Little more than a year ago, on 22 May 2010, Inter Milan were celebrating being crowned European champions for the third time in their history. The Santiago Bernanbeu was the backdrop as they beat Bayern Munich 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League showpiece, having overcome Barcelona in the semi-finals. However, the joy of victory soon gave way to concern for the future as coach Jose Mourinho opted to stay in the Spanish capital with Real Madrid.
Fifteen months on from that game and the hole left by the Portuguese tactician has yet to be properly filled. Rafael Benitez and Leonardo have both come and gone following brief spells, and Gian Piero Gasperini now holds the reins, the turnover in coaches contrasting with greater continuity among the playing staff. Aside from Samuel Eto’o’s transfer to Anzhi Makhachkala, I Nerazzurri have managed to retain the players who took them to the European summit, and the club will look to build on that stability as they set about reclaiming the Scudetto from city neighbours AC Milan after their five-year reign was ended last season.
Mourinho’s thirst for silverware made him a natural fit at Inter, where an expectation of success has run deep since the title-laden days of Helenio Herrera, inventor of catenaccio. Indeed, having rediscovered the wining habit, I Nerazzurri looked initially as if they had no intention of losing it again after Mourinho departed. With Benitez at the helm, they scooped up the Supercoppa Italiana and won the FIFA Club World Cup, giving club president Massimo Moratti even more reason not to give in to the Spaniard’s frequent requests for reinforcements.
The mood gradually began to turn within the dressing room, however. Benitez attempted introduce a more attacking approach, but his message was no longer getting through and Inter found themselves 13 points behind Milan at the start of the winter break. Despite his two trophies, Benitez was sacked six months after being appointed on 23 December, and the following day Inter announced the sensational news that former Milan coach Leonardo had been charged with getting the team back on track.
The 41-year-old Brazilian’s strong suit would soon prove to be man-management as opposed to tactics. The former world champion had a gift for finding the right words to get his players performing and that was especially true of the large South American contingent, with whom he shared a similar football education. In particular, his words resonated with Argentinian captain Javier Zanetti, just three years his junior but as influential as ever both on and off the pitch.
With the senior players won over, the settled nature of Inter’s line-up began to bear fruit again, 31-year-old Esteban Cambiasso having been at the San Siro since 2004 and both Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar, 31, and stalwart defender Walter Samuel, 33, coming on board a year later. In addition, full-back Maicon, 30, had been patrolling the right flank since 2006, and his Brazilian compatriot Lucio, 33, joined in 2009. Together, they bore down on the club’s seventh Coppa Italia triumph and secured second place in Serie A to guarantee a tenth consecutive season in the Champions League.
Just as I Nerazzurri seemed back in business, however, Leonardo stepped down as coach, as he had done at Milan the previous summer. Attracted by the post of sporting director at Paris Saint-Germain, he left Moratti with the task of finding a replacement. Talks were then held with Marcelo Bielsa, Andre Villas-Boas and Sinisa Mihajlovic before erstwhile Crotone and Genoa coach Gasperini was unveiled as the man to lead the club into 2011/12.
Neither chaos nor privilege
Morattti possibly had Mourinho’s words ringing in his ears when he plumped for the 53-year-old. “He’s the coach who’s given me the most problems,” remarked the Portuguese after a game against Genoa in January 2009. “I made changes and he adapted to them.” Mourinho may also have picked up on a sense of assuredness similar to his own, and while he may lack experience at a leading outfit, Gasperini left Genoa a revered figure, having earned the nickname Gasperson in a nod to none other than Sir Alex Ferguson.
A disciple of 3-4-3, he has already made it clear he believes “a three-man defence suits Inter perfectly”, adding: “Unity and a strong squad are the basis of any team and Inter have a very strong squad. This team hasn’t been weakened at all, not even after Eto’o’s departure. Neither chaos nor privilege: that’s how it has to be at Inter.”
Not even a 2-1 loss to rivals Milan in the Supercoppa has shaken his conviction and confidence remains high, with the club expected to sign a striker to partner Giampaolo Pazzini in Eto’o’s absence. Further back, talented Dutchman Wesley Sneijder will again be pulling the strings, but while the players all know the ropes, it is to the dugout that the fans will look for the stability missing since that famous night in Madrid.