There were two great losses for Inter in Sicily last weekend. One was the game; those vital three points. The other was worse, more serious: They lost perhaps the only player who could give them hope.
The evergreen Javier Zanetti has had an incredible career, omnipresent in Inter's starting XI for almost two decades. The fact that a player so renowned for his work-rate, commitment and fearlessness has spent his professional life almost completely free of injury beggars belief.
At 39, it could just be that time has finally caught up with Javier Zanetti. Countless others have seen their careers ended by them sooner. The rupture to his left Achilles tendon is a serious injury, but hardly uncommon in football.
What is uncommon, however, is the number of players Zanetti will join on Inter's injury list. To wit: Antonio Cassano, Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic, Diego Milito, Rodrigo Palacio, Yuto Nagatomo, Walter Gargano, Fredy Guarin and Walter Samuel are all out. And that's just the first-team players. There are more on the periphery (where to put Matias Silvestre is up to you). The doctors over in Appiano Gentile have their work cut out for them.
Another aspect of this current crisis is the nature of the problem.The vast majority of Inter's injury woes are muscular, all of which raises the question: what's going on in training?
It would be unthinkable to see a well-run club like Juventus, Bayern Munich or Manchester United with an entire team on the sidelines through injury, much less all struck down with a similar woe. So is the coaching structure to blame? Or worse, is complacency a malady that affects everyone involved in Inter?
In Zanetti, the Nerazzurri have lost the one man left at the San Siro who could never be accused of laziness. He's been a symbol of all that's good about the club for a generation, and his ability, commitment, industriousness and honesty are admired universally. And now, he's on the sidelines for what's certain to be a long time.
The man himself is adamant he'll return as strong as ever, but at that age you have to be worried. He said:
My goal is to come back stronger than before. I had to change tyres after so many miles. Injuries can happen and they’re part of this profession. But my career certainly isn’t over. What matters is healing well. What I want most is to be back with my team-mates. I’m sorry I can’t give them a hand in the final part of the season, but I’m confident they’ll be able to qualify for the Europa League.
That European qualification seems unlikely. Inter now face Napoli, Lazio, Genoa and Udinese before the end of the season and there's not an easy game among them. Napoli will want to hold on to second, Lazio and Udinese are vying with Inter for that Europa League spot and Genoa are fighting relegation and will have the home advantage. It's not inconceivable that Andrea Stramaccioni's side could finish as low as ninth.
So what happened to the 2010 Champions League winners? Most obviously, Jose Mourinho left. Through his tactical shrewdness and force of personality the Portuguese was finally able to realise the potential of what had always been an impressive squad.
After the manager left, several key plays went too. And subsequent coaches have all had their problems. But this injury crisis, the inability to find consistency and some bizarre transfer dealings point to another, more deeply-rooted and ultimately more worrying proposition: Jose's annus mirabilis was a fluke. Or at least the exception rather than the rule.
This will make uncomfortable reading for Interisti, but is the club's current woes merely just a return to normality? It's not for nothing that the San Siro sings about the Pazza Inter Amala: the crazy, sick Inter.
Before Roberto Mancini's time at the club, it hadn't won a Scudetto since 1989 despite always having some incredible players like Ronaldo (the original and best) or Giuseppe Bergomi.
Had it not been for the fall-out from 2006's massive match-fixing scandal, would Mancini really have won three league titles in a row? His consistent failure in Europe with Inter would seem to suggest not.
Mourinho's time with Inter seems like an age away from this current crop, but it's only a few seasons. Such a drastic drop in form following a manager's departure is rarely seen—let alone sustained for coming up on three years.
Right from the moment the Special One left Milan it was obvious how drastic an effect he'd had on the players. World beaters went to washed-up and world-weary over night. Five managers have failed to replicate his success. And soon there could be a sixth.
Those coaches have presided over several years of mediocrity and disappointment. There have been few worthy additions to the squad and several baffling departures.
Wesley Sneijder's transfer was handled poorly, but if he and the likes of Samuel Eto'o and Maicon had to go to balance the books, fine. The logic behind letting go of young Philippe Coutinho—an instant hit in the EPL—or Mattia Destro is harder to grasp.
Those decisions are made higher up, but it speaks volumes for the regard in which the successive coaches have been held that an ageing squad has been allowed to fall apart while young players have been sold without rhyme or reason. If Strama is to be replaced, this should be the main concern for the man who takes his place.
Zanetti himself has been talked about as an obvious choice for the Inter bench once he retires, and with this lengthy lay-off he'll surely get to work on his coaching badges. The captain would never undermine his manager or talk out of turn, but his statement following the injury was telling none-the-less.
"Will I restart with Stramaccioni?" said Zanetti. "I don’t make those decisions. There are already people at work on making an even stronger Inter."
Just how that Inter will look and who'll be in charge of it is anyone's guess. Zanetti will play some part. Few other positions are so secure.
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