Tuesday, 13 September 2005
There used to be a time when end of season would loom and supporters would find themselves on the last day of the season, reluctantly waving goodbye to the season that was and facing up to what seemed an eternity of football starved months.
Today, domestic seasons are demandingly long and there are meaningless international tournaments that reduce player holidays. When long domestic seasons are combined with tournaments like the Confederations Cup and World Club Cup as well as Champions League and World Cup qualifiers, you could be mistaken for feeling that players and fans alike, do not get a significant break from the game and if they do, that time is insufficient.
The dust was hardly allowed to settle on Serie A season 2004-2005 when pre-season retreats, friendly tours and Champions League qualifiers for season 2005-2006 commenced. For both players and supporters there was little time to reflect on the season that was and even now it is hard to know what season 2004-2005 will be remembered for.
From Christmas onwards the race for ĎLo Scudettoí was contested by Juventus and Milan. Three weeks before the end of the season, a monumental battle at the Meazza was meant to take place between the two sides but the match did not live up to expectations: Milan were distracted and were focusing on their Champions League final with Liverpool whilst Juventus, although they were not spectacular, managed to take a 1-0 victory back to Turin.
The crowning moment for the Bianconeri epitomises the battle for the championship. On the Friday before the Champions League final against Liverpool, Milan played Palermo at the Meazza and threw away a two-goal lead in the space of three minutes to hand Juventus their 28th Scudetto. With no other fixtures being played until Sunday, Juventus were Silent Victors and the championship race ended in a similar manner to which it was played during the season: meaningful to only the two teams involved whilst the rest of Serie A carried on without so much as breaking stride.
Maybe the season will be remembered for the battle against relegation. Normally, attention would focus on the front runners but proceedings in the lower half of the table remained interesting long after the championship became a two horse race. Before kick off on the final week of the season, Atalanta had been relegated. Brescia, Bologna, Chievo, Fiorentina, Lazio, Leece, Parma, Reggina and Siena, were all at risk of occupying the two remaining relegation spots. When the final whistle was blown, Brescia joined Atalanta as the second club to be relegated and two weeks later Bologna followed after losing their relegation play-off to Parma.
The Champions League
If neutrals were hoping the prospect of Champions League football would lead to an interesting fight between clubs then they were mistaken. Usually, third and fourth place in Serie A are contested until the final day of the season but the only remaining position up for grabs was fourth place in the championship, contested by Sampdoria and Udinese and won by the latter club.
Speaking of the Champions League, when Milan surrendered the Scudetto to Juventus, news sources did not dwell on the loss and Milan seemingly blinked at losing a season of hard work. The official line was the club did not have time to dwell on the loss and were focusing on winning the Champions League. The effect of losing the Scudetto to Juventus was understated and the manner in which Milan lost to Palermo was a sign of things to come in the Champions League final. It may just be that the lingering memory of the season will be Milan conceding three goals in six minutes and then losing on penalties to gift Liverpool their first Champions League trophy in twenty-one years.
Interís New Approach
Talk of Italian football will inevitably include Inter. In recent times the club has adopted a low key approach with the focus being on field performance and positive results as opposed to making newspaper headlines for snaring a star player or fallouts between coach and player.
Transfer campaigns of the early 90s were characterised by free spending and multimillion dollar signings. With on field competition for silverware being intense, summer transfer campaigns were equally as competitive as Italyís top clubs chased the summerís most glamorous and expensive signings. Today, with the exception of Real Madrid and Chelsea, there is no longer an abundance of money in football. It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Interís management changed its transfer strategy but the motivation behind the change was Interís lack of silverware which stood in stark contrast to the success of Milan and Juventus.
Opinion is divided as commentators and many supporters believe Massimo Morattiís resignation as President in January 2004 and his handing the reigns to Giancinto Facchetti was merely a symbolic gesture that allows Moratti to run the club from behind the scenes.
