The 'crazy' goings-on at Inter Milan
As a penalty that could have saved a point is blazed over the crossbar, the anthem 'Pazza Inter' ('Crazy Inter') rings out from the raucous Curva Nord as the Giuseppe Meazza's most dedicated fans continue to back their side. But the Italian giants' latest defeat leaves them just three points off the Serie A relegation places, on their second coach of the season after Claudio Ranieri replaced Gian Piero Gasperini and having already used an incredible 29 players so far this term. The words to that club song, which goes on to ask the team not to let them suffer, are once again becoming ever more apt.
With the ever increasing demand for instant glory, it only takes one of European football's great clubs to drop so much as a point at home for them to be deemed as struggling, with two losses seemingly enough for newspapers the world over to break out the 'cracked badge' logos and start putting the word 'crisis' into their match reports. Yet here is one of the most successful clubs of recent times in a position and they appear to be going through a genuinely concerning period on almost every level.
At first glance, it is seemingly nothing new. Inter have made bad starts to the season before, notably last season when Rafael Benitez received little or no support from the club's hierarchy and failed to deliver a continuation of the extraordinary successes of the previous season. Indeed, it is incredible to think that the Milanese side were crowned Europe's best club just 19 months ago. That they claimed that Champions League victory as part of a unique and unprecedented treble - one that included their fourth consecutive league win - only serves to further highlight that fall from grace.
Of course, Leonardo arrived on Christmas Eve last year, the suave Brazilian coaxing the Nerazzurri's elder statesmen into a remarkable turnaround, one that eventually saw them fall just short of city cousins Milan in the Scudetto race. Yet, for the first time since 2004, they ended the season trophy-less - if we discount the World Club Championship, which, as Jose Mourinho was quick to point out, was only available thanks to their previous feats. Just what has led to this collapse, what state is the club actually in and where do they go from here?
Inter, despite the song's pleas, have always made their supporters suffer. From spectacular collapses when it was easier to win a title than not (never ask Héctor Cúper about May 5, 2002) to bizarre transfer deals such as buying Denmark international Thomas Helveg from AC Milan for £6 million only to immediately loan him back to the Rossoneri to inexplicable coaching decisions like firing Gigi Simoni after having the temerity to only win the UEFA Cup (when it still held great prestige) and finish second in the league to Marcello Lippi's Juventus.
A quick glance at the current squad shows some truly talented names, world-renowned stars such as Wesley Sneijder and Diego Forlán, yet on closer inspection the worries truly do begin to emerge. Eleven of the club's 24-man UEFA List played under Roberto Mancini and they have 12 players over the age of 30. This summer's - and indeed last winter's - transfer market was geared towards changing this and a number of highly talented young players have arrived. However, the general consensus is that this is a squad still running on empty after being bled dry by Mourinho during that incredible 2009-10 run.
Indeed, many of that tremendous squad are now struggling: Sneijder and Maicon have become increasingly injury-prone leading many to believe they should have been sold last summer at the peak of their market values. Julio Cesar and Walter Samuel have also missed long spells with injury and a number of others have suffered terrible loss of form, perhaps most noticeably Cristian Chivu, who has been substituted in almost 20% of games in which he has played since the start of last season.
With so many poor spells, the young players have not been allowed space and time to develop as the situation has demanded instant success. As a result, players like Andrea Ranocchia and Philippe Coutinho have struggled to continue their progress and their careers have stalled somewhat in recent times, never truly capturing the form that saw them become Inter targets in the first place. Added to this feeling of stagnation is the realisation that while players such as Iván Córdoba and Diego Milito were kept in Milan on huge wages, rising stars such as Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli were sold on to fund the continued malaise.
Many of the problems have been down to the coaching woes that are, for a club of Inter's stature, quite inexplicable. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the Premier League could have warned the club of what would happen if Benitez was the man to follow his nemesis Mourinho into such a job. Trying to change too much too soon in order to escape the omnipresent shadow of the Portuguese was as inevitable as it was foolhardy, and the success of Leonardo when reverting back to Mourinho's tactics and team selection came as no surprise.
Then we have the bizarre situation of this summer when the club drew up what must be world football's most eclectic coaching shortlist when narrowing their choice down to Fabio Capello, Marcelo Bielsa or André Villas-Boas. When they failed to lure any of that vastly different trio, an even more ill-fitting man was chosen in the shape of former Genoa boss Gasperini. Here is a coach synonymous with the 3-4-3, a formation simply impossible to implement with defenders as old as Inter's and one with no space for Sneidjer, still arguably the club's best player.
All of which brings us on to the senior management of the club, which for a long time was the laughing stock of Italian football, largely due to ridiculous levels of spending, some utterly ludicrous transfer decisions and some odd choices of coach. A look at their burgeoning Organisational Structure, a term that really is somewhat misleading, shows just how many levels of management they have.
Indeed, suppressing that chaos in order to get what he needed may well have been Mourinho's greatest accomplishment during his time at San Siro. The signing of Forlán, only to then discover he was ineligible in the Champions League, should never have been allowed to happen to a side of Inter's standing, but then this is a club who swapped Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf for Francesco Coco and Guly not so long ago.
Yet it is far from a complete disaster and there is much reason to be optimistic for their future if - and with Inter this is a huge if - the rebuilding is allowed to continue properly. Italy international goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano is returning from injury and is comfortably a good enough shot-stopper to supplant Cesar should the need arise. In front of him, Ranocchia and Yuto Nagatomo can become cornerstones of a new-look defence where Luca Caldirola and Marco Faraoni could also begin to make a mark if they are patiently given time to do so.
In midfield, once some of the old guard have been moved on, Thiago Motta is still the right side of 30, while Andrea Poli and Ricardo Álvarez are hugely talented prospects, and up top Forlán and Pazzini have much to offer once quality lines of supply are restored. Ranieri has arrived as coach in his now customary fire-fighting role but is surely not a long-term solution, providing the board with yet another difficult conundrum to solve before they can properly move on.
Losing to Udinese this weekend was their sixth defeat of the season - and one that leaves them rooted at the wrong end of the Serie A table - but in Europe they have comfortably qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League. This is just another of the amazing contradictions with Inter, but one they must look to rectify quickly or face another long, arduous winter complete with cracked badges and weekly talk of a crisis. Pazza Inter indeed.