Friday, 4 March 2005
It took half a season for the Nerazzurri to find their identity. Much like the teamís frustrating early season form, I could not write, until in Inter speaking terms, I had "turned the corner" and left behind my frustration at being out of the Scudetto race before Christmas. It has taken time to come to terms with the possibility that this season may once again see Inter finish empty handed but the time has arrived to comment on the season so far.
No one in their right mind could have predicted the script to Interís season. Up until last weekendís Milan derby, Inter were unbeaten in all competitions. In the Champions League, four wins and two draws saw Inter cruise into the quarter-finals where they played defending champions Porto and managed a 1-1 draw in Dragoa. Although the tie is far from over Inter are favourites to advance to the semi-final stage.
In the Coppa Italia, Inter beat Atalanta 4-0 on aggregate to advance to the semi-finals where they will meet either Cagliari or Sampdoria. But perhaps the cruellest part of Interís season was the teamís slow start to Serie A in which they managed twelve draws from their first fifteen games. During that period Inter often dictated play and looked certain to take three points on many occasions, but conceded late goals as a result of lapses in concentration or careless individual mistakes.
Inevitably, Interís long unbeaten run had to come to an end. The fact that Milan beat Inter at the weekend and ended forty matches without a loss is unfortunate but to dwell on the loss of a record would be a mistake. The derby was more important than just maintaining a record. A victory would have given Inter confidence for the rest of the season and would have possibly allowed them to become a championship protagonist. Despite having their championship hopes extinguished in the derby the match highlighted that Inter was more than capable of playing against last seasons Serie A champions and one of Europeís elite clubs.
The first half saw Inter dictate play and the only reason Milan did not go into the break a goal down was due to a miraculous save by Dida in which he heroically saved a long distance shot from Veron in injury time. The second half was more even but Milan created few problems for Toldo and Interís defence. But in typical Milan fashion, they scored a goal which seemed somewhat undeserved and left many Inter supporters downcast at another derby loss. Milanís goal came with fifteen minutes left to play after Inter partially managed to clear a corner kick that fell to Gattuso who had a shot at goal. The shot found Kaka on the six yard line and he directed the ball past Toldo. Watching the ball roll over the line and Kaka celebrate a goal which he did not seem to know much about simply rubbed salt in the wound. To make matters worse the commentator complimented Kakaís brilliance which was ironic given he had not been in the game prior to re-directing Gattusoís shot. Television images also showed Berlusconi with an amused smile and shaking his head at the lucky way Milan had found their goal. At the end of the match one could not help but feel that Mancini and his players were not rewarded for their efforts. On the evening the difference between the two teams was slight and although Inter were not rewarded with a positive result the Nerazzurri faithful acknowledged their teamís performance by giving them a standing ovation as they walked off the pitch. Milan may have won the derby but there is every chance the two teams will meet again this season as they are both in contention for the Champions League and Coppa Italia.
In the space of eight months Mancini has developed Interís character. Past teams can best be classified as a group of talented individuals who wore the same strip but rarely worked as a unit other than to kick hopeful balls forward for Vieri to do the remaining work.
Under Mancini, that has changed. The days of only playing through the middle of the park and hopeful long balls have been replaced with a passing game and use of the flanks. The bad memories left as a result of 5 May 2002 and Interís semi-final Championís League elimination at the hands of Milan remain but do not hurt as much as Inter is now playing a better brand of football which many believe will eventually lead to success. Where Juventus is renowned for strong defensive displays and Milan for their entertaining football, Inter has been branded as combative.
The beginning of 2005 saw the teamís performance improve to the point that the Nerazzurri are playing with the determination that characterised Manciniís playing days at Sampdoria. Rousing comebacks against Sampdoria and Parma are the best examples. In the former match Inter were two goals down with six minutes to play and scored three goals to provide the best moment of the season so far. In the latter meeting, the Nerazzurri fought from two goals down on each occasion to manage draws with Parma.
