Defenders have always been afforded special status at Inter Milan. Fans and officials have long had a weak spot for the finest exponents of the defensive arts and, as he gears up for Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final, coach Jose Mourinho no doubt sleeps easy at night knowing his current line-up boasts its own fair share of talented centre-halves and full-backs.
Players may come and go, and coaches too, but the philosophy remains the same. It is almost as if the spirit of Giacinto Facchetti – that most forward-thinking of defenders – still looms over the team, even if the Serie A champions actually clinched their title by combining the country’s most prolific attack (75 goals scored) with the most miserly defence (34 conceded).
The likes of Diego Milito, Wesley Sneijder and Samuel Eto'o have undoubtedly weighed in with a healthy tally of often spectacular strikes this term. However it is at the back that Inter have impressed above all – even if their coach likes to suggest otherwise. “I don’t remember another match like Inter-Barcelona in this season’s Champions League,” explained Mourinho when asked about his team’s defensive strength. “Nobody else has played the football we played that night, attacking as much as we did and scoring three goals [in a 3-1 win] against the European champions. Nobody else attacked the way we did at Stamford Bridge either.”
The Portuguese tactician also resents the theory that Saturday’s opponents Bayern Munich and their coach Louis van Gaal have a deeper commitment to entertaining football. ”When Bayern found themselves down to ten men against Lyon, he took off Ivica Olic,” added Mourinho. “When Thiago Motta was sent off against Barcelona, we didn’t change anything. Whoever says that Inter think only about defending must have sand in their eyes.”
The San Siro outfit are nonetheless well versed in what it takes to keep opponents at bay. Indeed they gave their finest demonstration of organisation and efficiency away against Barcelona in the second leg of their semi-final. Down to ten men and denied possession, Inter put in a display for the ages fashioned from banks of players positioned with absolute accuracy, a commitment to regaining shape whenever they lost the ball and a general sacrifice to a brilliantly engineered system. The holders enjoyed 75 per cent of the possession and put together ten times as many passes as the visitors, but they were unable to rescue their title defence.
Having disposed of the Catalan giants in the last four, the club owned by Massimo Moratti are now vying to repeat the successes of 1964 and 1965, when Massimo’s father Angelo was at the helm. Coached by legendary proponent of catenaccio Helenio Herrera, the line-up then featured a quintet of players with an attacking remit – Jair, Sandro Mazzola, Luis Suarez, Mario Corso and Aurelio Milani – but all five were under strict orders from El Mago (The Wizard) “to take responsibility according to the movement of the team on the pitch”.
That message remains relevant more than 40 years on. “It was beautiful,” said Massimo Moratti after the Barcelona tie. “You even got the impression that Samuel Eto’o is a full-back by profession.” The Cameroon striker would have no doubt loved nothing more than to spend the evening in front of goal, waiting for the chance to register against his former team, but everyone has signed up to Mourinho’s vision.
Experience and power
That sense of sacrifice would have gone down well with the defensive icons of the clubs past, with four of the five players who have represented Inter the most having served at the back: namely, Giuseppe Bergomi (758 matches), Javier Zanetti (692), Facchetti (634) and Giuseppe Baresi (559), with Mazzola (565) the exception to the rule in fourth spot.
Today, Italy possibly lacks the same deep well of gifted defenders it used to enjoy, so Inter have turned their attentions overseas for recruitment purposes, as they previously did to snap up the likes of Andreas Brehme and Laurent Blanc. Those efforts have mostly been concentrated on South America, where the Nerazzurri once found Daniel Passarella and Carlos Gamarra, and as a result there is a strong Brazilian feel at the back.
Experience and power are the keywords in a rearguard featuring the cool and efficient Julio Cesar in goal and led by former Bayern Munich stopper Lucio, who at 32 seems to have rediscovered the stamina and energy of his youth. He is partnered by Argentinian international Walter Samuel, also 32 and blessed with an innate sense of positioning. Brazil’s Maicon and Romanian left-back Christian Chivu serve on the flanks, with tough-tackling duo Marco Materazzi and Ivan Cordoba of Colombia on the bench.
Taken one by one, they are all fine individual players, but what really makes life difficult for opposition forwards is that they function superbly as a unit. The age-old saying may claim that attack is the best form of defence, but, for Inter this season, defence is proving the best form of attack.