As good as Inter is – as much of a unit of solidarity, sleek passing and machine-like efficiency Jose Mourinho’s men can be painted as – they are a side heavily reliant on their stars and their stars are too few and far between – namely Julio Cesar at the back and Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the front.
Inter don’t just depend on them performing to their maximum in the big games against title rivals or in Europe , but also week-in, week-out against teams even as dire as Sunday’s opposition Reggina (no disrespect, but they weren’t going to the San Siro to challenge the Nerazzurri for three points).
The defensive set-up at Inter isn’t quite right at the moment – Mourinho has tweaked his midfield and forward lines over the weeks out of failure to find the right formula, but has been stripped of his first-choice defensive line-up for a majority of the season, often calling on who is available to fill in where they can. As a result, Julio Cesar has been called upon more often than you’d expect the top-club-in-Serie-A’s goalkeeper to be and as expected the Brazilian has risen the challenge, providing crucial, world-class saves on numerous occasions this term. At the same time, going forward Inter currently has one way to play football – provide Ibrahimovic with the ball and hope. Mourinho prefers to stick to a central focus-point in the final third and Ibra is that linchpin that all forward moves flow through.
Where the Nerazzurri’s goalkeeper continues to live up to his name as one of the peninsula’s best in his position, Ibrahimovic’s only consistency ultimately remains his unpredictability. Sometimes it can provide sublime moments of pure match-winning magic – other times it can infuriate his Coach, teammates and tifosi alike with its sheer profligacy. Whichever side Ibra shows the San Siro, it can render the footballer unrecognisable as a mere professional in his field.
Sunday’s game was a perfect case in point. After confidently converting a penalty early in the first half (certainly a penalty for a home side – would Reggina have been so lucky at the other end with the match officials?), Ibra went on to showcase just how inefficient he is as a striker. After a neat run down the right from Mario Balotelli, his cutback found the Swede in aches of space, eight yards from goal. The striker promptly abandoned his senses, seemingly losing concentration and fluffing his shot completely.
Yet later in the half, with less time to think and from further out, Ibra switches back to his superstar ego, and unleashes an expertly-timed low shot that he is unlucky to see stay out – striking the goalkeeper’s right hand post and bouncing across the goal out to safety.
Enter the second half and in attack Ibra is in full flow. Receiving the ball 15 yards from the halfway line, he runs at the defence, dodges one slide tackle before weaving between two other Amaranto defenders to then beautifully lift the ball over goalkeeper Christian Puggioni’s head from the edge of the D for a remarkable moment of fantasia. Rightly so, Ibra celebrates with his arms outstretched to fully accept the accolades from his colleagues and the crowd.
The two sides to Ibrahimovic were on show at the Giuseppe Meazza – the exuberant artisan and the undisciplined idler. The player who can effortlessly beat three men and muster a sublime chip can also be seen woefully misfiring an easy chance in the same game. Sadly, at 27, it seems that there is little chance of the former Juventus man finding that motivation to focus on the greater half of his character and take his career to the next level. He is a special player, but not one that can make things happen every time he is in possession. He is no Lionel Messi, Kaka or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Keeping perspective, Ibrahimovic is a world-class talent, and the role he plays under Mourinho has given him a greater sense of purpose for the team, allowing him to contribute more to build-up play and he is flourishing under the Special One’s tutelage. However, his inability to concentrate every time he is in possession, his wastefulness and lack of awareness to bring others into play in key games highlights his unreliability and the farcical situation Inter find themselves in depending on him.
At the other end of the pitch on Sunday, Mourinho’s key man at preventing goals Cesar was called upon on three occasions to save his side, as Reggina remarkably almost made the most of some very stand-offish Inter defending. Francesco Cozza had already gone close in the first half after some neat dribbling from the left, when his close control in the middle of the park was followed by a sublime through-ball to Antonino Barilla. The young Italian’s shot was saved at the second attempt by Cesar, but in all honesty the attack should never have been. Barilla was left with a free run on goal after a horrendous decision from Javier Zanetti to leave him to a ball-watching Nelson Rivas to pick up – both Nerazzurri were drawn in by Cozza’s excellent work. The second half saw Cesar’s hands were kept warm with shots from Barretto and Lanzaro as Inter failed to dominate a struggling side certain for relegation. Against finer opposition and perhaps even Cesar may have struggled to keep a clean sheet with the chances his teammates were affording the opposition.
The most extraordinary aspect of Inter’s unhealthy reliance on these two stars is that the Nerazzurri find themselves comfortably top of the league with a hefty points margin that has been in place for some weeks. This is as much a reflection of the coaching efforts of Mourinho to get the best out a group of players who without the talents of the Brazilian and the Swede would be challenging for a UEFA Cup spot. Mourinho’s failure in Europe has been magnified out of proportion and it is ludicrous that Serie A’s most consistent Coach is under any scrutiny. Similarly Roberto Mancini’s achievements with the same group of players has always been put down to situation rather than influence from the former No. 10, but player for player, Inter are no better than their title rivals (Juventus, Milan, Roma) – Coach for Coach, the Nerazzurri have been superior for the past four years.
Juventus showed again this weekend their potential when they get things right. Claudio Ranieri’s men demonstrated against a severely weakened Roma side a cutting edge to their play that they sorely missed in the opening weeks of the season. The Bianconeri can also be led by a dynamic fantasisti up front in the form of Alessandro Del Piero but unlike Inter, they can also call on other sources for goals and creativity.
Another side with more attacking potential than Inter are city-neighbours Milan, but in the evening game against Roberto Donadoni’s Napoli, Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi and Alexandre Pato and late appearances from Ronaldinho and Kaka failed to break down the Partenopei. In fact Donadoni’s side can feel aggrieved at not having collected all three points after another controversial refereeing decision fell in favour of the big side on show. From a Napoli corner, Marek Hamsik’s effort after a Marcelo Zalayeta header was incorrectly ruled out for offside. The picture here clearly shows the Slovakian in line with the final defender, but in all fairness, the speed of the move and the final positions of the Milan defenders and Hamsik, meant that the match officials decision this time around can be put down as a genuine mistake rather than psychological slavery to the big teams of Serie A.