The only team that can stop Inter winning another league title are Inter themselves
On the morning after Internazionale had beaten Livorno 2-0 on the first weekend of November, there were those who speculated that, were the scudetto a boxing match, the referee would simply stop the fight and declare Inter the winners, fully six months ahead of time.
Normal service would seem to have been reassumed. The idea, expressed in this column last month, that maybe the reigning Italian champions would not quite have things their own way this season already seems dead and buried. Back in their usual dominant position in Serie A, Inter three days later underlined their well-being with their best performance of the last two years in the Champions League, coming from behind to beat Dinamo Kyiv 2-1 in Ukraine.
In the process, Inter jumped from last to first in their group. Are they about to finally perform to their best level in Europe too?
Time will tell, but what seems already clear is that we may have been misled by those early-season flourishes from such as Juventus (away wins against both Lazio and Roma), Lazio (beat Inter to win the pre-season Super Cup) and Sampdoria (one-time league leaders and the only side to beat Inter in Serie A so far this season). Subsequent events have suggested that the reigning champions are indeed the strongest side in the land, both on paper and on the pitch.
After just 11 games, Inter were already seven points clear of their closest rivals, Juventus and Sampdoria. By comparison, on the same Monday morning, Chelsea were just two points clear of Man United in England, Barcelona one ahead of Real Madrid in Spain, Leverkusen a point clear of Hamburg in Germany and Bordeaux two in front of Lyon in France.
This might lead to two fairly obvious conclusions: firstly, Inter have got stronger and, secondly, the others at best have stood still, if in fact they have not become weaker. Former Roma and Lazio coach Zdenek Zeman is just one of many observers of Italian football who argue that Inter are in a class of their own, at least in Italy, saying: “There is one recurring certainty about this Serie A title contest: Inter have no rivals, they can only hurt themselves. They have further strengthened this season, stretching the divide that separates them from their would-be rivals.”
Zeman argues that the arrival of such as Brazil midfielder Thiago Motta, Argentina striker Diego Milito, Wesley Sneijder of Holland and Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o has significantly upgraded a team that was already well ahead of its domestic rivals. On top of that, he points out, Inter even made money out of the Eto’o-Zlatan Ibrahimovic swap with Barcelona. After all, for years, Inter seemed to regularly throw away money in the transfer market.
Platini angers Inter
All of which may have been on the mind of UEFA president Michel Platini when he recently named Inter as one of those heavily indebted clubs that no one would want to buy. This was a remark which prompted a certain outrage up at Appiano Gentile, with Inter spokespersons pointing out that, while it might operate at a loss, the club has no debts thanks to the fact that oil-wealthy owner Massimo Moratti regularly steps in to fill the club coffers.
In the meantime, an indication of the economic power of Inter comes from the life and times of their former coach, Roberto Mancini. In late October, media speculation suggested that Mancini, sacked by Inter at the end of the 2007-08 season despite having lifted his third consecutive league title, had finally “rescinded” his contract with the club – for the handsome severance pay of approximately £7.1million. Mancini, who had a contract with Inter through to 2012 worth an annual £5.3m, is apparently now back on the market with England, France, Russia and Spain all being tipped as possible destinations. This is a story that will surely run and run.
Autumn events, too, served as a reminder to Mancini and others that coaching positions are always likely to become available, especially in Italy. When Siena sacked Marco Giampaolo in late October, he was the sixth Serie A coach to be given the old heave-ho in the first two months of the season. His dismissal follows on from that of Roma’s Luciano Spalletti (he actually resigned to be replaced by Claudio Ranieri), Atalanta’s Angelo Gregucci (replaced by Antonio Conte), Napoli’s Roberto Donadoni (Walter Mazzarri), Bologna’s Giuseppe Papadopulo (Franco Colomba) and Livorno’s Gennaro Ruotolo (Serse Cosmi). When it comes to coaching positions, the swings and roundabouts of hasty change always seem well oiled.
Which is perhaps more than we can say about Francesco Totti’s right knee. For the umpteenth time, it seems, the Roma talisman has had to resort to surgery to resolve an ongoing injury problem originally picked up during Roma’s 2-1 home win against Napoli at the beginning of October. Roma fans will be hoping he recovers for the first Roman derby of the season in early December. With Roma and Lazio both just above the relegation zone, stand by for sparks to fly.
Sparks flew, too, when England manager Fabio Capello returned to his native land for a sports journalists’ congress at the Federal training centre of Coverciano, Florence. In his typically forthright way, Capello prompted a deal of displeasure when he pointed out that Italian football is today often held to ransom by the “Ultra” fans of so many clubs.
“In Italy, the Ultra rule everything, they can do what they like, insult whomsoever they like,” Capello suggested. “In Italy, our decline is ever more evident and it will be all the more difficult to attract people back to football. Our stadia need to be much more fan-friendly and, as an Italian, I am sorry to see that we simply do not know how to set about changing things.”
Even though many senior football figures immediately attempted to play down Capello’s outspoken comments, there is little doubt that Capello did put his finger on one very sore Italian nerve; namely that until Italian clubs become owners of their own grounds, then a major block remains on the road to social and economic progress.
Not, mind you, that Capello’s reservations about the football set-up in his native land stopped him advising England icon David Beckham from moving there last season for a spell with Milan during the American off-season. That proved such a mutually satisfactory arrangement that it will be repeated again this season with Beckham expected to join Milan just before the new year.
Milan get a player who not only sells plenty of shirts but who also adds quality and quantity to the side, while Beckham, of course, gets the perfect off-season preparation for England’s World Cup bid in South Africa next season. This is surely the ultimate win-win contract.