By Mauro Ruini and Luca Speranzioso
It was only five years ago that Inter Milan, with José Mourinho managing the likes of Javier Zanetti, Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o, Dejan Stanković, and Maicon, won the UEFA Champions League. Since then, they’ve gone from Serie A powerhouses and continental competitors to mid-table and Europa League afterthoughts. Financial pressure forced the club to sell off its stars, leaving them in their current mess. Last year’s fifth place finish looks great for a club now languishing with 26 points, tied for eighth in Serie A with rivals AC Milan and seven points adrift from a Champions League spot.
Which is why Inter’s fans are furious with this past Saturday’s result. beIN SPORTS must like Inter Milan, for their commentators were generous in merely calling their 0-0 draw against Empoli on Saturday a “lackluster performance.” It was more like a scandalous performance as Inter showed no bite against Empoli, a team fighting to avoid relegation back to Serie B in their first season in the top flight since 2007-08.
Manager Roberto Mancini should have made dramatic adjustments after a shocking first half in which Empoli could have scored a couple of goals if it weren’t for keeper Samir Handanović’s heroics. But nothing changed. Inter emerged from the locker room with the same lackluster attitude. The team didn’t run hard, make incisive movements, think, or show any will to win. They were supremely fortunate to escape Empoli’s Stadio Carlo Castellani with a point.
Mancini’s first reign at Inter was relatively successful as the club captured consecutive Serie A titles. Failure to achieve much in the Champions League freed him up to manage Manchester City, where he also couldn’t conquer the continent. Loyal nerazzurri fans hailed his return two months ago and the club’s play has improved under his watch. But the club still suffers from a lack of quality, lack of effort, and even lack of pride.
Mancini took some heat after the match for leaving Mateo Kovačić and newly arrived Xherdan Shaqiri on the bench, but there was still enough talent on the pitch for Inter to dominate Empoli. Mancini must be careful to not commit the same mistake as his predecessor Walter Mazzarri in insisting on tactics that don’t work. Mazzarri stubbornly stuck with a three-player defense despite consistently poor results and now Mancini risks following Mazzarri off the plank by sticking with a 4-2-3-1. The formation looked fine against Genoa but it looked absurd against Empoli. The 4-2-3-1 could work, but it needs players of a certain caliber. With this group of unexceptional players it’s surprising that neither Mazzarri nor Mancini tried the classic 4-4-2. Sometimes you have to keep it simple!
But no formation can mask a lack of effort. Inter clearly took Empoli’s challenge lightly. Empoli’s players kept fighting and running as if their lives were at stake while Inter’s players walked around the pitch, shied away from tackles, and generally showed little interest in the match. Mazzarri’s failings shielded the players from blame, but with Mancini only recently on the job, the spotlight is now on the squad’s lack of the traditional “in-your-face” Inter spirit.
Club president Erick Thohir clearly lacks a plan, unlike iconic former club president Massimo Moratti. Under Thohir’s tenure, Inter have usually up bought the “available” player toward the end of the transfer market window rather than the “needed” player. But this January has been promising with the acquisitions of Lukas Podolski and Shaqiri. Podolski really impressed on his debut game, an emboldening 1-1 draw against league leaders Juventus. As soon as he came off the bench you could see how Inter just started to play better. Inter now has a world-class option and World Cup champion on the left side of the pitch and a much better option for Mancini than Japanese international Yuto Nagatomo, who may be headed to West Brom.
Shaqiri starred for Switzerland last summer and is simply too fantastic of a player to have been wasting away on Bayern Munich’s bench. But where will he play? Shaqiri’s repeatedly said that his best position is as a central attacking midfielder behind two strikers. But Inter doesn’t even use two strikers right now and Shaqiri’s ideal position is exactly where Mancini said he wants Kovačić to play. He could end up on the right flank if he’s not part of the central midfield mix. This might up as another “Mazzarrian” situation, where players are used out of their natural positions just because “you have to play them.”
Is this the kind of squad that can earn a top three Serie A finish? Despite the club’s form, there are some hidden gems that are starting to shine. Up front the 21-year-old Mauro Icardi, a Chelsea target, is making a big impact by netting 10 goals in 19 Serie A appearances and four in six Europa League matches. In the midfield, the aforementioned underused 20-year-old Kovačić has struck four goals and provided two assists domestically while nabbing three goals in four Europa League appearances.
The Podolski and Shaqiri signings reveal Inter’s intent to spend heavily to bring back glory days. The results, due to management, depth, and complacent spirit, aren’t there yet. Despite the club’s limits, abilities, and lack of planning, all the fans are asking for is that the men wearing the nerazzurri shirt play with determination, effort, and passion. But their recent form suggests a shoulder shrug. The club stands at a crossroads; Italian and European dominance are possible but so is mid-table anonymity. If the results aren’t there by the spring then the squad may be dismantled yet again.
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