Inter Milan came into the 2012-13 Serie A season looking for redemption after a sixth-place finish a year ago. A strong start saw them win 10 straight games in all competitions from September to November and had everyone talking about a magnificent rebound year. Since the middle of November, however, the walls have come tumbling down.
Second in the table as late as Dec. 15, the team is now in seventh place, a point off Lazio for the last spot in European qualification. Their only hope of playing in the Europa League next year may be overcoming a 2-1 deficit against Roma in the semifinal of the Coppa Italia Wednesday.
So what has turned a dream season into a horror one for the Milan giants? Let's take a look at the season and find out.
Inter has needed their own M*A*S*H* unit this season. A who's who of top players have been on Inter's injured list this year.
A setback after last year's Achilles injury has limited Dejan Stankovic to only three games this season. Midfield mate Joel Obi was declared out for the year in March. Sunday's loss to Catania added midfielder Walter Gargano and defender Yuto Nagatomo to the list. Other injured players include Cristian Chivu, Ibrahim M'Baye and Gaby Mudingayi.
More important, however, has been the devastation the injury bug has caused on the nerazzurri's front line.
The knee injury that Diego Milito suffered against Cluj in the Europa League was really the beginning of the end for Inter this year. In the month he had missed before his season was ended on the turf at the San Siro, Inter had a 1-2-2 record (W-D-L), with the only win coming against bottom side Pescara.
Milito scored in a 3-1 victory against Chievo the weekend before his injury, and the team is 2-1-5 in the league since he re-injured his knee and was knocked out of the Europa League round of 16 by Tottenham after a lackluster 3-0 loss at White Hart Lane put them in too deep a hole to recover in the second leg.
Compounding the loss of their best forward are injuries to Antonio Cassano (hamstring) and top scorer Rodrigo Palacio (also hamstring), which has limited manager Andrea Stramaccioni to 35-year-old Tommaso Rocchi as his only true striker.
The injuries have not only drained quality from Inter's lineup, they also create a lack of depth that has probably worn down those pressed into consistent service in their stead.
The average age of Inter as a team is, as of about four months ago, 26.1 years—the seventh-youngest team in Serie A.
It's a surprisingly low number considering how old some of Inter's key parts are.
Captain and defender Javier Zanetti is 39 years old. Midfield stalwart Esteban Cambiasso is 32 and Stankovic is 34. Up front, none of the four forwards the team carries are younger than 30 (Palacio and Cassano), with Milito at 33 and Rocchi at 35.
The side has been made younger with the addition of players like Ricky Alvarez, Fredy Guarin, Ezequiel Schelotto and especially 18-year-old Mateo Kovacic this past January. But important players in defense, midfield and especially attack are reaching the latter parts of their primes, if they haven't already passed them. Even the evergreen Zanetti has lost some of his iron-man veneer this season.
Transfers and an influx from a strong primavera side will likely alleviate this problem in key roles, but right now, too many key players are on the wrong side of 30.
OK, so "bad" may not be exactly the right word for it. Inter certainly made some good moves in the summer, particularly in signing goalkeeper Samir Handanovic from Udinese. It can be argued that the Bosnian No. 1 is the reason that the team isn't worse off thanks to several incredible performances in goal.
Cassano and Palacio were also excellent pickups on the market, but this year, president and owner Massimo Moratti has also had some pretty severe misses.
Inter lost out on potential impact players like Mattia Destro, Lucas Moura and Ezequiel Lavezzi in the summer and longtime Brazilian target Paulinho during the winter. They also sold off a talented young strike prospect in Luc Castaignos.
It was the winter window, though, that Moratti made his biggest error when he sold Brazilian youngster Philippe Coutinho to Liverpool for €10.2 million.
Coutinho has scored two goals and notched three assists for the Reds since his move and has significantly elevated the play of the men from Merseyside. Given Inter's general lack of creativity this season in the midfield and their high average age, a young, technically gifted player like Coutinho could have tipped the balance for Inter this season.
January arrival Mateo Kovacic may eventually be the answer there, but he's still very much a work in progress. Until then, a playmaking element is lacking in Inter's midfield, especially in the wake of the departure of a certain Dutch midfielder. Speaking of which...
The drama that was the Wesley Sneijder transfer saga spanned more than half the season. He scored a goal in Inter's opener against Pescara and assisted on their only goal in the next week's 3-1 loss against Roma. He would play only three more games in black and blue.
Desperate to cut their wage bill to prepare for UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, as well as to deal with the Italian economic crisis, Inter demanded that the oft-injured midfielder take a wage cut. When he refused, he was indefinitely benched by the club and told that he would not play again until he renegotiated his contract.
When the winter transfer window opened, Inter accepted a bid to buy the player from Turkish club Galatasaray.
This created another standoff.
Sneijder initially refused to accept the move. Most assumed that the Dutchman was waiting for a higher-profile team to come calling. When no team came calling as the transfer window deepened, Sneijder finally accepted the move.
Inter's 10-match unbeaten run in all competitions started at the beginning of Sneijder's banishment, but as the saga wore on and words were exchanged through the media, the team looked like they had begun to feel the strain.
Losing him on the field put a significant dent in the creativity of the midfield at the San Siro, but the off-field strain of the ongoing saga likely distracted the team and affected performance.
What a difference a year makes.
This time last year Andrea Stramaccioni had led Inter's primavera team to victory in the first-ever NextGen Series, then took over for a sacked Claudio Ranieri and led the first team on a strong finish that qualified them for the Europa League and gave the team hope for the future.
Then, he reeled off 10 straight wins in all competitions in the first half of this season, prompting talk that the 2011-12 season was a mere blip on the radar screen for the nerazzurri.
Now, Inter are in crisis. They've won only four matches since the season resumed after the winter break, and Stramaccioni is a major reason why.
Stamaccioni has not been able to settle on a single formation and a set of tactics as a default. He's used 12 different starting formations between Serie A and the Europa League, and as a result, the team has never been able to develop an identity and the on-field chemistry with which to bind their performances together.
Such tactical consistency is important. Serie A leaders Juventus has only deviated from their 3-5-2 formation once this season—into a 4-3-3 that they are familiar with having used for the first half of last season. Second-place Napoli has used a few more formations but all are derived from Walter Mazzarri's basic three-man defensive scheme.
Stramaccioni has used both four- and three-man defensive formations this season. The adjustment between these radically different tactics takes time.
Juventus had their toughest stretch of season last year while they were transitioning from the 4-3-3 to the 3-5-2. Stramaccioni hasn't given his team the time to adapt to one formation, rather changing it match to match, often to tactics that require radically different things of players.
Stramaccioni has recently gotten the dreaded vote of confidence by Massimo Moratti, but privately, there have to be discussions about replacing him with a coach that will allow the team to forge a tactical identity. If Strama doesn't allow Inter to do so, they won't win, and he won't have a job.