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Internazionale triumph once again, but success in Europe remains the ultimate goal.

By Paddy Agnew in Rome
In the end it was only fitting that the first definitive verdict of the 2008-09 Italian season should prove to be the most important one. With Champions League, Europa League and relegation issues still undecided, reigning champions Internazionale wrapped up their fourth consecutive title – and 17th in total – on the third-last weekend of the campaign. What is more, they did it without having to kick a ball in joy or anger.

By a cruel irony it was Milan who did the trick for them, managing to lose 2-1 away to Udinese and thus eliminating any faint chance they might have had of making a last-gasp fight of it with their loathed city rivals. Inter celebrated in front of their own fans by beating Siena 3-0 the following day. With two days of the season remaining, their domestic supremacy was emphatically underlined by a league table which showed them 10 points clear of second-placed Milan, 13 clear of Juventus and 14 ahead of Fiorentina.

At the end of his first season in Serie A, Jose Mourinho has added yet another impressive entry to his curriculum vitae. Critics might argue that, in winning with Inter, the “Special One” was only following on in the footsteps of his predecessor, Roberto Mancini. After all, did he not inherit the strongest squad in Italian football, one whose total wage bill comes to a staggering £130million, there or thereabouts?

Maybe he did, but for a foreign coach to win at the first time of asking in Italian football – strongest squad or not – is no easy matter. The big question, though, is can Mourinho’s Inter bridge the gap between themselves and the strongest in Europe, such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Barcelona?

Long way to go
After all, when Massimo Moratti engaged the Portuguese maestro he did so with his eye firmly on the Champions League title. Both in the wake of Inter’s Champions League elimination by Manchester United last March and in the hours after his side confirmed its title victory, Mourinho suggested the club still had some way to go, saying: “This side is very strong but it does not play that high-intensity football that you have to play in Europe.

“Partly that has to do with age, a point underlined by the number of injuries suffered by this squad.

“But this year, three of the four Champions League semi-finalists – Arsenal were the exception – were simply stronger than us. Yet, if we manage to sign those three or four players that we are chasing then we can be as strong as them.”

With the exception of Argentinian striker Diego Milito and Brazilian midfielder Thiago Motta, both currently at Genoa, it is not yet clear who those reinforcements might be. Presumably, one area where Mourinho will be looking for fresh legs and a fresh mind is in defence.

In the meantime though, it is worth reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of Mourinho’s first Inter side. For much of the season critics lamented the fact that, while they hoovered up the points, his team rarely played an impressive, cerebral football. For many, Inter were a side without a gioco, a game plan. As La Repubblica’s astute writer Gianni Mura commented: “For sure, no one will recall Mourinho’s first Inter for the quality of its football. More likely, for its efficiency and, when necessary, its good luck.”

The fact is that the key players, with the exception of all-important Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were all defenders: men like Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Argentina utility man Javier Zanetti, Colombia central defender Ivan Cordoba, Brazil full-back Maicon and Argentina’s central midfielder Esteban Cambiasso. This was a side built on a rock-solid defence where at times the game plan seemed to be: defend, defend, do not concede, then knock the ball up to Ibrahimovic and he will win it for us.

This may seem an ungenerous analysis of an Inter side in which Brazil’s Adriano (before he ran back to South America), young Mario Balotelli and Serb schemer Dejan Stankovic all played important attacking roles. Furthermore, in the head-to-head clashes with title rivals Milan, Juventus and Roma, Mourinho’s side came out on top, winning three, drawing two and losing only once (in last autumn’s derby with Milan).

If it has been a matter of “so far, so good” for Mourinho this season at Inter, the real challenge starts now. Will he be able to significantly strengthen an already strong squad? Will he persuade talisman Ibrahimovic to stay? On the “human resources” front, Mourinho’s season at Inter was marked by his patient, skilful-but-firm handling of troubled stars such as Adriano and Balotelli. If he brings those skills to bear on Ibrahimovic, the Swede can be expected to stay despite his occasional public expressions of discontent.

On the transfer front, however, it is worth pointing out that Mourinho’s only major market move since arriving at Inter, the acquisition and almost immediate off-loading of Portuguese attacker Ricardo Quaresma on loan to Chelsea, was hardly a huge success.

Ranieri sacked
By the standards of his peer group, however, Mourinho’s season has been an outstanding success. While he and Inter prepare for a brighter future, Juventus and Milan were left to lick their wounds. After eight games without a win, Juventus finally lost patience with Claudio Ranieri and he became the first coach to be sacked by the club for 40 years. He was replaced by former club icon Ciro Ferrara.

Whoever gets the full-time job with Juve must address exactly the same problems that faced Ranieri. Does he persuade Gigi Buffon to stay on or would he prefer to sell him and use the money to buy new, young players? And when and how will Juventus get over their dependency on the ageing skills of Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved?

If things are not going well in Turin, then they are not much better at Milanello. When the club’s owner, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, told a group of Italian tourists in Egypt – he was there for a meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak – that his side would have won the title if only coach Carlo Ancelotti had not got it so badly wrong, it seemed, after eight years at Milan, that Ancelotti’s time was up.

The only other definitive verdict concerned the Italian Cup, in which Lazio beat Sampdoria 6-5 in a dramatic penalty shoot-out. The Roman club probably deserved their victory if only because, in Argentinian striker Mauro Zarate, they fielded not only the best player on the night but arguably the revelation of the Italian season.

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