The start of the new Serie A season is less than 3 weeks away, but yet again Italian clubs have flown under the radar in their summer preparations. All across the league, there is no denying that Serie A cannot command the same prestige as it did in the last decade. The highest-profile arrivals this year has been a returning Jeremy Menez to Milan and Alvaro Morata to Juventus – hardly signings which will inspire a revival in the league’s appeal. While Juve and Roma have steadily built upon last year’s success, the same cannot be said of Internazionale.
This will be Inter’s first full season since Massimo Moratti decided to divest part of his ownership in the club to Indonesian magnate Erick Thohir for the sum of €250 million. Moratti has not completely left the building – he still holds a 28.71% stake in the club – but Thohir, who made his fortune from the media industry, holds a 70% stake, with tyre maker Pirelli making up the remaining 1.83%.
After years of dominance in Italy since Juventus’ relegation to Serie B, culminating in the magnificent treble in 2010, Inter have found life to be less cosy below the mountaintop. Jose Mourinho’s team beat Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to becoming the first ever Italian team to complete a league, cup and Champions League treble in 2010, but since then they have finished second, sixth and ninth respectively. Walter Mazzarri arrived in 2013 to steady the ship, but last year’s fifth place finish was only slightly cushioned by the fact that bitter rivals Milan imploded completely and finished three places below in eighth. A more worrying statistic for Inter fans is that they have missed out on the Champions League altogether in the past two years since winning it in 2010.
The night Inter clinched the Champions League in Madrid, Mourinho was whisked away in an Audi on the way to becoming Real’s manager. He was replaced by Rafael Benitez, who quickly learned that following Mourinho was not an easy task. Benitez lasted all of six months before falling victim to Moratti’s famous impulsiveness. More coaches came and went: Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini, Claudio Ranieri, and Andrea Stramaccioni all had their chances and moments of madness, but none were able to reverse Inter’s inevitable spiral from the peak of their football cycle.
It was blindingly obvious to observers that the team was at the latter stages of their careers, but Moratti’s rejection of the idea that a treble-winning team needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up ultimately cost them dear. In fact, it set them back years, although one could argue that the rebuilding process itself would have achieved the same outcome.
The first sign of genuine change came with Moratti’s appointment of Mazzarri, who came on the back of several years of success at Napoli. However, the floodgates of change began to open wider when Moratti decided that Thohir’s offer for Inter was too good to refuse, and duly accepted the offer.
Changes in personnel were not confined to the boardroom, however. On the pitch, Javier Zanetti exchanged his legendary number 4 shirt for a suit in his new role as Inter’s vice president. Gone too, are the treble-winning backbone quartet of Julio Cesar, Samuel, Cambiasso and Diego Milito. Inter have desperately tried to replace Zanetti with a leader figure, most notably with the signing of Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United – but despite the undoubted caliber in Mazzarri, the squad looks painfully thin in depth and quality.
Andrea Ranocchia has taken over the captain’s armband from Zanetti, but even without his injuries the defender always looked vulnerable to pace and has a tendency to go on mental walkabouts during matches. Along with Handanovic, they are the ones who have been at the club the longest, but the rest of the squad are almost unrecognizable. The arrivals of Dani Osvaldo and Dodo will add some quality to the team, but midfield continues to suffer from a huge lack of creativity since the departure of Coutinho. This may not necessarily present a problem for Mazzarri, who prefers a five-man midfield, but Inter have struggled for goals in recent years and that looks unlikely to change this year. Meanwhile, the purported signing of Javier Hernandez promises to inject some much-needed pace to the Inter frontline, but the deal continues to be more rumour than fact.
Thohir, too, has not generated much confidence. Since becoming president in October 2013, he has managed to rile fans by attempting to swap Fredy Guarin for Mirko Vucinic, only to pull the plug at the death as Ultras raged about the impending transfer. Aside from the fact that offloading one of Inter’s few standout performers for an injury-prone, featherweight striker did not make much sense, Thohir failed to take into account the bigger picture – the club was in the process of losing the connection between fans and their heroes on the pitch and could ill-afford the loss of its few fan favourites.
Whether Inter can realistically challenge for anything this season remains to be seen. A club of their stature would accept no less than to challenge for the league, but in a year where even Juventus have appeared directionless, targeting a top three finish alone could be accepted as a bridge too far. Inter will participate in the Europa League should they get past Iceland’s Stjarnan F.C., but should they do so, the toll on their thin squad promises to be a heavy one.
Even traditional targets will not suffice. Juventus’ failure to beat Benfica in last year’s Europa League semi-finals meant that Italy fell one spot further in UEFA’s coefficient ranking system to fifth, behind Spain, England, Germany and Portugal. Where Italian teams once sat snugly with the other two big of Spain and Italy, they could now be facing the next plausible scenario like the one faced by Portugal in recent times – regular participation by only two clubs in the Champions League.
All is not bleak for Serie A, however. Inter’s rivalry with Juventus – the Derby d’Italia – remains the second most significant match in Italian football after the Rome derby, and will always generate bitter antagonism and passion. When Inter ruled Serie A unchallenged during the year Juve spent languishing in Serie B, all the talk focused on what would happen when (and not if) Juve eventually return to the top flight. The league can rest knowing that things will not change this time around, and it will likely remain the same forever.
However, if Italian football is to feature prominently on the European map again, it will need its biggest clubs. Despite cantering to the league, Juventus has found out that the latter stages of Champions League has been their glass ceiling. Milan are stuck, as they always seem to be, with one foot firmly in the past and the other trying desperately to move forward. Roma will find its limits severely tested in the Champions League this year, while Rafa Benitez will be consolidating his second year at Napoli. Make no mistake, Italy desperately needs Inter to be back competing again.