Roma have taken advantage of Inter’s determination to succeed in the Champions League to claw their way back into the Serie A title race
All of a sudden, we have a contest. For much of this season Internazionale have been the strongest side in Italy with most observers agreeing that they are on course to win a fifth consecutive league title.
By the end of January, Inter were cruising along on top of the table, nine points clear of Milan and 11 ahead of Roma. The scudetto looked a mere formality, an annoying but gratifying distraction from the club’s main seasonal objective, namely Champions League glory.
Yet by the beginning of April, Roma had whittled down that 11-point deficit to just one following their 2-1 win against Inter in a dramatic game at the Olympic Stadium in Rome.
“We’re in the final straight and we’ll see what happens,” says Roma coach Claudio Ranieri.
“We’re a metre behind, but we’ve reopened the title race and Milan are also still in it.
“This will be a game of nerves and possibilities for everyone, but Inter are still favourites because they are ahead.”
Daniele De Rossi had given Roma a first-half lead against Inter and Ranieri was delighted at the way his side came back to win with a Luca Toni goal after Diego Milito had equalised for the visitors.
“It was a great game,” added Ranieri. “We didn’t let our heads drop when they equalised, even though it was offside. We kept believing and we got the win – and that’s very important for us.”
It is hard not to conclude that, concentrated as they are on Europe, Inter have begun to take their eye off the Serie A ball. In eight games through February and March, they picked up just 10 points as they won two, drew four and lost two (away to Catania and Roma). The sequence represented Inter’s worst run in Serie A for five years.
However, it says much about Inter’s priorities that their two defeats during this period came on the eve of important Champions League triumphs – firstly the 1-0 second round, second-leg win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and then ahead of the first leg of their quarter-final clash with CSKA Moscow at San Siro.
It was, of course, always possible that the 2-1 first-leg lead against Chelsea, combined with the hype surrounding coach Jose Mourinho’s return to England, would be enough to see Inter through. In the end, Mourinho produced a tactical masterpiece with a four-man attack of Milito in front of Goran Pandev, Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder. For once, attack did indeed prove to be the best means of defence, as Inter shut out Chelsea.
After arguably the team’s best Champions League performance of recent, often disappointing, seasons, it was always possible that Inter might then “stumble” over the less motivating opposition of CSKA.
Before the first leg against the Russians, Mourinho gave another of his enigmatic TV interviews in which he complained that, while he was very happy at Inter, he was less than happy with Italian football, saying: “I don’t like it and it doesn’t like me.”
Given that when he returned to Chelsea on a spying mission last Christmas he had prompted a barrage of “The Special One Wants To Return” tabloid headlines with his enthusiastic declarations of affection for the English game, this latest statement was hardly going to go unnoticed.
Were it not that both the Inter fans and the club itself have learned to take Mourinho’s increasingly rare public utterances with not so much a pinch as a wheelbarrow of salt, this latest one might have proved destabilising.
The ongoing Mario Balotelli soap opera has done little to help Inter either. For reasons that no outsider appears to understand, and which have yet to be fully explained, Mourinho continues to drop the talented 19-year-old from his squad.
While it has been so far, so good for Inter in the Champions League, rivals Roma will be watching their continuing progress closely in the hope that success in foreign fields will cause them even more distractions on the home front.
Battling on the two fronts has never been easy as just about every big name in the European game has discovered.
Juventus, twice winners of Europe’s biggest club prize, were given a rude awakening by former Inter boss Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in the last 16 of the Europa League. Leading 3-1 from the first leg, a goal from David Trezeguet after just two minutes of the return in London appeared to have settled matters. However, the Premier League side stormed back to win the tie 5-4 on aggregate.
The stunning turnaround has heaped further pressure on Juventus coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who was only appointed in January – and, according to Giovanni Trapattoni, only after the 71-year-old Republic of Ireland manager himself had turned the job down.