Sunday, 29 August 2004
There was reason for optimism at the end of season 2002-2003. Improving on the previous season, Inter finished second in Serie A behind Juventus and lost on the away goals rule in the semi-finals of the Champions League to eventual winners Milan. With the summer arrivals of Andy van der Meyde, Kily Gonzalez, Luciano, Giorgos Karagounis and Khalilou Fadiga, the summer of 2003 had the Nerazzurri faithful thinking that it was going to be their season at long last.
Despite being confirmed as coach for season 2003-2004 Hector Cuper was well aware that if he failed to deliver silverware in the up and coming season, he would be out of a job but his confirmation as Interís coach by no means stopped speculation as to who would replace him. When combining the acquisition of left and right sided players, with having come close to success in his first season and improving in his second season at the club, Cuper and Inter were ready for competitive Serie A and Champions League campaigns.
But the first disappointments of many for the new season struck well before Interís first competitive match. Fadiga did not go on the pre-season retreat as he had a heart problem and would not play for the club. Di Biagio was told that he was surplus to requirements and Conceicao was released from his contract with both players criticising Cuper upon departure. Crespo was sold to Chelsea after which Vieri threatened to leave the club and Luciano continued where he left off with Chievo: under performing appearances bordering on the anonymous, confirming his purchase was a mistake and did not remedy Interís lack of width on the park.
In an Amsterdam pre-season tournament Inter beat Stuttgart and Galatasaray 2-0 and 3-0 respectively but finished second after losing 3-0 to Ajax. Inter then played in the Moretti Trophy where they lost 2-1 to Juventus and drew 1-1 with newly promoted Sampdoria. At such an early stage in the season there were reassurances that the teamís pre-season form would not carry into the new season but pre-season reassurances pointed to the fact that all was not well in the Nerazzurri camp.
The TIM Trophy followed where Inter showed some promise by beating Milan and Juventus but the matches were only forty-five minutes each and the only bearing they might have had on the season was to give Inter a psychological edge when the teams met in Serie A.
Inter then won the Pirelli Cup 1-0 against La Liga runnerís up Real Sociedad, but despite the victory, the clubís supporters showed their anger towards President Moratti regarding Crespoís sale by displaying a banner that read: ďYour stupidity has no limits, but our patience doesĒ.
Despite the competitive season not having started there were many talking points which foretold the story of the season to come: the team was playing inconsistently, the teamís star striker was unhappy, some of the clubís supporters were showing their dissatisfaction with Moratti and there was continued speculation as to who would replace Cuper in the likelihood that he did not succeed during the season.
THE SEASON STARTS
Inter won their season opener 2-0 against Modena but the usual criticism followed as the team failed to impress and was bailed out by late goals from Vieri and a Materazzi injury time free kick. In a pre-season where Cuper placed an emphasis on entertaining football, the first match of the season was a dismal failure. At half-time, the Nerazzurri faithful booed their team off the field and by the end of the match, commentators were no longer speculating if Cuper would be replaced, it was now only a matter of who would replace him. To make matters worse, Vieri angrily lashed out at the club by stating that the teamís first half performance was appalling and he could not always carry the team. He also insisted on the need for Inter to have an organised team ethic and plan of action on the field.
The second match of the season was a 1-0 victory against Siena. Materazzi scored the winning goal from a free kick taken outside the box but the teamís performance was described as shaky and unconvincing. Following the match, Vice-president Facchetti defended the teamís lacklustre performance and highlighted the fact there were five new players in the line-up against Siena and it would take time for the team to gel. President Moratti also defended the team by stating the club was being too harshly treated by the Italian media but that did not stop the press from holding Cuper responsible for Interís unconvincing start to the season.
Interís first Champions League match was against Arsenal at Highbury. When considering Arsenalís attacking style of play, their conquering form in the Premier League and Interís unconvincing start to the season many supporters felt that Inter would be lucky to come away with a positive result. To make matters worse, Recoba was still recovering from injury and Vieri was injured in a midweek match for the Nazionale. Both players were unavailable for selection whereby Martins and Cruz led Interís attack and the match finished with a 3-0 victory over Arsenal that was possibly Cuperís best European result as Inter coach. The Arsenal performance showed that Inter could play as a compact and determined unit and that with Cruz and Martins up front, Inter were by no means Vieri dependent. The result also silenced Interís critics and many believed the win over Arsenal would provide the necessary confidence and platform from which the team could launch its bid for the Scudetto in the forthcoming home match against Sampdoria.
The match against Sampdoria ended 0-0 and was followed by another goaless draw against Udinese. The latter result was quite good considering the fact that Vieri, Recoba and Kily Gonzalez were sidelined and Inter had not won a match at the Stadio Friuli since season 1997-1998 but the pressure on Cuper was mounting and Interís next Serie A opponent was Milan.
