Jose Mourinho has taken Inter back to the big time
* Inter last won the league and European Cup in 1965
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16 May 2010
The hard bit is done.
The door is open. Now Inter have to pluck up the courage to walk through it, exorcising the demons of the past and the myriad times they stumbled at the final hurdle. And that’s the tricky part.
Inter fans will likely deny it, but there is little doubt that they have slipped just beneath the elite of European Football. Saturday’s Champions League final against Bayern Munich will be their first since 1972, some 20 years before the tournament changed from the European Cup to its current format. Contrast this with the rest of the continent’s big boys: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona, Liverpool, Arsenal, Juventus, Milan … all have been there in the past decade. In fact, so too have Chelsea, Porto, Valencia, Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen.
The last time Inter were in a European Cup final, they were – legitimately – Italy’s “other” big club, with a claim of actually being the most successful. Juventus had more Serie A titles (14 to Inter’s 11), but the Nerazzurri had twice won the European Cup (and, as Celtic fans know, were runners up in 1966/67), whereas Juventus had never even reached a European final of any kind. As for AC Milan, they too had won two European Cups, but they were behind in the domestic stakes with just nine “scudetti”.
Now, if Jose Mourinho has his way, everything will change in the course of six days. Today, they could win their 18th Serie A title (they are away to Siena, with a two-point lead over Roma who face Chievo), which would enable them to move ahead of Milan’s 17. It would be their fifth straight Serie A crown. And while their detractors would no doubt say that it has been cheapened by Calciopoli and its aftermath – the first title was awarded to them by sporting tribunal, the second benefited from the punishments handed out to their rivals – it’s a feat thus far matched only by Juventus in the 1930s and the legendary Torino side which perished in a plane crash at Superga in 1949. Next Saturday they could win their third European Cup, which would give them as many as Barcelona and Manchester United and more than Juventus.
Inter have been extremely active, almost maniacally so, to pursue elusive silverware
What raises the stakes here is that it is not a “sleeping giant” situation. Far from slumbering through the past four decades, Inter have been extremely active, almost maniacally so, spending freely to pursue elusive silverware. In fact, while hard numbers are unavailable, it’s likely that no club has spent more than the Nerazzurri in terms of wages and transfer fees since 1972. And only now is it all coming together.
That ought to be the story if Inter lift the trophy at the Bernabeu next week, though, in reality, you can be sure that, especially in the English press, it will be all about a certain Portuguese manager from Setubal. Mourinho draws attention always and everywhere. He could go out to dinner with Barack Obama, Madonna, the Dalai Lama, Osama Bin Laden, George Clooney and Lord Lucan and he would still overshadow everybody else. That’s the way it is, no point in fighting it. And, to be fair, Mourinho deserves much of the attention for the way he has evolved and changed as a manager. Until now, at least at Chelsea and Inter, his calling card had been consistency and ground-out results, while perhaps displaying an inability to raise his game in the big matches. Witness Inter’s Champions League exit against Manchester United last season, or, in his time at Chelsea, the defeats to Liverpool and Barcelona.
This season has been different. Inter have not been outstanding, week in, week out. Regardless of what happens today, this will be their lowest points total in Serie A since 2005. Mourinho himself has admitted that he’s been frustrated, particularly by smaller, hyper-tactical sides and that it has been a “growing process” for him. On the other hand, he has not put a foot wrong in the big games, particularly against Chelsea away and Barcelona at home. Those two matches were little gems, in which he thoroughly outplayed and outcoached his opposite numbers, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. Which is exactly the quality you need to win knockout competitions.
It’s worth noting he has done all this after thoroughly overhauling the side. When you lose your best player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man around whom Inter were built – and bring in half a dozen new starters, you expect some kind of a transition period.
Instead, after a few hiccups, Mourinho was able to seamlessly integrate the newcomers into the side. And he did it while feuding with the media (which, come to think of it, may not have been such a problem: the man seems to thrive on controversy) and dealing with the walking, talking basket case that is Mario Balotelli.
Beyond that, there are plenty of subsidiary storylines which are no less intriguing. The Brazilian centre-back Lucio looks to get his own back against Bayern, the club where he starred for five seasons before being unceremoniously dumped last summer. Wesley Sneijder, who hasn’t put a foot wrong all season, returns to the Bernabeu to remind his old fans just what they missed out on when they jettisoned him to make way for Kaka, who is three years older and cost four times as much. Walter Samuel, another man who flopped at the Bernabeu, will also be looking to rub some people’s noses in it, as might Esteban Cambiasso, signed by Real at 16 and then released at 24. Samuel Eto’o, the man the Bernabeu loves to hate, will also be looking to get some licks in. Javier Zanetti, who turns 37 this summer and has battled through 15 seasons at Inter, will continue to defy logic and conventional wisdom, showing that dedication and professionalism can hold age at bay and that nationality has nothing to do with loyalty.
Throw in the fact that Inter have the opportunity to win a historic treble – they won the Coppa Italia 10 days ago – and everything is nicely set up for Mourinho and his men. It’s there, you just have to reach up and grab it.