Inter wound up another Scudetto-winning season last weekend with a highly entertaining seven-goal game against Atalanta. In one of those end of year games which resemble a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition match, chances and entertainment were plentiful, and a 4-3 victory for the Nerazzurri – two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic landing him the Capocannoniere – was a rich reward for the Interisti who have supported their side through another successful season.
But as the final whistle sounded and the players embarked on a lap of honour and yet more extended Scudetto celebrations, how successful a season would the Interisti have claimed this to be? And if success cannot necessarily be quantified, how satisfied would they have been? Rewind 12 months to a warm spring afternoon at the Ennio Tardini. A brace of goals from Ibrahimovic fired Inter to a 2-0 win over Parma, securing a 16th league title, holding off a valiant Roma side who had pursued them all the way to the final game of the season. It was il Biscione’s third Scudetto in a row – the first awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal – all won under the stewardship of Roberto Mancini, yet it was widely known that Mancini would be on his way out of the club, largely by mutual consent, and largely down to their failings in the Champions League. For President Massimo Moratti and the fans, domestic success was not enough, and the shortcomings of their European exploits could be no longer tolerated.
The individual required to step into Mancini’s breach was obvious. Unemployed and refreshed after a nine-month lay-off following his departure from Chelsea, Jose Mourinho ticked all the boxes of what was needed to manage a club of Inter’s size, reputation and expectations. A proven track record of domestic success allied with a Champions League winners medal from his stint at Porto presented Mourinho as the outstanding candidate for the job. Mourinho was made the highest paid Coach in the world, accepting an annual salary of £7m, and with it, accepting responsibility to deliver il Biscione’s first European Cup since Helenio Herrera’s side lifted the trophy in 1965. But the European Cup never arrived, and in truth never looked likely to arrive, so with Mourinho’s first season concluded, we are left to reflect on another season of domestic dominance, tarnished by the now familiar tale of European despair.
Mourinho inherited what was widely accepted as the strongest squad of players in Serie A. The nucleus of the team of – Julio Cesar, Ivan Cordoba, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic – had been in place for the past couple of years, and underpinned the title wins of the previous three seasons. To this, Mourinho attempted to inject some much needed pace and width into what was essentially a one-paced and one-dimensional forward unit. Ricardo Quaresma, Amantino Mancini and Sulley Muntari were recruited to do the job, and Mourinho’s first piece of silverware wasn’t far away, his new chargers defeating Roma on penalties in the Supercoppa.
More pressing matters lay ahead, and with absolute minimum expectations of retaining the Scudetto, the league campaign kicked off with a tricky trip to the Stadio Ferraris to face Sampdoria. With what was to prove a sign of things to come, it was the talismatic Ibrahimovic who got la Benemeata up and running with their first goal of the season to give them the lead, but a second-half equaliser from Gennaro Delvecchio meant Mourinho’s men had to settle for a point from their opening outing. Week 2’s fixtures brought Catania to the San Siro for Mourinho’s managerial debut on home turf, where a deflected Quaresma strike and a dubious own-goal saw Inter collect their first three points with a lacklustre performance. Inter rose from their slumber with an impressive 2-0 win away to Panathinaikos to start their Champions League campaign, and followed this up with another convincing win, this time a 3-1 defeat of Torino at the Olimpico.
The shape of the team was slowly being formed in these opening games, with Mourinho settling on his favoured 4-3-3 with Ibrahimovic as the front-man, flanked either side by any combination of Adriano, Mancini, Luis Figo and Quaresma. It was this attacking trident which proved so successful for the Portugese Tactician whilst at Chelsea, but as the season wore on, injuries to Mancini and a dip in form and attitude from Adriano and Quaresma curtailed the operation, leaving the Special One needing to explore other alternatives and off-sets of the formula which he so trusted.