But to say Manciniís appointment has only been positive would be a fallacy. Interís early season efforts put them out of the running for the championship. While Juventus and Milan maintained their relentless pace, Inter staggered from one draw to the next with Mancini rotating a defence that was haemorraging goals. In his first Serie A match as Interís head coach, Mancini selected a central defensive pairing of Materazzi and Mihajlovic who had never played together and are both left footed. Also, Mihajlovic was one of the late arrivals and starting him alongside Materazzi was a mistake. There were also difficulties with the pairing of Cordoba and Materazzi. Despite forming the backbone of Interís defence for several seasons they played with the confidence of unsettled new comers who did not know each others game. Favalliís performances were average and when Burdisso debuted in week three of the championship against Atalanta he was heavily criticised after gifting them a goal from a poor back pass.
Perhaps the slow start to Interís bid for the Scudetto can be attributed to a new coach and players adapting to a different tactical system that requires awareness and thought as opposed to clearances into the oppositionís half that briefly relieved pressure but gifted opponents with possession to construct another attack. When these teething problems, combined with defenders who were in poor form and mistakes in selection, it comes as no surprise that valuable points were dropped.
Mancini has seemingly settled on a starting back four which has Captain Zanetti, and Favalli covering the flanks and Cordoba in the middle with either Materazzi or Mihajlovic as his fellow central defender. Despite settling on a back four there have still been moments when individuals have let down the team. A good example being the match against Parma at the Tardini when Materazzi deliberately handballed in the box and was sent off, forcing his teammates to play the remainder of the match with a man down. Parma scored from the resulting penalty with the most frustrating aspect of that match being Interís ability to fight back from two goals down to draw, 2-2. On any other day a draw at the Tardini would be a good result but when you consider the missed chances and the teamís competitiveness with ten men it is difficult to avoid feeling that a good chance to obtain three points was lost.
Although Manciniís appointment has transformed Inter there is one trend that has remained constant: the failure to make up lost ground when the front-runners draw or lose matches. Against Udinese, Inter conceded a last minute goal to end up with a disappointing 1-1 draw whilst Juventus drew with Messina and several weeks ago, Juventus lost to Palermo but Inter failed to beat Parma. Serie A championships are usually decided at the margins and Interís failure to take advantage of dropped points by direct rivals highlights an immaturity that both Milan and Juventus do not have to contend with. Perhaps that experience and the ability to grind out positive results when they are not deserved will come when the team has been together for several years and the club achieves on field success but at the moment it appears frustration and disappointment are very much a part of supporting the Nerazzurri.
ďThere is not optimism, but faith in this team, which is a different thing."
The above statement made by club owner Massimo Moratti after the 2-0 victory against Roma is an insightful comment which perfectly sums up Interís predicament at this point in time. Inter are out of this seasonís race for the Scudetto but the team is a Ďwork in progressí and is improving with every passing match. It is this gradual improvement in performance that allows Interís supporters to have faith in their team whereby optimism will come with consistency, the ability to beat direct rivals and grind out undeserved results.
There have been a number of surprises this season. Mihajlovicís arrival at the club was questioned as many supporters did not feel comfortable with the acquisition of another Lazio player who was also branded a racist. Others claimed that his only purpose at the club was to be Manciniís lockeroom spy and informant. Regardless of his past Mihajlovic has played well and it is no coincidence that some of Interís best defensive displays have taken place with a Cordoba-Mihajlovic central defence. Many a criticism has focused on his age and lack of pace but Mihajlovic is an experienced defender. His positioning and ability to read play make him an exceptional defender and that goes without mentioning the passing ability that has assisted in the scoring of several goals as well as his free kicks which make marvellous viewing.
Cambiasso is another player that has exceeded expectations. It was originally thought that Davids would be an automatic starter and Cambiasso would be a reserve but the latter player has been Interís best acquisition and his form has managed to relegate Davids to the bench or stands with the exception of matches when Cambiasso is rested. It took some time for Mancini to find Cambiassoís ideal position on the field but he has excelled with Cristiano Zanetti playing at his side and both players have formed a strong partnership at the centre of Interís midfield.
The understanding between Cambiasso and Cristiano Zanetti has caused some difficulties for the team. Despite Kily Gonzalezí return to full fitness, he is not being fielded on the left flank as Mancini insists on fielding Stankovic in his position when the latter player is best utilised in a central midfield role.
