History a reminder for Inter
Walter Zenga was in goal the night Inter lost 1-0 to minnows Turun Palloseura at the San Siro. Mika Aaltonen caught him by surprise in the first leg of their 1987 UEFA Cup tie. His wonderful strike, which soared into the top corner from 30 yards, was so good it even persuaded his shocked opponents to sign him. It clinched arguably the most famous win in the Finnish outfit's history.
"It was one of those things that happens to you once in your career," Zenga reflected in La Gazzetta dello Sport. A fortnight later, TPS' dreams of progressing through to the next round were dashed. They were beaten 2-0 at the Veritas Stadion in Turku. Enzo Scifo and Spillo Altobelli saved Inter's blushes. But the memory lives on and has been evoked ahead of Wednesday night's Europa League playoff against Stjarnan in Iceland.
Zenga, nicknamed "Uomo Ragno" or Spider-Man during his playing days, doesn't have a funny feeling about it. His Spidey sense is telling him not to expect a repeat of his experience against TPS. "Do we really think that an Icelandic team can put us in a spot of bother?" he scoffed. "We're in a bad state then ... For goodness' sake, they're very likable when they celebrate," he added in reference to the Stjarnan routines that have become a viral sensation, "but it seems to me that the only problem is the four-hour flight to get there."
How condescending. Stjarnan are owed more respect than that and must not be underestimated. But Inter's former goalkeeper is correct. A club of their standing, even if they are far removed from the all-conquering treble winners of four years ago, shouldn't go into this tie with any trepidation. However, coach Walter Mazzarri has however struck a different tone. "A game like this can hold hidden dangers," he said.
The 'Urvalsdeild,' or Icelandic first division, has been underway since May. Stjarnan are top with only seven games remaining. Unbeaten in six league games, with wins over Bangor City, Motherwell and Lech Poznan from their earlier Europa League preliminaries, they're in form and in optimal physical condition.
With many players returning late for preseason following their participation at the World Cup and the new Serie A campaign still another 10 days away, Inter, by contrast, are behind. Double sessions have left their legs heavy. The emphasis on tactics, too, which is so much more pronounced than in other countries, also contributes to a lack of intensity. Factor in the absence of competitive matches and the fitness and rhythm they bring then it's clear that any wariness is perhaps legitimate. "After watching video of us, they stated themselves they're probably in better shape with regard to the point we're at in the season," Mazzarri mused.
Before he could be accused of having a 'provincial attitude' -- small-minded for such a big club -- the man once known as the Banana because of the bend of his nose, did also say: "We always look to play our game. We're Inter, so that's normal for us. We'll look to do it away from home as well."
It will be a test of the new Inter's character. The retirement of Javier Zanetti and exits of fellow Argentines Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Diego Milito at the end of last season mean that there are no longer any members of Jose Mourinho's history-making Inter team in the dressing room. A leadership vacuum needs filling. Andrea Ranocchia, a player of fragile confidence who was close to being sold to Galatasaray last winter, has been handed the armband in the hope that such a display of faith instills in him the belief to become the defender everyone knows he can be.
New signing Nemanja Vidic, a warrior and former captain of Manchester United and Serbia whose presence already seems to be missed at Old Trafford, is also expected to transmit the mentality required of a winning team. Zanetti will also remain present to set the example, only this time he will be in the suit of a vice-president rather than the full Inter kit we've grown accustomed to seeing him in these past 19 years.
Reminiscent of the placard Helenio Herrera hung in Inter's dressing room during the 1960s on which was printed his winning formula: Class, Preparation, Fitness, Intelligence equals a Scudetto, a tablet of nine (rather than 10) commandments has recently gone up at Inter's Appiano Gentile training ground to remind the players of their obligations. They are: to give their best, to always play with their hearts, to go forth regardless of the result, to help each other, to accept help, to take responsibility, to put their talent at the team's disposition, to resolve problems together and to never surrender. Bearing them in mind, even if they should all go without saying for a professional athlete, should serve Inter well.
Until 10 days ago, the mood around the camp was optimistic. Inter had made a number of shrewd signings, leaving many with the impression that they'd had one of the better transfer windows in Italy and that they'd upgraded on last year. Without reading too much into them, their performances in the International Champions Cup in the United States were also encouraging. Inter beat a second string Real Madrid (although one that included Gareth Bale and Isco) on penalties. They shut out a Manchester United side featuring Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata only to succumb on spot kicks, and overcame Roma, last year's Serie A runners-up, 2-0.
Their defensive solidity in particular caught the eye. The only goal Inter conceded in normal time was a howitzer from -- their old nemesis -- Bale from all of 30 yards. Nothing could be done about it. They were, however, brought back down to Earth on their return to Europe. A 3-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt acted as a wake-up call. "Nessun dorma," said defender Juan Jesus. "No one sleeps. Now we can no longer joke around. In the past we've fallen asleep and risked making a fool of ourselves."
Inter don't want to be embarrassed. New owner Erick Thohir feels Inter's return to Europe, their going deep in its competitions and the prestige that comes with participating in them every year is vital to restoring the club's faded glory and re-asserting a brand that was never globalised, nor maximised by his predecessor Massimo Moratti.
A stalemate with PAOK in Salonica last week has however done little to reassure ahead of Wednesday night's game. Inter managed only a single shot on target. In all this summer, they've found the back of the net just five times in six friendlies. Yet the team doesn't lack firepower. Dani Osvaldo has been added to Mauro Icardi and Rodrigo Palacio, but with five training sessions behind him, he isn't ready to start. And besides, the cautious Mazzarri won't stray from playing with only one striker up top anyway.
This part of the world has been unforgiving for Inter in the past. Giovanni Trapattoni's Inter were eliminated from the European Cup by Roy Hodgson's Malmo of Sweden in 1989. The beginning of the end for Marcello Lippi at San Siro was a defeat on away goals in a Champions League playoff to Swedish side Helsingborgs. "We mustn't underestimate Stjarnan," Mateo Kovacic insisted. "The World Cup qualifiers come to mind. Iceland only lost in the playoffs against [my] Croatia."
Anything other than an Inter win would still be a surprise. And Mazzarri has safely navigated Europa League playoffs before [his Napoli cruised past Swedish club Elfsborg three years ago]. But were Stjarnan to score or get a result, you can bet they will have a celebration planned.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.