After the relative highs of strong away performances in Greece and Turin, the San Siro faithful had to endure another turgid display as Julio Cruz’s late goal proved decisive against a dogged Lecce. Then, defeat. Again the San Siro was proving to be far from home sweet home as city rivals Milan inflicted the first reverse of Mourinho’s reign, albeit technically an away fixture. Ronaldinho’s headed goal sealing the Derby della Madonnina. The first home Champions League game against Werder Bremen didn’t alter Inter’s home fortunes, Maicon scoring in a 1-1 draw, but the next fixture finally sparked some home joy, as Ibrahimovic scored arguably the goal of the season, somehow managing to wrap his leg around his marker, whilst facing away from goal to back-heal Adriano’s cross into the roof of the net. It was a typical piece of ingenuity from the Swedish striker, his audacity and invention so often proving to be the creative gene of a team of foot-soldiers, geared up to grind out results.
There was no grinding to be done in Week 7 as Inter completely dismantled last years runners-up Roma, turning them over 4-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in probably their best game of the season, to open up a two point gap at the top of the table. The inconsistencies remained as the win was followed by a stuttering one goal victory of Cypriot minnows Anorthosis in the Champions League, which preceded goalless draws at home to Genoa – who had lost all previous away games – and away to Fiorentina. The points continued to accumulate but not in wholly conventional circumstances. Stoppage-time goals turned draws to wins in the next two league games against Reggina and Udinese. An excursion to Palermo was undertaken on the back of extended criticism from the Italian media as to the level of performance by the Nerazzurri, many critics unsatisfied with the stuttering, uncohesive nature of the displays. Once again it was Ibrahimovic who came to the fore with two more fantastic strikes to inspire his team and maintain their position at the top of the table. Mourinho’s problems were exasperated by Adriano, frozen out of the first team for tardy time-keeping at training, and Quaresma, who found himself out of the team after a series of infuriating matches.
A pivotal game against Juventus was won by a Sulley Muntari goal, which halted a run of seven successive victories by the Bianconeri, taking some of the impetus from Juve’s charge and reasserting the Nerazzurri’s grip on first place. However the jubilation of the Derby d’Italia was short lived, as Panathinaikos won 1-0 at the Giuseppe Meazza in what was becoming an increasingly patchy Champions League campaign, where a win away to Bremen in the last group game was needed to secure qualification to the knockout stages, and a tie with reigning champions Manchester United.
Domestically things were on the up and four more wins after the Juve game meant Inter had chalked up eight victories in a row prior to the mid-season break to leave them with a commanding six point lead for the resumption. Upon returning il Biscione started sluggishly with a draw to Cagliari and a 3-1 defeat by Atalanta – only their second reverse of the season – before embarking on another run of six wins from seven games, which vitally included revenge in the Milan derby thanks to Adriano’s handled goal, which opened up a huge nine point lead ahead of their city rivals at the top of Serie A.
It was this run immediately before and after the New Year, which secured the title for the Nerazzurri. Although the form could hardly be described as exhilarating, the results continued to come in – something that wasn’t happening at Milan and Juve who regularly dropped points thus hampering their efforts in catching the champions. With a healthy lead at the top of the table, la Benemeata was able to focus all of its attentions on the quest for European glory, although a formidable challenge lay ahead in the shape of Manchester United. Inter’s indifferent qualification from their group saw them finish second, and thus were drawn against a group winner, Manchester United. Had Inter won what was a very winnable group, they would have avoided the group winners and theoretically been handed a simpler draw, but it was not to be and Mourinho was given the chance to reacquaint with old foe Sir Alex Ferguson.
Over the two legs Inter were comprehensively beaten. Lucky not to be put out of the tie in the first leg at home, they eventually went down to two unanswered goals at Old Trafford, and although chances were missed in Manchester, even the most ardent Interisti could not deny their side were well beaten, with European hopes extinguished for another year. It is perhaps this loss which reflects worst upon Mourinho’s first year in charge at the club. The Scudetto was expected and both Juve, Milan and any other perspective title rivals failed to mount a sustained assault in Serie A. However, the gulf between a side who once again contested the European Cup final, and one who intends to, was plain to see, both in terms of personnel and as a unit. It was this game which put into context the gap Inter must somehow shorten if they are to have any realistic chance of competing for the continents top prize. The European Cup may only be a year away in theory, but it still looked several years away in practice.
