Ageing players, inexperienced coach, injuries: Inter Milan have had a season to forget
For a team whose trophy cabinet boasts 18 league titles and three European Cups—to further complement the seven Coppa Italia and three UEFA Cup successes—this season's finish of ninth is not an eventuality that Inter Milan, nor their fans, will have been anticipating.
Their diabolical defensive record of leaking 57 goals was only surpassed by bottom-placed Pescara, and they experienced as many victories as they suffered defeats (16). They will not be in contention for the Champions League next season, a competition they vanquished just three years ago.
But where did things go spectacularly wrong for the Nerazzurri this season?
Inevitably, the blame will lie at the door of the young and inexperienced head coach, Andrea Stramaccioni.
Aged only 36 when he took the Inter Milan job in March 2012, Stramaccioni was viewed similarly to Andre Villas-Boas who, despite being two years his junior, had already proved age was just a number when he won the treble in his maiden season with FC Porto.
And similarly to the way things didn't work out in a subsequent move to Chelsea for Villas-Boas, Stramaccioni has found the going tough after making the step up from youth coach.
Which signing would reinvigorate the insipid Inter Milan?
His methods have been brought into question—namely an over-reliance on ageing stalwarts—as well as his tactical nous: a glaring example being December's 3-2 defeat to Atalanta when too many players were committed forward, leaving them over exposed.
But there have been moments when the former Roma youth coach expertly navigated his team. The 3-1 away victory to eventual champions Juventus—ending the opposition's unbeaten run just one game shy of 50—was the pinnacle.
Uncertainty reigns in regards to Stramaccioni's future. Inter president Massimo Moratti has intimated his dismissal isn't inevitable.
When saying Stramaccioni is a "talented guy", he then provided an ominous caveat by suggesting he has to remember "the situation we're (Inter) in."
A major factor the hierarchy will need to address is the creaking, and increasingly fragile, spine of the team.
Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito and Walter Samuel—undisputed players of calibre, yes—are all the wrong side of 30. Yet all have featured in more than half of Inter's league games, displaying the galling fact that the Nerazzurri haven't done what their deadly rivals, AC Milan, have done: move on players past their peak.
The 39-year-old Javier Zanetti, a faithful servant of the club for 18 years and over 600 games, was his usual mercurial self—leading the team with his immaculate hair and faultless pristine displays—until an Achilles injury ended his season prematurely, with it not yet clear if he will recover to play again.
Those players were all pivotal when Jose Mourinho led the team to the treble just three years ago, but their impact has been blunted by injuries.
Worryingly, their replacements—namely 21-year-old defender Juan—have not lived up to billing.
Despite all this damning evidence, it hasn't all been ominous doom and gloom for the Black and Blues.
They were narrowly beaten by Roma in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, undone by a virtuoso Mattia Destro performance amid a quick succession of second-half goals.
That was just over four weeks after Tottenham Hotspur—devoid of the scintillating Gareth Bale—had arrived at the San Siro with a first-leg 3-0 lead, but departed having been taken to extra-time by a resurgent Inter, who were unlucky to exit to an Emmanuel Adebayor goal.
A triumvirate of young players look worthy of wearing the same shirt previously donned by luminaries Christian Vieri, Lothar Matthaus and Ronaldo.
Fredy Guarin has found his second season a lot more successful than his first, with his four goals in 32 games not telling the full tale of his pace, guile and imagination.
Ricardo Alvarez started 12 games this season, making 23 appearances in total. Functioning just behind the front two, he is a constant pest to opposition defences, and his return of five goals is sure to be bettered next season.
Japanese defender Yuto Nagatomo has shown why Inter parted with €4.5 million to make his loan move from Cesena permanent with impressive performances.
However, this has been a season to forget for Inter and their fans.
Some may term it a "transitional season," but in the long term, Moratti and his hierarchy have work to do to restore the halcyon days.
This summer, expect a selection of the old guard to be moved on.
With Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy and Kevin-Prince Boateng proving instrumental for rivals AC Milan—and Juventus sure to capitalise on their second consecutive title—the standard for Inter to meet is higher than ever.
What are your thoughts? Will Stramaccioni still be at the helm next season? Which players (or coaches) will be on Massimo Moratti's radar? Let me know either in the comments section below, or via Twitter: @LeRowley