At the end of the 3-1 defeat against Milan, Inter fans threw objects at Cuper and the team found itself five points adrift of joint Serie A leaders Juventus and Milan. The club was running out of patience and there was an air of uncertainty regarding Cuperís future. In his first two seasons at Inter, Cuper improvised and went without recognised flank players. By the end of the match against Milan he substituted the flank players he had specifically requested in the summer as Helveg replaced van der Meyde and Brechet substituted for Kily Gonzalez. In the fallout after the match Moratti warned Cuper that any further setbacks would not be tolerated, former player Ronaldo criticised Cuper from Spain, and Luigi Di Biagio renewed his pre-season attacks on Cuper by complaining about the way he was pushed out of the club.
In the lead up to Interís next match against Brescia speculation was rife that the Inter was looking to immediately replace Cuper with Zaccheroni and use the latter coach as a stop gap until the club could hire Roberto Mancini at the end of the season. Bresciaís President, Gino Corioni, had clear thoughts on the matter and stated that the for the sake of Inter and the clubís supporters, he hoped Brescia would win. After fighting back from 2-0 down at the Stadio Rigamonti to draw 2-2, Cuper was relieved at the result but once again the team was heavily criticised. Bresciaís president possibly summed up the thoughts of many Inter supporters when at the end of the match he stated he was not at all surprised at seeing such a bad performance as Inter play well on average once in very fifty games. Despite three victories in the Champions League group stage and a majority of the Italian championship still yet to be played, Moratti decided it was time for Inter and Cuper to part company six weeks into the Serie A campaign as the team had only collected nine points out of a possible eighteen.
Cuperís sacking did not come as a surprise as it was widely believed he would have been replaced in the summer before the new season, had Roberto Mancini been available. Perhaps what was a surprise was the timing of the dismissal. In choosing to dismiss Cuper six weeks into the season, Moratti effectively ruined Interís season. Had he chosen to keep Cuper until the end of the season that has just passed then something positive may have been salvaged. It might also have been the case that had he decided to part company with Cuper at the end of the latterís second season in charge, a new coach would have been appointed and would have had the summer to familiarise himself with the club and its players as well as be involved in its transfer dealings. Instead, Morattiís desire to give the appearance that he has learnt from past mistakes led to the season being wasted. In Cuperís place came Alberto Zaccheroni and despite agreeing a contract of several years, one of the first announcements made by Moratti in relation to his new coach was to respond to reports that Zaccheroni was not a temporary measure until this summer when it was widely believed that Mancini would be appointed Inter coach.
ZACCHERONI TAKES CHARGE
There were mixed reactions to Zaccheroniís appointment as Inter coach. Many football commentators were tired of seeing talented players labour under Cuperís defensive and negative tactics, believing a change in coach would herald a new brand of attacking football. Carlo Mazzone, stated Moratti made the right decision whilst Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi stated that a change in coach would not necessarily mean a change in the fortunes of the club.
Others felt that Cuper had brought Inter to the brink of success and the club should have kept faith with the coach it backed in the summer. Moratti revealed that the decision to sack Cuper was taken for the good of the club as the players no longer wanted to work under Cuper. But regardless of thoughts and feelings, the longest serving coach in President Morattiís era was sacked and it was anyoneís guess as to how the remainder of the season would unfold.
At the time of Cuperís dismissal Inter were seven points behind Juventus in Serie A and top of their Champions League group after beating Arsenal and Dinamo Kiev. Zaccheroni did not take over straight away as the team was entrusted to caretaker boss Corrado Verdelli, who prepared them for the Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow. That match finished 3-0 in Lokomotivís favour and Zaccheroni was given the task of lifting the teamís spirits in his debut match against Roma.
Approximately one thousand protesting supporters greeted the team on arrival at the Meazza and inside the stadium there were banners reading ďCuper for PresidentĒ, ďNo more alibisĒ and ďMoratti Sack YourselfĒ. The match ended in a goaless draw after which a week of media silence followed in an attempt to kick-start the season. But at the rate things were going, it was increasingly likely that Inter would be out of the Championship race by Christmas.
From early November to mid-December, Inter went six consecutive matches unbeaten. There were noticeable victories against Chievo, a six goal thumping of Reggina, a 3-1 victory in Turin against Juventus, the first since 1993, and a victory away to Bologna. But the run of positive results came to a halt in the final match before the Christmas break. Having not beaten Lazio in Rome since 1996, Inter had a chance to move into second place in Serie A. Prior to the match Lazio coach Roberto Mancini admitted regret at not joining Inter in the summer whilst Lazio player Dejan Stankovic's admitted that he had chosen to join Inter rather than Juventus when his contract expired in June. These statements led Lazioís fans to stage a protest strike for the first 15 minutes of the game, leaving the Curva Nord empty except for their banners.
