As Internazionale’s Chinese owners shuffled away from their customary position in the San Siro directors box at full-time on Sunday night, there must have been discreet murmuring and much contemplation. They had just witnessed what a real football team resembles, and unfortunately for them that side weren’t wearing black and blue.
15 points and three places separated Napoli and Inter in the Serie A table before their meeting under the bright Giuseppe Meazza lights, and while that distance wasn’t quite reflected in the scoreline, it was certainly more discernible from watching it unfold. Maurizio Sarri’s side won 1-0, but spurned a host of chances to increase their lead and further rub salt in Inter wounds.
Napoli were superior in almost every facet of the game. They pressed aggressively, defended smartly and attacked with a cohesion, speed and skill that the Nerazzurri’s current incarnation could only dream of. Napoli put in a credible effort against European champions Real Madrid and currently occupy the final qualifying position for next season’s tournament. Inter’s defeat coupled with Milan’s draw against lowly Crotone all but confirms that next year will be the fourth in a row without Milanese representation in Europe’s premier competition.
Juventus have a stranglehold on Serie A and their dominance is unlikely to relinquish any time soon. In theory though, Inter should be just behind the Old Lady and at the very least competing for third spot. The reality is a different tale.
Since Jose Mourinho dragged them to an improbable treble in 2010, Inter have qualified for the Champions League just once. There are a variety of factors which have contributed to their malaise. That 2010 side were ageing and nearing the end, but Mourinho extracted every last ounce of quality from them before jetting off to Madrid. After matching his father Angelo by presiding over a European Cup win, owner Massimo Moratti also felt his work was done and invested less. Decline was the only natural outcome.
Moratti sold a 70% majority stake in the club to Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir in late 2013 and Thohir set out to reestablish Inter at the forefront of Italian football. Inter were still in breach of financial FairPlay restrictions as recently as 2015, and the aim was to move to a more sustainable and self-sufficient model.
Performances on the pitch have still underwhelmed despite improvements off it. That is in part due to a succession of uninspiring coaching appointments and in part down to poor recruitment. But while the calibre of signing has improved, the choices in the dugout have not.
Walter Mazzarri was the manager when Thohir bought out Moratti. His team were largely dour to watch and at the time of his sacking in November 2014, Inter were ninth in the Serie A table, 12 points adrift of Juventus. His replacement was Roberto Mancini, who won three titles in his previous spell at the San Siro. In Mancini’s first full year back, Inter were top at Christmas, but they drifted away in the second half of the season and missed out on the top three again, finishing 13 points behind Roma.
Last summer, Chinese holding company Suning purchased a majority stake in the club and, in conjunction with Thohir’s investors, provided extra capital. The new ownership splashed over £150 million on new acquisitions, yet the managerial situation continued to hold them back. Mancini did a Mancini and quit after falling out with the board at the tail-end of a pre-season tour in the United States. Frank De Boer was appointed on the eve of their first league game, despite having no prior experience of playing or coaching in Serie A. While he was obviously hampered by the brevity of his preparation time, the Dutchman proved the wrong choice and was sacked with Inter lying 12th in the table.
Stefano Pioli took the reigns and initially sparked a revival in fortunes. Inter won 9 of his first 11 matches, shooting back into European contention. Since thrashing Atalanta 7-1 in March though, they’ve failed to win, losing four times in the process. To trail Roma and Napoli by 19 and 17 points respectively is unacceptable given their transfer outlay. Italian football’s surprise package La Dea possess a quarter of the budget Inter have, yet Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are odds on to end the season in the European positions at their expense.
Inter have arguably one of the strongest squads in Serie A. They have a 20-plus goal striker in Mauro Icardi, two of the best wide players (Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva) in the division, a midfield containing nearly €100 million worth of talent (Geoffrey Kondogbia, Roberto Galiardini and Joao Mario), a top quality goalkeeper (Samir Handanovic) and room on the bench for Ever Banega and Marcelo Brozovic. Pioli is a dependable figure, but the perception is that he’s just a placeholder for Suning as they seek a truly elite coach.
This week, news emerged of a meeting set for later in the month between Inter’s owners and Diego Simeone – which Suning have arranged in a bid to seduce the Atletico Madrid manager. Simeone was a cult hero amongst supporters when he played for the Nerazzurri in the late 1990s and would certainly prove a popular choice to lead them from the sideline. Whenever he eventually leaves Atletico, there will be no shortage of suitors. The Argentine previously expressed his desire to one day return as their coach and now might be the right time.
Simeone’s contract expires in 2018 and he promised to remain with Atletico as they transition from the Vicente Calderon to a new stadium next season. Tuesday’s latest crushing defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League might persuade him to change tack. It could provide further evidence that he’s taken them as far as he possibly can. Simeone has poured his heart and soul into the club and transformed Atletico into one of Europe’s strongest teams. No one of an Atletico persuasion would begrudge him moving on to pastures new.
Realistically, what left is there for him to achieve in the Spanish capital with the exception of winning the Champions League? He may still harbour dreams of lifting that trophy, but it looks increasingly like a doomed mission. With Inter, he would have free reign and significant expenditure to chisel another team in his image. Simeone is the coach to match Suning’s ambition and he should strongly consider their offer this summer.