NO SOONER have Celtic taken advantage of one crumbled institution than they find themselves confronted by another.
If Internazionale’s recent decline cannot quite compare with that of Rangers, the Italian giants are in no position to take anything for granted in the knockout phase of the Europa League.
On Thursday night, they will show up in Glasgow for the first leg of a much-hyped round-of-32 tie that represents Celtic’s biggest challenge under Ronny Deila. In a season-shaping month, the Scottish champions have already beaten their city rivals in the League Cup semi-final and put together a string of flawless league performances.
Huge though the task is for Celtic, it is not impossible. Inter are not the treble-winning side that conquered Europe less than five years ago. Since those heady days under Jose Mourinho, when they became only the sixth club – and the first in Italy – to win the league, cup and Champions League in the same season, those iconic black-and-blue shirts have suffered a bruising fall from grace.
Starting with Rafael Benitez, who was first to succeed the “Special One”, managers have come and gone, big players have left and the team now languish halfway down Serie A, closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League places. It has been a painful experience for the club and its fans, one of whom is Manuel Pascali, the Kilmarnock defender who grew up in Milan.
“It’s been hard,” he says. “After Mourinho left, we appointed a good manager in Benitez, but he didn’t have a great relationship with the players and the fans. Since then, we have struggled to find a leader like Mourinho. A lot of influential players have left and there is no money. It’s not the best league in Europe anymore. Italian teams, Juve apart, can’t compete with PSG, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.”
There have been seven Inter managers in the last four-and-a-half years. Benitez, Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperini, Claudio Ranieri, Andrea Stramaccioni, Walter Mazzarri and now Roberto Mancini, in his second spell at the club, have made so many changes to personnel and tactics that players, quite literally, haven’t known whether they are coming or going.
In the absence of a consistent philosophy, Inter have drifted aimlessly. In 2011, they finished second in Serie A, but in their subsequent three seasons, they were sixth, ninth and fifth. With no access to the Champions League, there has been no money to compensate for the financial difficulties that have plagued Italian football.
In Italy, too many clubs still have rented stadia, the restrictions of which limit match-day income. Too many supporters have been turned away by Calciopoli, the corruption scandal that rocked the country in 2006. According to the latest figures released by Deloitte, Inter’s revenue last year was £50 million less than that of Tottenham Hotspur.
What they need is a ground of their own so that they can fully exploit their earning potential. AC Milan, with whom they currently share the San Siro, have already announced plans to have one built by 2018. “Hopefully, that will force Inter to do the same,” says Pascali. “We should follow the English example so that every single club has its own stadium. At the moment, Juve is the only club in Italy that has one, and you can see the difference it makes, financially and on the pitch.”
As it is, Inter struggle to keep their best players, or even replace the aging ones who have left in their droves since 2010. Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder, Thiago Motta, Maicon, Lucio and Marco Materazzi all departed in the space of two years. Last summer, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel and Diego Milito followed them out the door.
All of which would be tolerable were there talent emerging to soften the blow. A shortage of players emerging from the club’s youth academy is among the many problems Eric Thohir, their Indonesian president, is seeking to address. His takeover from Massimo Moratti in 2013 exacerbated the unsettled mood at Inter, but the signs are that he is plotting a sensible course through the era of fair play. “He looks like he’s got a plan,” says Pascali. “When he bought the club, it was about £150m in debt, but I think he has cleared that, and is now looking to build a long-term project. As a fan, you want everything as soon as possible, but sometimes you need to be patient.
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“Ten years ago, the Germans were struggling, but now they are the best in Europe. Hopefully, Italian football will rise again.”
The question is whether that working environment will suit Mancini. He led them to the first three of their five straight titles between 2005 and 2010, but many attribute that success to a huge budget that allowed him to sign the likes of Samuel, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira. His success also came at a time when the outcome of the match-fixing scandal handicapped rivals such as Juventus.
Still, supporters are optimistic that his return to the club last November will be a turning point. “I think he’s the man,” says Pascali. “He has great experience. He has been there before. You know Mancini, he has great charisma. He’s loved by the Inter fans. There is a synergy with the fans and the board that hasn’t been there with some other managers. Mancini knows what he’s talking about.”
So far, there has been little sign of progress, but a 3-0 victory against Palermo last week ended a run of three consecutive defeats. And hopes are high that two of Mancini’s January signings can help them to turn the corner. Xherdan Shaqiri, pictured left, was signed from Bayern Munich and is a quick-witted, left-footed Swiss midfielder who has been given a free role behind the front two. And Marcelo Brozovic, on loan from Dinamo Zagreb, has enhanced the midfield.
For Pascali, their biggest asset is Mauro Icardi, the young Argentine striker who refused to celebrate after scoring twice against Palermo. “Unfortunately, I think he will leave the team for the reasons we talked about. He has been linked with Chelsea and other big clubs. He’s a very good finisher, a very good player. He’s the danger man. We have some good, experienced players who can play at the highest level, but our problem is at the back, where we’re a little bit shaky. The defence doesn’t look solid, like you would expect from an Italian team. We will concede three or four chances at least. It’s up to Celtic to capitalise.”
The mindset of the two teams could be significant. While Celtic want to win, Inter need to win. After sailing through the group stage, the Italians are treating the knockout phase more seriously than their big-hitting counterparts in other countries. Mancini’s team are so far off third place in Serie A that their only possible route to next season’s Champions League is by winning the Europa League.
“For Inter, it is crucial,” says Pascali. “Somebody told me that, if they don’t reach the Champions League, they will have to sell somebody, and nobody wants that. They will be trying their best. They are trying to win the Europa League, one million per cent.”
Pascali’s brother and three of his friends are flying over from Italy to join him at Celtic Park on Thursday. It will be a big night for the home side, but an even bigger one for the visitors.