have seen them relegated had it run just another month.
In truth it would take them another two seasons before Roy Hodgson restored some credibility to Inter as a major player in Serie A. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but maybe with so many players on the downward curve in career terms, Inter’s pool of talent was not as strong as reputations suggested. Salvatore Schillachi and Walter Zenga both left for Japan, Sergio Battistini would play only fleetingly for the club post-1994. Jonk would be back in Holland in the summer of 1995 and Bergkamp never quite fulfilled his potential with Inter amid rumours of falling out with team-mates. Sosa was their outstanding performer with 16 league goals and arguably saved them from disaster. Add in the pretty mediocre fringe players in the club and maybe, contrary to conventional wisdom, their UEFA Cup success makes less sense than their domestic turmoil.