How Far Are Inter and AC Milan from Challenging Again at the Top of Serie A?

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How Far Are Inter and AC Milan from Challenging Again at the Top of Serie A?
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Their seasons started extremely poorly and, while Milan and Inter are currently battling for the final Europa League berth, there is no denying that 2013-14 has been a terrible year for both of the northern Italian city’s ailing giants. Each has had its own issues, varying in both their immediate impact and their lasting effects, but both clubs' problems are often resulting in the same result: Defeat.

With a combined 17 losses over the opening 34 rounds of Serie A action, it has certainly been a campaign to forget on both sides of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. But understanding just how far Milan and Inter are from challenging at the top of Serie A again is a complex question, one requiring two very different answers.

Less than four years ago, each was enjoying the benefit of a star-studded squad, the Nerazzurri laden with veteran stars who would deliver the historic 2010 treble under Jose Mourinho. Less than a year later, a similarly talented Milan would depose their city cousins as Serie A champions, lifting their first Scudetto in seven years.

Since those glory-filled seasons however, each has suffered from serious mismanagement, comprehensively failing to replace those great players as age took its toll on them. To look now at their squad lists and still see the likes of Walter Samuel and Christian Abbiati earning regular playing time hints at just how long the problems have gone unaddressed.

Inter have made more serious inroads in regards to the development of players, their excellent youth sector producing a plethora of prospects who could help the team in the future. Names such as Francesco Bardi and Samuele Longo are certainly ones to keep an eye on, and they could join other youngsters already with the Nerazzurri to provide a quick rejuvenation of Walter Mazzarri’s squad.

Antonio Calanni

Indeed, with Mateo Kovacic (19 years old), Mauro Icardi (21) and Juan Jesus (22) all now regular members of the first XI, it is clear such a movement has already begun. That tailors perfectly to fit new owner Erick Thohir’s belief that “all successful teams start with talented young players,” a statement he made to the club’s official website after visiting the academy training centre.

It is that vision that appears to be now driving the club and its transfer policy, a decision which should see the end of signings such as the disappointing Diego Forlan move, a deal which saw the club overpay a player so evidently in decline.

Mazzarri too has begun to change, abandoning his counter-attacking principles and steering his side to enjoy 55.3 per cent of possession this term, according to stats website WhoScored.com. That is markedly different from his stint at previous club Napoli, who held the ball much less often, preferring to rely on the pace of their attacking players to win matches.

The coach’s evolution has also led to some slight tweaks tactically, changing the configuration of his forwards and midfield in front of the ever-present back three. He has vastly improved that defence, taking them from conceding 57 goals last term—a tally only bettered by Pescara—to just 35 this season, keeping 13 clean sheets, already three more than in 2012-13.

Off the field, Thohir has begun to make changes of his own, sacking Technical Director Mario Branca (per the official club website), the man responsible for many of those terrible transfer decisions mentioned previously. He has since secured the signing of two key figures at Manchester United, club captain Nemanja Vidic and chief operations officer Michael Bolingbroke, both moves confirmed already for next season.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Inter’s own website announced the arrival of the Serbian defender on a free transfer, with President Thohir labelling the 32-year-old “a world-class player.” Bolingbroke’s own switch to the Milanese giants was confirmed by United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward, as he told the Manchester Evening News he had “been instrumental in the success of some major projects.”

Both men are expected to help improve Inter’s profile in the lucrative Far East, a financial market which remains largely untapped by Serie A clubs. Given those improvements, and the promising changes on the pitch, and there is a sense that the Nerazzurri are beginning to head in the right direction.

Across town at Milan, it is difficult to be so optimistic, with boardroom issues that appear to have no simple solution threatening to limit any improvements that are made. Adriano Galliani found the situation so untenable that by November he felt he could no longer continue, announcing he would be resigning from his role as Vice President (per ESPN).

While he backtracked and a compromise was found, his statement at the time offered perhaps the most brutally honest assessment of the current state of the Rossoneri. "This is not the way to deal with a generation change,” said the 69-year-old, a fact that becomes more apparent the deeper you look into the problems at the club.

Galliani was pushed to the limit by Barbara Berlusconi—daughter of owner Silvio—after being unable to share the task of running Milan with her. The two continue as joint-CEO (via Reuters), but the lack of a coherent plan seems to forever limit the impact either can have on improving the team in the short term.

Massimiliano Allegri was sacked, an inevitable decision given their dire early-season form, and Clarence Seedorf struggled to make an immediate impact as his replacement. Slowly however, the recently retired midfielder has begun to turn things around, benefitting from his players understanding his ideas and recovering a number of long-term absentees.

Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

With key man Stephan El Shaarawy set to return to action (per FootballItalia), Mario Balotelli could finally see someone stepping up to share the attacking burden. The former Manchester City striker has been in excellent form once again, his 14 goals taking his total to a stunning 30 in his first 50 appearances for the club, but behind the 23-year-old there has been little support.

The second-highest scorer for the Rossoneri this term is Kaka with seven, while Robinho, Giampaolo Pazzini and Keisuke Honda have only managed to tally six goals between them thus far. Yet their biggest on-field problem remains in defence, conceding 44 times in 34 league matches, a number which only serves to highlight the need for defensive reinforcements.

Adil Rami has proven to be a shrewd signing, and making his deal permanent should be a top priority before his loan deal expires. Averaging 1.4 tackles, 1.6 interceptions and 5.2 clearances per game according to WhoScored, the Frenchman has seized the opportunity to prove he belongs at San Siro, while full backs Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio provide dependable options on both flanks.

Beyond that trio the options are severely limited, with the likes of Daniele Bonera and Cristian Zaccardo nowhere near the level of player needed for a title push. Behind them, Abbiati has also faded badly, the 36-year-old enduring a testing campaign which has seen him make just 68 saves this term, conceding a goal for every 2.9 shots he faced, according to FoxSoccer.

J Pat Carter

They will clearly need to address those issues, and their six-match undefeated streak will be seriously tested over the next two weeks as they face Roma and Inter, two of the teams above them in the table. Indeed that derby fixture—scheduled for Sunday May 4—could well decide the final Europa League berth this season.

The saddest part of this race for sixth place is not in seeing two of the continent’s grandest sides fighting over such a lowly league placing, but in the realisation that the true winner could be the one who misses out. In 2011-12, Juventus showed that missing out on Europe can help a recovering giant succeed, the Bianconeri going the entire campaign undefeated, largely because their key players were only playing one game per week.

Both Liverpool and AS Roma have continued to prove that this term, each recording their finest season in many years as they benefit from the lack of midweek action. Freeing themselves of that distraction could see similar results for the Milanese duo, who have both shown signs they are ready to contend once more.

While Inter are clearly in a better position in terms of off-the-field management, both need to make key signings this summer if they are to challenge for the title in 2014-15. Without those, neither will be ready, and the wait for tangible success will only be prolonged.

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