Cast your minds back to this stage of the 2006-07 Serie A season. Under the devout disciplinarian Roberto Mancini, Inter were on course to claim what would be the first of four successive Scudetto crowns, resulting in their greatest period of dominance since Helenio Herrera’s resplendent 8-year reign during the 1960s. This scintillating spell climaxed with the Nerazzurri reaching continental acclaim in collecting just their second-ever European Cup with Jose Mourinho at the helm.
Seven years on, seven managers later and following a period of decline, Inter now find themselves in a lessened-precarious position. Chinese conglomerates Suning Holdings Group recently purchased a 68.55% stake in the club and like all modern-day footballing macho’s they come thrust with an abundance of cash and a cultivated sense of entitlement. Thus, coinciding with the sinking saying of patience being a virtue. The expectation of progress is immediate, meaning European qualification is now the absolute minimum for the club and will no longer be viewed as an outstanding achievement.
51-year-old Stefano Pioli may have struck a sense of dread into the Giuseppe Meazza faithful when he first arrived, having been emphatically sacked from his last three managerial positions (Palermo, Bologna and Lazio), so it was initially presumed he was there just to steady the ship until an adequate replacement was sought in the summer. In fact, that may still be the case, with rumours of a yearly 10-million-euro contract on the cards for former Juventus manager Antonio Conte, despite the 47-year-old flying in his debut season in charge of Chelsea, at the summit of the English game. But should Inter be so rash in their quest for supremacy? Pioli could well be the man at the forefront in restoring club fortunes, provided he’s given full backing.
Overall, it’s been tale of inconsistency and embarrassment for the club prior to Pioli’s arrival. Under Frank De Boer, they never quite got going. Failure to adapt to the unorthodox philosophy and a lack of ruthlessness headed-up a culmination of factors that led to the Dutchman’s swift departure in November, less than three months after taking the job.
One thing that cannot be criticised on Inter’s part, is the incisive transfer window dealings. Stellar signings in Ever Banega (free), Antonio Candreva, Joao Mario, Marcelo Brozovic and wildly-overdue talents Gabriel Barbosa and Roberto Gagliardini, the touts have breathed a great sense of optimism into the setup. There’s no arguing that this is without doubt, the best squad they’ve had since the Mourinho era. Spending, which has got them in a torrid tussle with FFP regulations from the Italian FA, although the intent is rather refreshing.
Ultimately, they can boast a wealth of promise with a great range of experience to back it up. The most important quality being the hunger that certain players possess. None more so than Mauro Icardi, who despite upsetting fans with recent revelations in his autobiography, tops the club scoring charts with 17 goals in 25 games, carrying on his talisman-like form regardless of any off-pitch frictions. He himself, also revealed his pleasure with the workings of his manager, backing Pioli to stay beyond the summer.
The newly-fond Eder-Candreva partnership is beginning to take shape on the right-hand side, with the latter’s fleet-footed ability to work the ball and arrive in the box, all part of this flourishing duo’s attribution. Eder is integral in bringing other players into the game, just we saw at the Euros with Graziano Pelle, he has a knack of winning the second balls and conjuring something out of it – like an assist for Candreva. Keeping enigmatic winger Ivan Perisic fit is another predicament Pioli must achieve salvation with.
The invaluable Argentine Ever Banega has sparked himself as a catalyst since Pioli took over, a vital cog in the way Inter transition from defence to attack, his play-making exploits has rejuvenated the midfield but his manager’s rotation strategy has rather cost him more than his fair share of game time.
Still regarded as an Italian heavyweight, Inter can have no excuses in not enlisting the signatures of the elite world talent on show, and as their owners intentions state, they will compete with the best for the best.
Pioli’s conservative philosophy has also been very welcome on the blue and black half of Milan, joining what was already a hell of a wreckage left by his predecessors and steadying that ship almost expertly. This is more or less the biggest job he’s ever had to contend with, knowing full-well the demands of one of the nation’s leading sports clubs.
Inter have become a lot more workman-like during his tenure, most notably cutting out the slack in their play and being able to quickly make the transition from defence to attack in an instant. Enriched on the counter and balanced in the middle, his side are scoring a lot more goals in what’s been a slow but effective efficiency in style. The wide play is back to its most dynamic best, with the wingers showing great courage to cut inside and grab the final-third by the scruff of the neck. A lack of ruthlessness which was lost post-Mourinho.
The Nerazzurri have a huge decision to make come the end of the season, one which could completely rupture any momentum they gather from this campaign, especially if they opt to replace Stefano Pioli. Everything is in place for the club to be able to make frequent strides back to its best, and although they are unlikely to break into the top 3; European qualification (as long as it’s taken seriously), is a source of success as well as a potential route back to the Champions League.
They’ll take comfort from the fact that their fate is still well within their own hands as they prepare to face-off against the majority of that top 7 in what’s set to be a frenetic end-of-season run-in and it could also be a defining chance for Pioli to show what he’s really made of.