Others, myself included, believe Interís new approach is being guided by a steady and experienced hand that lived and breathed football as a player and knows exactly what is required to make a club successful. That person is Facchetti and given Morattiís best intentions when he was involved in the day to day running of the club, insightful decision making and moderation were not feature characteristics of his presidency. Perhaps, giving Facchetti all the credit for Interís revival places too much emphasis on his appointment as President but it seems more than coincidental that the clubís intelligent and balanced management policy coincided with Facchettiís appointment as Inter President.
Of course, critics will argue that Interís management is still clueless as Cannavaro was mistakenly allowed to leave for Juventus whilst the blunder of this summerís transfer campaign was supposedly releasing Christian Vieri with a pay out of six million pounds after which he signed for Milan.
After two seasons of struggling with injuries, Cannavaroís sale to Juventus seemed justified with very few commentators predicting a return to such blistering form. For Inter, Cannavaroís return to form added salt to the wound as the club let a quality defender leave without demanding a substantial amount of money. But what is clear from the transfer is that Inter did not feel they were getting an adequate return on the large amount of money they were paying Cannavaro in wages and he was given to Juventus to get him off the books and reduce the amount of money Inter was spending on player salaries.
With regards to Vieri, his presence at Inter had become a burden for both club and player. His wages were a drain on the clubís resources and his attitude was a burden to the management and Nerazzurri faithful. The difficulty with his continued presence at inter was that he expected an automatic starting position. Mancini openly admitted that Adriano and Martins were his preferred starters and in a year when Vieri is aiming to make Lippiís World Cup squad, he would not have accepted a limited role as a substitute.
Only time will tell whether Inter made the right decision when it comes to Vieri but when his release is analysed in terms of the clubís best interests, it seems a possible source of unrest and tension was allowed to leave as there is little doubt Vieri would have voiced his discontent at not being the focal point of Interís attack. Another point of contention that needs to be raised when discussing Vieri is his attitude towards the club and his former teammates. After seven years without silverware, he failed to be present at the Coppa Italia celebrations which showed a distinct lack of respect towards the club and his teammates. Winning the Coppa Italia was a significant turning point for the club and by staying away, Vieri made it well known that winning the trophy was of little importance.
High salary and poor attitude aside, Inter should take comfort from the fact that Vieri is in the latter stage of his career and his goal scoring prowess is on the wane. It is also worth noting that the club did not purchase a replacement striker which is an indication that Interís management has faith in Adriano, Martins, Recoba and Cruz and the bottleneck caused by Vieriís presence may now allow Recoba and Cruz to get more playing time.
Years of underachieving, learning by trial and error and the need to balance Interís books have pushed Moratti to the realisation that success requires continuity, balance and a core nucleus of players that needs to be kept together. After two summers of moderation it is safe to say that Moratti is no longer purchasing players for the sake of appearing active on the transfer market and is only reinforcing the squad where necessary. In the last two seasons the club has intelligently acquired well chosen players such as Cambiasso, Samuel, Pizarro and Figo to strengthen positions in which the team has lacked depth. Having safely established a new transfer strategy the only thing missing was a coach who could last for more than a season and impose a distinct style of play upon the team.
The Mancini Effect
Over the years the revolving door that saw countless coaches arrive and depart Inter led to the head coaching position being described as the Ďpoison chalice of Italian footballí or the position that a coach should only accept if they wanted an ultimate challenge. Over a ten year period, Moratti hired and fired twelve different tacticians with there being little confidence that a new coach could make a difference as experienced campaigners such as Marcello Lippi and Hector Cuper had failed in their respective attempts to positively influence the team.
Constant changes in tacticians crippled Inter. Lack of continuity also applied to Interís tacticians as Moratti unreasonably expected instant success and would quickly show them the door when they failed. With Milan playing entertaining football and Juventus basing their game on a belligerent defence, it was obvious that Inter lacked an identifiable game plan. The club had a collection of talented stars that were unable to play as a team. The two tacticians that came closest to winning the Scudetto were Luigi Simoni in season 1997-1998 and Cuper in 2001-2002: the former coachís team was criticised for being Ronaldo-dependent whilst Cuperís team was too defensive and heavily relied on unattractive lackluster play.