With the score tied at 1-1 in the second half and only twenty minutes remaining, Almeyda was given a red card for trying to strike Corradi. Having been given his marching orders a scuffle broke out between both players during which time Almeyda managed to take away the refereeís red card as well as attack Corradi a second time. Once teammates managed to wrestle him away from the scene, Inter played with ten men against a buoyed Lazio side whose winning goal came with eight minutes left to play. Although the Nerazzurri faithful did not realise it at the time, the loss to Lazio was a sign of things to come and was the start of a nightmarish run of results which followed the Christmas break.
In the Champions League, Inter did not fair very well as they drew 1-1 with Lokomotive Moscow, were convincingly beaten 5-1 at home by Arsenal and drew 1-1 in Kiev. Those results led to Interís elimination from the Champions League but they were drawn to meet French team Sochaux in the third round of the UEFA Cup as they finished as one of the best third placed teams in the Champions League.
November was also significant in that it was the month in which Vieriís feud with a section of Interís supporters started, a feud which detracted from the teamís efforts to concentrate solely on footballing matters. The first sign of trouble came when he stated that he would stop playing football in order to play cricket if he could get the same contract. In the same interview he praised and stated that he missed Ronaldo, and went on to say that he preferred life in Spain where football is played for fun and there is less emphasis on results. To make matters worse he further endeared himself to the clubís supporters by refusing to celebrate or smile when scoring goals and giving sarcastic applause towards the stand when he scored against Reggina.
In early December Chelsea sensed an opportunity to snare Vieri away from Inter. Sporting director Marco Branca advised Chelsea that Vieri was not available for transfer and underlined the playerís importance to the club by stating that he was Italyís best striker and an undoubted protagonist for the club. Two days after Interís elimination from the Champions League, Vieri held an impromptu press conference during the presentation of a charity calendar. In that interview he angrily responded to press fabrications that he was depressed and unhappy, did not train well, and had issues with Zaccheroni or teammates. Vieri slammed the reports as being ďsuperficial and pathetic rubbishĒ but speculation about his future at the club intensified with the possibility of Adrianoís return from Parma in January which was coupled with the inevitable question as to whether both players could co-exist in the same starting eleven. Early in the new year, Moratti stated that despite the return of Adriano, Vieri had a future at the club and he hoped the latter player was not looking for a future away from Inter.
January started well enough as the first match after the winter break saw Inter beat Lecce 3-1. Vieri scored his 100th goal in an Inter shirt and the goal celebrations saw Materazzi crown him King. Vieri stated his intention to stay at the club and the club maintained its intention to keep his services. But the calm did not last very long as Vieri pulled out of the squad that managed a 0-0 draw against Udinese in the Coppa Italia, first leg quarter-final match. Reports stated that Zaccheroni wanted Vieri at his disposal whilst Vieri insisted that he stayed in Milan to receive treatment on a knee problem. Vieri put his absence down to a misunderstanding but it appears as if the club was counting on him to travel with the team to give a sign that the Coppa Italia was an important club objective. When combining Vieriís latest indiscretion with the likelihood of Adrianoís return, Vieriís Chelsea link resurfaced and the clubís attitude noticeably changed with admitting that he was available for the right price.
With Vieri respecting the clubís decision to issue him with a fine, Zaccheroni supposedly dropped him from the squad to play against Empoli stating that he was not available for selection due to a muscular problem in the playerís left thigh. The press believed the decision to drop Vieri was further punishment for his midweek indiscretion. If such was the case and given the fact that there were also injuries to Coco, Materazzi, Cannavaro, Cristiano Zanetti and Recoba, the decision to drop Vieri was evidence of Zaccheroni underestimating Empoli as Inter lost the match 1-0. The loss put the club in crisis and saw them fall eleven points behind league leaders Roma.
Following the loss to Empoli, Inter supporters prevented the team bus from leaving the Meazza and presented banners criticising Morattiís many changes over the years and the increasingly likely departure of Christian Vieri. The next day, Moratti resigned as President of the club and indicated that Vice-president Giacinto Facchetti, a great player in the history of the club, would be Interís next President. The announcement came as a surprise but in effect meant very little changed as Moratti remained Interís club owner. January also saw Luciano return to Chievo and the arrivals of Adriano from Parma and Stankovic from Lazio.
INTER IN DECLINE
The beginning of February saw Inter beat Siena 4-0 with both Recoba and Adriano scoring two goals each but Interís season took another bad turn when Materazzi punched Sienaís Bruno Cirillo after the match and was subsequently banned for two months. The Italian Football League's disciplinary commission fined Inter 5000 Euros and Inter punished Materazzi by fining him up to 35,000 pounds. Following the win against Siena, Inter went eleven competitive matches without winning a game. In Serie A, they did not win for five weeks: giving up a 2-0 lead in the Milan derby to lose 3-2 and getting thumped 4-1 by Roma in Rome. After the derby loss Inter found themselves nineteen points behind league leaders Milan and restaurants owned by Christian Vieri and Fabio Cannavaro were firebombed by disgruntled Inter supporters who were tired of suffering and being humiliated.