In between the Manchester United games, Inter’s Coppa Italia bid was ended when they crumbled 3-0 away at Sampdoria in the first leg of the semi-finals – a score that they could not overturn in the return leg. Out of both cup competitions, it was left to clinch the league title, which they did with some ease, compiling a 14-point lead at one point, losing only once more before the end of the season away to Napoli when the championship was a formality. A late upsurge from Milan was fruitless, and indeed it was their great enemy who handed the Nerazzurri their 17th Scudetto – equalling the Rossoneri haul – by failing to beat Udinese on May 16. That result was indicative of the seasons both Milan and Juve had, both ending with a points total of 74, way behind the asking rate to win any of Europe’s major leagues. Their downfall was of no concern to Inter, who were the strongest, most consistent and effective team in the competition. Yet, question marks still remain about how good this team actually is, and whether Mourinho has improved the side from Mancini’s days.
This Inter side carried all the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho production. A strong goalkeeper, an organised back-four, a workaholic midfield and a lone striker. As in his Chelsea days, his creations are rarely a thing of beauty, but have an infectious ability to accumulate points, a feat which proved too much for any of their competitors. Mourinho could point to a few mitigating circumstances for the perceived lack of style and progress. The squad he took over contained too many players either in, or approaching the twilight of their careers – a fact brutally exposed by Manchester United. His plans were also interrupted by Messrs Adriano and Quaresma, who’s lack of form and subsequent departures left him shorn of genuine attacking talent, and as such a large emphasis, probably too large, was placed upon Ibrahimovic who led the line impeccably, scoring 25 Serie A goals, and performing consistently brilliant almost all season. There are also suggestions that Inter never had to really perform at their peak, as the challenge from other teams didn’t seriously threaten their lock on top spot.
Credit should also go to Mourinho for his man management of his players. He is renowned for getting the best results from the players at his disposal, and certainly Julio Cesar, Maicon, Cordoba, Cambiasso, Stankovic and Zanetti deserve honourable mentions for their parts in securing the title. Another positive was the emergence of Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon, both prospering from the faith their Coach showed by allowing them prolonged runs in the starting line-up.
When all’s said and done, the pro’s equalling out the con’s, the positives cancelling out the negatives, Inter are more or less in the same position they found themselves last season. It is hard to argue that significant progress has been made, or that Inter could be regarded as any better than twelve months previously. A revamp of the squad this summer is likely, with anything up to half a dozen or more players saying arrivederci to the San Siro. Certainly the average age of the squad needs reducing, and a natural evolution should take place with Luis Figo retiring and Hernan Crespo, Julio Cruz and Patrick Vieira all likely to move on. In return the signings of Diego Milito and Thiago Motta have already been announced, but once again Milito will be 30 come the start of the season, and Motta 27. Not necessarily the signings if you are looking to create a dynasty over the next five or six seasons.
In reality, Mourinho isn’t the type of Tactician you could see spending any sustained period of time at one club. Outspoken, abrasive and full of ambition, his tenure’s will be short and trophy laden, rather than long and lasting. Rumours persist about the signings of players such as Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Didier Drogba, players all on the wrong side of 30, but tailor-made to have an immediate impact at home and in Europe. You suspect that an immediate impact of sorts will be needed next season, firstly in terms of fluency and style with which the team operate, but above that with their attempts at conquering Europe.
All associated with the Nerazzurri recognise the need to impose themselves as one of the strongest teams on the continent, domestic success is not enough, Mourinho knows it, and Mourinho needs to rectify it.