In the past few weeks watching Inter has been something of an ordeal. For a Nerazzurri fan it has been frustration with a capital “F”. As we glide through the month of March, the end of the season coming into view on the horizon, there is a worrying trend being established at San Siro. This is the moment to grab it, smell it and take the Serie A title by the scruff of its neck, but, before winning games you must know how to score, something which Jose Mourinho’s team are struggling to do.
Inter have hit the back of the net just five times in their last six league games. More worrying is the fact that three of those goals came in one match a 3-2 victory away to Udinese. Yet the Nerazzurri are still sitting pretty if not cautiously at the top of the standings. Whilst a four-point gap seems like a sizeable cushion over Milan, it could well have been much more at this stage. Jose Mourinho’s men had galloped a full nine points in front of Milan after their 2-0 victory in January’s Derby della Madonnina, but six weeks on and Inter has failed to capitalise on its position.
Where do the problems lie? Evidently the first point of inquiry must be the forwards, with three recent stalemates apparently providing evidence of a faltering strikeforce. The Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o has, thus far in his career at San Siro, been a major disappointment. Eto’o’s lack of form is a surprise given that he arrived in Italy from Barcelona with a reputation as perhaps the finest centre-forward in Europe. Eto’o now has not scored for the Nerazzurri since December 20, or even this decade if you want to be cruel. He can of course be excused the month of January as he was on duty with Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations, but, with all good intentions, that now seems a long time ago. The one problem with Eto’o is that his mind does not seem to have left Africa. There is no question that since returning he has been a shadow of the player that started the season so brightly with eight goals in three months. Both Diego Milito and Mario Balotelli have shown great work-rate this season and, despite disappointing in recent weeks, one can sense that the goals will come for them (Milito netted last night), a positivity not necessarily shared in regard to Eto’o.
However, it is clear that the forwards are not the only factor to blame for Inter’s lack of goals and form, Jose Mourinho must also assess his own approach. The Portuguese Coach has been missing from the touchline whilst serving a three-game ban for his handcuff gesture. Against Genoa last week, Mourinho looked like a desperate man as he stood above the dugout, trying in vain to get his messages across. There is no question that his lack of presence on Sunday night had an effect. Usually he stands by the pitch marshalling his team like a general, dressed all in black there is rarely a smile from Mourinho as he conducts the game of football like a battle or, at his most delicate, a game of chess. Giovanni Trapattoni, now Coach of Republic of Ireland, said last week that Mourinho reminds him of Helenio Herrera in character. There could be no greater honour for Mourinho, as Herrera was of course the Coach that steered Inter to its only two European Cup successes in the 1960s. Trapattoni went on to say that Mourinho has the same hard line image as the Argentine great. But Mourinho’s influence has waned of late, his team – as demonstrated by last night’s abysmal 3-1 defeat to Catania – are currently playing some abject football and it is perhaps his management and personal conduct, rather than the abilities of the players, that should be being called into question.
With Mourinho stepping out of the limelight in recent weeks, Inter assistant Marco Branca has been left to give scraps to the waiting Press. After the Genoa stalemate Branca observed that the international fixtures had taken their toll on a team who failed to score despite hitting five with no reply a few months ago. Branca concluded: “The point earned should be read within the context of the many internationals that players were used in during friendlies this week.” Whilst Branca had a point, most of those internationals, even Brazil’s game at “home” took place in Europe.
The real test of the extent of Inter’s recent problems may well turn out to be the vital Champions League second leg tie with Chelsea. It was evident that Inter’s form seemed to suffer a few weeks before the pair’s first meeting at San Siro. With a slender 2-1 lead going to London, those anxieties are unlikely to have disappeared. Furthermore, watching the 4-0 destruction of Milan by a rampant Manchester United on Wednesday night will further underline just how strong the English sides are, especially at home in European competition. It will be an intriguing tie at Stamford Bridge, and, taking all the games that Mourinho has led his Inter side through this season into account, this may be the one on which he is judged the most.
To end on a slightly brighter note, not all things have been so bleak at San Siro of late. One recent positive has been the progress of Christian Chivu, the player having been so horrifically injured against Chievo at the turn of the year. After fracturing his skull, the Romanian has made a speedy recovery and looks set to for a dramatic return to the Inter set-up in a few weeks’ time . It could just be the perfect tonic for Inter who were expecting the defender to miss the rest of the season, a welcome boost for what, if last night’s evidence is anything to go by, looks to be a beleaguered team.