COPPA ITALIA & UEFA CUP
In the Coppa Italia, Inter met Juventus in the semi-finals. The first leg encounter saw Juventus twice come from behind to finish 2-2 with Inter unluckily being denied a third goal after efforts from Okan and Adriano hit the cross bar and post. In the second leg Adriano scored seven minutes into the match and both Vieri and Kily were denied first half goals by shots that hit the foot of the post and the crossbar. Juventus managed an equaliser before halftime but after the break the match was marred by scandalous refereeing. Cordoba was sent off for hacking down Nedved and Inter were denied a clear penalty after Montero hacked Emre in the Juventus penalty box. A short time later, Juventus took a 2-1 lead after Del Piero scored from a Miccoli corner and towards the end of the second half Montero committed a knee high tackle on Emre that should have seen him receive a red card and left Emre injured. Reduced to ten men, Inter managed to fight on and Adani equalised in the closing moments of the match to make it 2-2.
In extra time, both teams were visibly tired and penalty kicks followed. Up until Interís last spot kick, every player had scored their penalty. In a cruel twist of fate, Vieri stepped up to take Interís last penalty and had his shot saved by Chimenti. The tie finished 4-4 on aggregate and 5-4 on penalties. Inter were eliminated from the Coppa Italia and if the derby loss hurt the Nerazzurri faithful, the way in which Inter were bundled out of the Coppa was heartbreaking and left many supporters wishing an immediate end to a nightmare season in which nothing had gone right.
In the UEFA Cup, Inter managed to beat Sochaux and Benfica to book a quarter-final meeting against Marseille. Inter lost the first leg encounter in France 1-0 and lost by the same margin at home. As usual, there were the usual excuses of players fielded who were not fully fit, injuries which had decimated the team and the customary regrets that come with wasted chances. Injuries were definitely a cause for concern and hampered Interís efforts throughout the season but they did not detract from the conclusion that the club was simply not good enough to advance any further in the competition.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE RACE
Towards the end of March, Inter won its first game in eleven competitive matches by beating Ancona 2-0 and that victory was followed by another win over Reggina. Recovering injured and suspended players, the team started to put together some positive results. Materazziís two month band ended at the beginning of April and he returned to play against Juventus, a match that Inter won 3-2. His return was a much needed boost to a defence that struggled in his absence and often lacked strength and determination. It is also worth noting that Materazziís on the pitch conduct was much improved after the Cirillo incident with it being noticeable that he had learnt his lesson.
Inter beat Perugia 3-2 and Bologna 4-2 but speculation surrounding Vieriís possible exit again took centre stage prior to the match against Bologna as he trained and only went and watched the match at the Meazza. Vieri confirmed that he refused to sit on the bench if he was only going to participate in a match for ten or fifteen minutes and revealed he had no rapport with Zaccheroni and that he did not speak with Interís coach. But it was evident that any decision regarding his future at the club would only be made after Euro 2004. The season finished with a goalless draw against Lazio, a 2-1 loss to Lecce, Adriano sinking Parma 1-0, and Inter beating Empoli 3-2 on the final day of the season to happily clinch fourth place in Serie A and a qualifying place in the Champions League.
Not much can be said about Inter ending another season empty handed. Perhaps, after fifteen years without a scudetto and six years without winning a trophy, ending a season empty handed no longer comes as a surprise. What is most saddening is how a club of Interís stature considers finishing twenty-five points behind Serie A Champions Milan and clinching a qualifying spot in the Champions League on the last day of the season as a success. Unfortunately, Interís season was doomed to fail from the very start of the campaign when President Moratti indecisively kept Cuper as coach only to sack him six weeks into the season. From that point on, not much could be expected of Inter and positive results were few and far between. The teamís efforts throughout the season were greatly hampered by injuries and all the speculation surrounding Vieri. Perhaps what is most unfortunate is how so much promise went unfulfilled and how the season will be remembered for all the controversies that took place rather than on field achievements. Not all is lost as there were some positives that emerged from the final weeks of the Championship: Adriano showed that he was equal to the club that brought him to Italy and was more than capable of leading Inter as the teamís main target man whilst fellow January signing, Stankovic, appeared to have found some promising form which he will hopefully carry into the new season. These positives aside, overwhelmingly the best thing to come from the season is the mere fact that it is over and the Nerazzurri faithful can look forward to making a new start in season 2004/2005.