Inter on a high amid Italy’s woes

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Crisis-ridden Italian football resumes this weekend after a week’s suspension following the death of a policeman in clashes with hooligan supporters in Sicily. But most matches will be played in an eerie silence because spectators have been barred from the many stadiums that fail to meet safety and security measures demanded by anti-hooligan legislation.

The tragic state of affairs off the pitch adds to the surreal air that already surrounded this season in Italy following last summer’s corruption scandal, which left Juventus demoted to the second division and various clubs docked points.

Unusually, sitting proudly atop Serie A are Internazionale Milan with a colossal 57 points. Even an outstanding AS Roma appear to be running out of breath in second place, panting 11 points behind the runaway leaders.

With 17 fixtures remaining, no Interista would dare utter it yet but coach Roberto Mancini’s rampant Inter look a certainty for their second Serie A championship in succession after 17 long years without the coveted scudetto. Some domestic critics unfairly dismiss their 2006 title, awarded after Juventus were stripped of the title for their part in the influence-peddling scandal. So victory this season would be all the sweeter.

Yet some of the glory could be stolen from them because tardy building work at the San Siro stadium means it too will be closed to fans. The team will have to face the run-in to the title without the advantage of home support.

The team’s success stems from lifting the little-valued Italian Cup in both of Mancini’s first two seasons, which built confidence, and a 2007 championship would confirm Inter’s return to dominance in Italy.

Comparisons are already being made with coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter of the 1988-89 season. They won the title with a record points total and rewrote the Italian football compendium.

“I would say that, if anything, this current side is even better than the famous 1989 team,” says Fabio Monti, football writer with the Milan-based Il Corriere della Sera newspaper. Coming from an Inter expert such as Monti, who has reported on Italy’s most romantic team for nigh on two decades, this is high praise indeed. 

“The ’89 team won but often, at least in the first half of the season, not with a bel gioco (attractive play), whereas today’s side is winning and playing attractive football too.”

In recent years the nerazzurri (black and blues) have repeatedly disappointed their long-suffering fans. Most famously, defeat was pulled from the very jaws of victory in May 2002 when Héctor Cúper’s table-toppers contrived to throw away the lead twice to lose at Lazio on a sweltering final day of the season.

High-spending Inter owner and president Massimo Moratti had already suffered a similar disappointment when coming second in 1998 amid doubts over biased refereeing in favour of Juventus, suspicions that hardened with last summer’s revelations of the Turin club’s manipulation of match officials.

Moratti had taken over Inter in 1995. In his first decade, he went through 10 coaches and spent a reported €300m-plus on players – a figure that still prompts an embarrassed “no comment” from the club.

Much was recouped in subsequent sales but millions were wasted each season on ill-advised purchases of over-hyped players with super-inflated salaries. Each title-less campaign added to the pressure, worsened by the resurgence of arch rivals AC Milan at the turn of the new century.

But now Moratti’s faith is being repaid. Inter are winners. So what has gone right?

Monti explains: “Moratti finally had the patience to give a coach several seasons to build a squad. The players bought were acquired in order to form a team in a logical way, with a plan in mind.”

Mancini is in his third season in charge, itself a record at modern Inter, and his huge squad has good cover in each position. Thus far, Mancini’s men are undefeated in 21 league matches – including a 4-3 win over AC Milan in the derby – and are on an amazing run of 14 successive victories, a Serie A record. They were due to host AS Roma last weekend in a likely title-decider before the emergency suspension was introduced.

Up to now, though, they have swept all before them. Top scorers with 46 goals, they also boast the most niggardly defence – equal to Milan and Roma – having been breached just 17 times.

Mancini, after trying no less than 34 assorted line-ups last season, has adapted his favoured 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-1-2 shape. This better uses last summer’s new arrivals, acquisitions that made a strong squad even stronger.

Gangly striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira deserted the sinking Juventus ship to join Inter, for €16m and €9.5m respectively. 

Vieira has not been outstanding but adds steel to midfield. Ibrahimovic started slowly and remains undisciplined but has bagged 10 league goals so far. Hernán Crespo, back on loan from Chelsea, has scored seven. Brazilian forward Adriano went nine months without a goal until December, then took a long “sort out my head” break in Brazil and is finally back on form, scoring three goals in the past four matches. His resurgence in particular will worry forthcoming Champions League opponents Valencia. 

And like Marcello Lippi’s World Cup-winning Italy team last year, goals are coming from throughout the side.

Defender Marco Materazzi has scored five, including an overhead scissors kick of which Adriano would have been proud. Defender Fabio Grosso came from Palermo for €5.5m but the World Cup hero’s subsequent dip in form has been overshadowed by the astonishingly effective performances of 25-year-old Brazilian Douglas Maicon, signed from Monaco for €7.35m.

Dejan Stankovic has finally hit form, revelling in the space Mancini’s new formation affords him as an attacking midfielder, scoring five times. Captain Xavier Zanetti, formerly at right-back, is also benefiting from playing further forward. Argentine Esteban Cambiasso’s return to form as a combative defensive midfielder has contributed to the solidity at the back, as has the much-underrated Materazzi’s maturity and sheer physical courage.

Are Inter that good or is a Serie A without Juventus simply weaker?

Monti says: “It’s not just that Juve are missing. It is above all the fact that their ‘psychological’ weight isn’t there any more.” 

Teams such as Inter, he argues, were intimidated into submission by long-held suspicions that behind-the-scenes skulduggery was going on. “Players would think, ‘what’s the point in trying if the other side have that advantage,’ ” he says.

There is an old saying in Italian football: “There is nothing like winning to help you win.” Last season Inter convinced opponents that they were winners. This season they finally appear to have convinced even themselves.

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