For a man that demands perfection, Jose Mourinho may feel a little unnerved at Inter’s faltering finale. The Scudetto will almost certainly arrive, but as the Nerazzurri dropped more points this weekend, what was looking like a handsome precession is turning into a workmanlike plod.
Workmanlike is also the best way to describe the performance during the 1-0 defeat at Napoli. Laboured and one-paced, Mourinho’s men lacked the zest of Roberto Donadoni’s side, who secured victory through substitute Marcelo Zalayeta’s goal on 73 minutes. Genuine goal-scoring chances were in short supply, and only flashes of continuing improvement from Mario Balotelli highlighted another fruitless trip to Naples. Indeed the San Paolo is fast becoming one of Inter’s least favourite destinations having not won there since 1997. The score was an exact replica of last season’s game at this venue, with Zalayeta once again grabbing the winner.
Without competitive Champions League action, and holding a virtually insurmountable lead at the top of Serie A, Inter carry the look of a side counting down the days and the points until a fourth consecutive title is secured. A recent collection of two points from nine means Milan can once again be seen in the rear-view mirror, but their remaining five games, on paper, possess enough opportunity to gather the remaining nine points to see them confirmed as champions. That scenario is of course not lost on the Special One, who chose to highlight the position his side find themselves in, rather than dwell on another stuttering performance: “We have to focus only on ourselves for five rounds and that is a wonderful advantage to have. We play three of those games at home, so we could win the title just with our San Siro encounters. It is a very positive situation.”
Having been unable to overhaul Sampdoria’s three goal advantage from the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final on Thursday, the Scudetto if and when completed, would represent the meeting of the minimum expectations from Mourinho and his side. The Portuguese Coach was hired essentially with the remit of bringing the European Cup back to the San Siro for the first time since the Helenio Herrera-led teams of 1964 and 1965, and whilst Mourinho’s arrival does not guarantee success in that competition, President Massimo Moratti and the fans would expect team progression following on from the achievements of Roberto Mancini.
Although Mourinho would vehemently disagree, it is hard to put forward any case that he has tangibly improved the side he inherited from Mancini. The two barometers by which a season can largely be judged for a club of Inter’s stature are league and Champions League performances. On both counts the outcomes are identical – a domestic league title gained and early elimination from Europe. If Mourinho has only continued what Mancini started, the question must be asked, should Inter expect more from Mourinho, or should Mourinho expect more from Inter?
It could be concluded that Inter were simply unlucky to be drawn against Manchester United in the first knock-out stage of the Champions League. True, Manchester United are the holders of the trophy, were unbeaten in 19 ties prior to the meeting, and at the time were the form side in Europe having brushed aside teams at home and abroad. Inter had their moments during the Old Trafford game, and had they taken one of a handful of chances sandwiched in-between United’s two goals the outcome could have been different. However, one has to remember that it was Inter’s lacklustre group stage showing that got them paired with United in the first place. A routine group consisting of Werder Bremen, Panathinaikos and Anorthosis Famagusta should have been topped, and with it comes the protection of not having to face the continents most feared teams. Panathinaikos, who did win the group, faced Villarreal – a useful team in their own right – but opposition much more negotiable than Manchester United in pursuit of a place in the quarter finals.
For this Mourinho has to shoulder responsibility, but judging from the showing versus Manchester United, and similarly the previous year’s demise against Liverpool, the Nerazzurri do not as yet possess the strength and quality in first XI and squad to challenge the English clubs and Barcelona as genuine contenders for Europe’s top honour.
Mourinho took over an ageing squad, reinforced by three signings in Ricardo Quaresma, Sulley Muntari and Alessandro Mancini, who were never likely to significantly breach the gap between Inter and the best. A year on, a year older and still the majority of the team is that of the Mancini days. It remains to be seen whether Mourinho will be given the money and licence to replenish the squad adequately enough for next season. There are no shortage of candidate’s to be replaced, with Luis Figo, Julio Cruz, Hernan Crespo, Patrick Vieira and Marco Materazzi all looking well past their prime. With the correct players to work with, Mourinho undoubtedly has the capability to win the Champions League, but unless he is granted the acquisitions, Inter will continue to fall short.
So perhaps this ‘blip’ that Inter is having could prove to be a silver lining in Mourinho’s pursuit of a stronger pool of players. It may persuade the club’s hierarchy of the need to lower the average age of the squad, and reinvigorate with some younger bodies. There was evidence against Napoli of heavy legs, both individually and collectively as a team. If this team is to succeed in Europe as well as domestically, it must be able to cope with playing a higher number of games at a higher intensity. The Napoli defeat was Inter’s first since mid-January and they will be keen to get back to winning ways this weekend when they entertain Lazio. More dropped points would not classify as a disaster, but four games without a win would bring an uneasy apprehension and focus to what should have been a straightforward conclusion. For this game Inter will need to do without the suspended Balotelli and Dejan Stankovic. Douglas Maicon, Mancini, Luis Jimenez and Nelson Rivas are also still sidelined through various injuries.
Unsurprisingly but most notably, Adriano will of course not feature following the termination of his contract by the club last week. The troubled striker has been AWOL since going home to Brazil on international duty at the end of March. Having missed large parts of last season due to poor physical and mental condition, the Brazilian had initially forged his way back into first team contention, but now says he doesn’t want to return to Italy, or even play football in the immediate future. It is rare for footballers to warrant sympathy, but Adriano’s situation shows the potential pitfalls such wealth and prosperity can bring. Brought up in the tough Rio favela of Vila Cruzeiro, the transition from talented street kid to global superstar can arrive too quickly, and it is clear Adriano could not adapt to his latter, more prestige mantle. His decline is all the more worrying when the timescale is put into perspective. After being signed from Flamengo in 2002, Adriano drew genuine comparisons to a young Ronaldo. The raw materials were all there. the skill, power, pace and goal-scoring prowess all suggested the makings of a world class striker, just three years after his face adorned the cover of a well-known football computer game, 27-year-old Adriano Leite Ribeiro is thought to be in hiding at his Mothers house having “lost the happiness of playing football.”
A more critical loss to la Beneamata would be that of majestic Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic – in imperious form in the Coppa Italia win over Sampdoria – who shared some interesting views during a television interview: “I won everything in Italy, I learnt a lot from Italy. But there is a moment in your life, like when I was at Ajax, when you say to yourself you want to try something new. I have a contract with Inter and I feel good. But at the same time I would like to test something new now because I’ve been in Italy for five years.”
Ibra’s own words hinting at a summer move away from the San Siro, although do expect to see a hasty retraction with a claim that something was lost in translation. Such speculation is unlikely to amuse Jose Mourinho, who will hope his star man will let his feet do the talking this weekend in the pursuit of three points against Lazio.