Inter arrived in Beijing on the weekend to prepare for the 22nd edition of the Italian Super Cup, where they will face Coppa Italia champions Lazio. The Nerazzurri alternatively will be lining up in the Birds Nest Stadium by virtue of winning the Serie A championship.
It was a long road to Beijing for la Beneamata, which began 12 months ago in the same competition. That night, on August 24, 2008, Inter claimed a penalty shootout victory over Lazio’s city neighbours Roma to win their fourth Super Cup. The victory gave new Coach Jose Mourinho a winning start to his Italian managerial career and was the expected result considering the Portuguese Tactician had been brought in with the hope of ending Inter’s 44-year wait for European glory. The former Chelsea manager brought with him a reputation for success on all fronts, and he became the highest paid manager in world football when he signed a contract with Inter worth £7m a season, yet in many respects he failed to deliver.
By Christmas Mourinho was already attracting critics who pointed out that his team’s style of play was boring and his transfer decisions also came under scrutiny. Excitement had surrounded Amantino Mancini’s transfer from Roma, yet despite a brilliant assist for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Inter’s opening weekend draw with Sampdoria, his performances became as normal as those he had become accustomed to giving at the end of his last season in the Eternal City. The other winger employed in Mourinho’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, Ricardo Quaresma, also disappointed to the extent that he was loaned out to Chelsea in January, despite Mourinho insisting on his £20m signature over the summer. However, despite this Mourinho correctly highlighted how Inter had gained more points and had scored more goals with him in charge compared to the winter break the previous season under Roberto Mancini. He was right of course. In fact Inter had only lost once – a 1-0 ‘away’ result to city rivals Milan – and, furthermore, the Nerazzurri had recorded impressive victories against both Juventus and Roma – 2-0 and 4-0 respectively – to leave them sitting six points clear of nearest challengers Juventus at the top of the table and on an eight match winning streak.
This winning run came to an end in January though with Inter drawing their first game back from the mid-season break against Cagliari before losing 3-1 to Atalanta, their second loss of the season. As la Beneamata’s league form slipped, so their poor European form continued. Prior to the mid-season break, a loss to Panathinaikos at the San Siro meant Inter needed to beat German side Werder Bremen to progress to the knockout stages, which they managed. It was at this stage on February 24 and March 11, 2009 that they met and were eliminated by Manchester United, where they failed to register a goal and were widely viewed to have been outplayed and lucky to still have a chance following the first leg. Furthermore, a 3-0 Coppa Italia semi-final first leg defeat by Sampdoria sandwiched by the two games against United could not be overturned, and the Nerazzurri were eliminated from the competition they had contested the final in for four successive years.
That being said, defeat in Europe and the Coppa Italia meant that Inter were able to concentrate fully on achieving a fourth straight Serie A title, which they achieved on May 17, 2009 following Milan’s loss to Udinese. Yet, despite a 17th top-flight domestic title, not all Interisti were as happy as they perhaps should have been. Whilst many will point out that Mourinho achieved exactly the same as Mancini before him, the 2008/09 season was a relative stroll against tough competition, whereas the 2007/08 season’s went all the way down to the final game. Furthermore, Mancini’s first league title in 2005/06 was won through the courts following the Calciopoli scandal and the next was won the following year when Juventus were in Serie B and Milan had incurred an eight-point penalty.
Some may still argue that no improvement has been made, but changes do seem to be abound. After all, unlike many a summer, the Nerazzurri have actually seemed to enjoy a very successful transfer campaign. One of Inter’s main points of criticism last season was the frequency with which the ball was played to Ibrahimovic with the expectation that he would conjure something up to win the match, and although often he did, Inter struggled when he did not. So with his departure from the Giuseppe Meazza and the arrival of proven talent in the three main areas – Lucio in defence, Thiago Motta in midfield, and Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o in attack – there is renewed hope that Inter will play like more of a team like Mourinho managed so successfully at Porto and Chelsea. Will this finally be Inter’s year for European glory? The season starts on Saturday.