The summer before season 2004-2005, was plagued with uncertainty as to what the future held for Inter. After the last match of season 2003-2004, Zaccheroni was confirmed as coach but rumours persisted about the arrival of Roberto Mancini. To further confuse matters, the clubís transfer policy favoured players suited to Manciniís 4-4-2 module rather than Zaccheroniís 3-5-2. Inter named Mancini as coach on June 15 2004 but it was not until July 7 2004 that he was officially confirmed. Even after his confirmation football commentators doubted his credentials believing he was inexperienced and that it was only a matter of time before he was sacked.
The first few months of Manciniís tenure were exciting as there was a feeling of change and guarded optimism. During that time Mancini asked his players to play the ball at feet, keep possession of the ball and use the flanks as opposed to predominantly attacking through the middle. It took some time for the team to find its ideal balance and many points were dropped in the process but it was hard to complain when you could see the players making an effort to change their game and play in accordance with Manciniís wishes.
Most encouraging was Interís fighting spirit, a spirit that became respected around the peninsula as the team displayed the qualities and character that Mancini possessed in his playing days at Sampdoria. The 3-2 victory over Sampdoria, a match in which Inter scored three goals in six minutes, the comeback in Milan against Juventus, the matches against Parma and the win in Bergamo were memorable moments of the season as the team displayed a determination that has long been absent at the club. Inter only lost twice in thirty-eight matches but drew a record eighteen times, overtaking Bolognaís seventeen draws in season 1948-1949. Ten of the eighteen draws came in the opening months of the season but from November until the end of the season, Inter collected the most points in Serie A. Some commentators believed success or failure rested on the club lifting the Coppa Italia. Winning the Coppa was a small but significant achievement for the club as Mancini and the players were rewarded for their hard work. The victory was also significant in that not only did Inter win its first silverware since 1998, but it gave the club confidence in the project undertaken at the beginning of the season and the players confidence which they could carry into the new season.
A New Season: 2005-2006
Pre-season saw Inter tour England where the teamís positive results were closely followed by a 3-1 aggregate win over Shakhtar Donesk that allowed Inter to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League. After securing Champions League qualification, Inter traveled to Turin to play the Italian Champions and beat Juventus by a questionable solitary goal to win the Italian Supercup. Considering the players that were acquired in the summer and the teamís promising pre-season results, commentators were predicting that Inter would be a strong challenger for the championship.
Serie A Ė Week 1: Inter 3-0 Treviso
The first match of the season saw Inter host newly promoted Treviso. Obvious from the start of the match was the gulf in quality between the two sides as Inter fielded the likes of Adriano, Recoba, Figo and Veron whilst Treviso were in awe of their opponents and the grand setting of the Meazza. The match had a leisurely pace and practice match feel to it as Treviso were content to sit back and allow Inter to dictate play. On the rare occasions they ventured over the half-way line it was clear they did not know what to do and would either blast away at goal or instantly lose possession. By the end of the match Adriano had scored a hatrick but the victory was not very satisfying given that Inter was hardly tested against an opposition that only learnt they would be playing in Serie A two weeks before the season kicked off.
Week 2: Palermo 3-2 Inter
After a ten day break due to World Cup qualifiers, Serie A resumed with Inter traveling to the Stadio Barbera to play Palermo. Having scored two hatricks in just over a week against Treviso and Chile, talk focused upon Adriano and whether he could maintain his blistering form and assist Interís positive start to the season. Manciniís starting eleven had a surprise in that he opted to play Pizarro and Veron together in an attempt to keep his players happy and guard against criticism by the media. Accompanying Veron and Pizarro in midfield were Kily and Cambiasso. The result was disastrous as Inter lost 3-2 with Palermo overrunning an Inter side whose midfield lacked initiative and offered little resistance in terms of providing defensive cover. Mancini has to be blamed for the Palermo result as it appears he tried to accommodate his players and put individual interests ahead of securing results for the club. The defensive cover provided by Cambiasso and Cristiano Zanetti last season was non-existent and when you add Ze Maria to the right back position in the place of the injured Captain Zanetti it is little wonder Inter played so poorly. Perhaps the most surprising part of the match was the final result which flatters Inter and fails to tell the true story of a match in which Palermo were twice denied by the crossbar as well as by Cesar goalkeeping heroics.
