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Life after Jose Mourinho is rarely a breeze but no club has struggled like Inter Milan, who make their latest attempt to return to European football’s top table.
Words by: Adam Digby
If the sight of Juventus labouring was a jarring one for fans of Serie A after the first month of 2015/16 had passed, then seeing Inter sit at the top of the standings was even more so. The grand Old Lady of Italian football has dominated the landscape for the past four seasons, calmly and serenely dispatching her rivals with consummate ease and coasting to the title, while the Nerazzurri have lurched from one crisis to another since their historic treble back in 2010.
No fewer than seven coaching changes have followed Jose Mourinho’s departure, the Portuguese moving on before the champagne even had a chance to be wiped off the Champions League trophy lifted by captain Javier Zanetti. It has been estimated that long-time owner Massimo Moratti invested around €1.5 billion of his own money on the players to fulfil his dream of leading the club to European glory just as his father Angelo had in their 1960 heyday.
Having achieved that aim, the oil magnate decided that selling his controlling stake in the club was the only way to arrest the decline which besieged his beloved Inter, and Moratti relinquished control to Erick Thohir in November 2013. The Indonesian entrepreneur inherited a club in no position to deal with the harsh reality brought about by the arrival of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, desperately needing to cut costs as quickly as possible.
The new President sacrificed a number of big name players who had been central to the team’s success, before he too found himself looking to Inter’s past for answers. With Walter Mazzarri’s tenure mired in mediocrity last season, Mr Thohir handed Roberto Mancini a second spell in charge, and immediately set about backing the former Manchester City boss in the transfer market.
“It was the right time for a change,” the owner said shortly afterwards, but there would be some major mistakes made in the January transfer window. The likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Lukas Podolski failed to have any impact and the Nerazzurri limped to eighth place as the campaign drew to a close, leaving them without European football for the second time in three years.
It quickly became apparent that they were determined to end that poor run, with Zanetti – named Vice-President after retiring from a playing career that saw him make over 850 appearances for the club – laying out their approach in a recent interview. “Getting back into the Champions League is fundamental,” the Argentinean legend told Sport 360. “That’s why President Thohir is working so hard with the management team and Roberto Mancini.
“With the money that’s been spent and the constant endeavour on and off the field we’ll get back to the top,” he added, alluding to the fact that Inter had been one of the most active teams on the peninsula this past summer, involved in no fewer than 44 separate transfers. Securing players like Manchester City’s Stevan Jovetić, João Miranda of Atletico Madrid and AS Monaco midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, the Milanese giants spent over €85 million to improve their squad.
Yet thanks to sales such as Mateo Kovačić’s move to Real Madrid, they actually turned a profit of around €3 million on their summer business while undoubtedly improving their overall quality. They also crucially lowered the average age of the squad, while back-loading many of those deals to ensure they do not have to pay for those players until a year or more down the line when – they hope – they will once again be enjoying lucrative Champions League football.
This bright new era did not get off to the most auspicious of starts, relying on very late goals from Jovetić to scrape narrow victories over Atalanta and Carpi before truly riding their luck in the following matches. A sublime strike from Fredy Guarín gave them victory in the Milan derby, the goal coming after a defensive mix up by Inter was cleared up field and the ball eventually reached the Colombian who lashed it home.
Mauro Icardi was then gifted the chance to take all three points against Chievo, before 90 incredible seconds against Hellas Verona saw their opponents hit the bar before Felipe Melo grabbed the only goal of the game. Five consecutive wins saw them open up a lead at the top of the table for the first time since Mourinho’s tenure, and the team finally looked composed and relaxed, conceding just once with Samir Handanović rarely called into action.
Then, just as quickly as they had transformed into contenders, Inter reverted to type and collapsed against Fiorentina this past weekend, losing 4-1 and looking much the same as they had over the previous three seasons. Yet Mancini refused to panic, insisting an early Viola penalty and the red card shown to Miranda meant the chance of victory vanished very quickly for his side.
“There are games that start badly,” the Coach told Sky Italia shortly after the final whistle. “We conceded after four minutes, were caught on the counter and then there was the red card. It was impossible to come back from that.” Mancini added that he and his players “had our feet on the ground before this defeat too, so nothing has changed,” in a remarkably calm post-match interview that bodes well for the future.
With a week to regather themselves, the Nerazzurri will head to the port city of Genoa next weekend with the rest of Serie A undoubtedly paying even closer attention. A meeting with Sampdoria awaits, and the reaction of the Milanese side to this first set-back could be hugely telling.
“We’re Inter and we deserve to be back at the top table,” Zanetti said in that aforementioned interview, and at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris they have the perfect opportunity to prove it.