Veron, who is another player accustomed to playing in the centre of midfield is being fielded on the right side and Emre, a skilful central midfield player who has the ability to drift pass defenders, hold the ball and provide a reliable link between midfield and attack has been left to sit on the bench.
Davids has been the disappointment of the season. When he disclosed that he had chosen Inter as his new club many believed Inter had made one of the most notable midfield acquisitions of the summer transfer campaign. Having succeeded at Juventus and assisted Barcelona it was thought that he would add much needed depth to Interís midfield. Davids has been used sparingly and when he has played his efforts have hardly been notable. In his defence, he has not payed frequently enough to improve his form and there is now speculation that he will be sold to either Real Madrid or Barcelona or will be involved in a direct swap with Chelsea that will allow Veron to move to Inter on a permanent basis.
In attack, Mancini has an abundance of riches but as the season has progressed it has become blatantly obvious that changes need to be made for next season. Despite his reputation and his contribution over the years, Vieriís presence at the club continues to cause problems. The fact of the matter is that age has caught up with Vieri and he is no longer a lethal player that can frequently score goals. In saying this, his game has matured in that he no longer takes hopeful bashes in an attempt to score and he has become more of a team player by holding up the ball and trying to assist his fellow striker. The problem with Vieri does not concern waning ability but has more to do with reputation and the way he is viewed by Mancini. Having scored as many goals as he has and being one of Interís highest earners, it is difficult to relegate him to the bench in favour of Adriano or any other striker. As a result, Mancini has showed patience with Vieri where he would otherwise not hesitate to drop another player who shows similar form. Ideally, what is needed is recognition of the fact that Vieri can still make a contribution but he should not lead Interís attack. As a result, preference should be given to an Adriano-Martins partnership with Vieri accepting a pay cut and making a contribution when called upon.
The player that has most suffered as a result of Manciniís favouritism towards Vieri has been Recoba. Earlier in the season it was reported he and Mancini fell out during a training session and if Manciniís recent selections are anything to go by, Recoba is not being considered as he was not even selected in the squad to play against Porto and Milan. In recent days there have been reports that he may leave in the summer with Arsenal or Sampdoria being possible destinations but a move to the latter club is questionable unless Recoba agrees to a substantial pay cut.
When Recoba is discussed, inconsistency is inevitably mentioned. Many argue that he is inconsistent and fails to make an impact on big occasions. Supporter expectations of Recoba are unnecessarily high with many criticising him when he does not score or assist. No one can question his talent but his task is made all the more difficult when he is called to make a contribution with fifteen or twenty minutes remaining in a match. Quite often, the rest of the team is tiring and he does not get the service he would receive if he was starting and there is little a player can do when they have only played a handful of minutes or they are played out of position. The answer to the Recoba problem is to allow him more playing time. Place some faith in his abilities and give him a chance to prove his worth. At Venezia he was a star and since being at Inter there have only been glimpses of his genius. Last season when Recoba partnered Adriano they formed a good partnership in that Recoba acted as the attacking decoy and allowed Adriano to receive assisting passes or run into space which inevitably led to goals. Not selecting Recoba in the squad or putting him on the bench is simply a waste of a very talented player and it would be better to sell him to another club and give him a chance to prosper as opposed to seeing him ignored at Inter.
At the moment, Inter is turning a long corner on a difficult road. A bid for a fourteenth Scudetto will have to wait until next season but the Nerazzurri are still in the running for the Coppa Italia and Champions League. Going by this seasonís performances, faith in the team is not misplaced.
Manciniís Inter works as a unit and fights for its results. For the first time in many years Inter has structure and there is no longer a reliance on brilliant individual efforts. Further, the team has learnt to play possession football and dictate play as opposed to the Cuper years in which opponents often controlled matches, had a greater share of possession and left Inter to suffer long periods in which the team had to defend. Patience is needed as Manciniís Inter only requires the fine tuning that comes with time. Despite the numerous amounts of draws, positive results appear to be in touching distance and when they come we will have every reason to be optimistic about a change in fortune for our beloved Nerazzurri.