The decision to field Veron and Pizarro together came about as a result of the pressure caused by Pizarroís arrival at the club. Described as one of the most talented creative midfield players in Europe, relegating him to the bench and playing Cristiano Zanetti would attract a great deal of criticism from the media who would argue the team is too defensive. Such a conclusion would be unfair as last seasonís Inter was one of the most entertaining teams in Serie A.
Ultimately, Mancini has to either field Cambiasso and Cristiano Zanetti together or field one of them with either Veron or Pizarro. The mere fact that Inter has an abundance of gifted midfielders should not compromise Manciniís 4-4-2 module or the starting eleven by accommodating certain players at the expense of positive results. In this respect, Mancini should learn from Fabio Capello who is renowned for making unpopular decisions for the good of the team otherwise he risks jeopardising and undermining the work of last season and Interís campaign for season 2005-2006.
Other Mancini Shortcomings
To say Manciniís time at Inter has been entirely positive would be inaccurate. Every coach has shortcomings and Mancini is no exception: from his time at Inter it is obvious there are certain players he favours regardless of form and contribution. At the beginning of the season Favalli struggled to find form but Manciniís insistence on playing him at left back might also have had something to do with the club not having an adequate replacement. In Favalliís defence, his form improved over time to the point of competently carrying out his defensive duties by the end of the season. For a large part of the season Mancini persisted with fielding Stankovic who was clearly out of form and put in a large number of anonymous performances whilst upfront Vieri was fielded despite struggling to find the back of the net early in the season.
Despite showing more than adequate patience with the aforementioned players, the way Mancini treats Recoba is a good example of not giving a player a fair chance. The problem with Recoba is that expectations on him are exceptionally high and people expect him to substitute into a match with fifteen minutes left to play and single handedly win the match for his team. With the exception of the match against Sampdoria this does not happen after which he is unnecessarily criticised. With Vieriís departure, some supporters expected things would change for Recoba but Mancini has not changed his mind and recently stated that he expected a goal a game if Recoba was going to make an adequate contribution. No targets were set for any of Interís strikers last season and yet Mancini imposes his unrealistic expectations on a player who is not a regular starter, setting Recoba up to inevitably fail when he can not live up to Manciniís expectations.
What Lies Ahead?
Interís first loss of the season and Manciniís shortcomings are no reason to panic or start crisis talks. The best part about a busy fixture schedule is having a chance to quickly get back on track when a previous match has gone wrong. Inter have traveled to Slovakia for the Champions League Matchday 1 clash against Artmedia Bratislava where Mancini and his players will have the opportunity to correct the mistakes made against Palermo.
In Mondayís UEFA news conference before the match against Bratislava Mancini took responsibility for Interís loss against Palermo, admitting that he made wrong choices by selecting players who were affected by tiredness and fielded an unbalanced team. He has apparently learned from his mistakes and the Nerazzurri faithful can only hope that the team will put on a convincing display. Of course, the encounter against the Slovakian champions will not be easy and Bratislava may well find this eveningís match a good opportunity to take advantage of Interís loss to Palermo. It also needs to be said that as a result of Interís European stadium ban, Champions League matches played away from home are of extra importance as they will be the only chance the team will have to play in front of a crowd as opposed to playing in the surreal environment of an empty Meazza stadium where it will be difficult to find the right motivation.
With regards to Serie A, Mancini must get back to basics by fielding the team that was so stable and consistent last season. It makes little sense to depart from a system that brought positive results. Mancini should realise that now is not the time to be experimenting with a change of formation or including players in the starting eleven for the sake of utilising their services. Last seasonís results point in the right direction and all Mancini needs to do is continue the march and know that the Nerazzurri faithful will be with him and their team every step of the way.