Inter a failure or work in progress?
Inter Milan heading toward another Serie A title, but failed in Champions League
José Mourinho is best-paid coach in the game; some of his moves haven't worked
Club is facing another overhaul this summer, and pressure will be even greater
With the Serie A title virtually in the bag -- Inter Milan has a 10-point lead with six games to go -- José Mourinho, the best-paid manager in the game, can reflect on the fact that when it comes to his debut season at the San Siro, the glass is pretty much half full.
Yes, his critics will point out that Mourinho simply accomplished what his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, achieved in winning three straight Italian titles. Except Mourinho might point out that this one is a bit different. Mancini's first crown, in 2005-06, was awarded by the courts following the Calciopoli scandal; the "scudetto" won the following year came with Juventus in Serie B and AC Milan suffering a hefty point penalty; and last season's went all the way down to the wire.
The '08-09 season has been, by contrast, a relative stroll against tough competition. Juventus and Milan both invested considerable sums of money in the summer. Fiorentina and Genoa went to the next level and one of them could yet end up in the Champions League. Roma, for all its problems, came within a missed penalty kick of a place in Europe's Elite Eight.
Mourinho would probably throw in another achievement. "In 30 years' time I will be remembered as the man who left Inter two players like [Davide] Santon and [Mario] Balotelli," he said last month, referring to the homegrown teenage starlets who have established themselves in the starting lineup. It's a fair argument, though his detractors will no doubt point to the fact that it was Mancini who gave Balotelli his debut last year at the age of 17 and made him a fixture down the stretch.
The flip side of this is that Inter, once again, came up short in the Champions League, the competition that, after all those recent scudetti, should probably be a priority. There's no shame in being bounced out by a club like Manchester United, of course, but Inter was totally outplayed in the first leg and fluffed a number of chances at Old Trafford, something rather uncharacteristic of Mourinho-coached sides. What's more, Inter was shockingly mediocre in the group phase, losing to Panathinaikos (at home!) and Werder Bremen and being held to a draw by Anorthosis (yes, the folks from Cyprus).
Mourinho's wisdom in the transfer market has also been questionable. Sulley Muntari was a solid pickup in midfield (though at $15 million, he wasn't exactly a bargain), but the two wingers who cost a combined $55 million and were supposed to be the linchpins of his favored 4-3-3 -- Ricardo Quaresma and Mancini -- turned out to be shocking duds. Quaresma was off-loaded on loan to Chelsea at the first opportunity, and Mancini lasted 90 minutes just once this season.
And then there's the more subjective, but not unimportant fact that Inter simply is less entertaining than a year ago. This is a brawny, safety-first bunch whose attacking game plan seems to rely exclusively on set-pieces or moments of magic from Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Maicon (before his injury). Unless you're a close relative of Mourinho, it's hard to disagree that Inter simply played better football under Mancini.
So is all this worth Mourinho's estimated wage package of close to $20 million? If this is all there is, definitely not. But if, in these 10 months, Mourinho laid the groundwork for what's to come, then it's a different story. The difficult part is that, most likely, Inter will require another overhaul this summer.
Júlio César easily is one of the top three or four goalkeepers in the world, and Santon and Maicon are fixtures at fullback. Central defense will require some cleaning up, however. The fact that no Inter central defender started more than 21 league games this season tells you all you need to know. Cristian Chivu is the epitome of all this. When he's fit and happy, he has the skills to be one of the very best around. But he simply gets hurt too often to be relied upon. Age and injuries have ravaged Inter in that position and, with so many guys on the wrong side of 30 (and therefore more injury-prone), new blood is urgently needed.
Esteban Cambiasso, at 28, should remain the hub of midfield, with Muntari and Dejan Stankovic in the mix. But Javier Zanetti turns 36 this summer and it seems unreasonable to ask him to defy nature and Father Time for another campaign. Inter is crying out for an attacking box-to-box type -- a Frank Lampard, if you will -- but those are hard to come by. Depending on formation -- Mourinho has alternated between the diamond and the 4-3-3 -- Inter could also use at least one new winger.
Up front, Ibrahimovic is untouchable (unless he decides to leave, of course, but nobody wants to contemplate that scenario). Balotelli is great, but still a teenager and, by Mourinho's own admission, performs better out wide than as a second striker in a 4-4-2. Adriano has been written off as he copes with his personal demons. Julio Cruz and Hernán Crespo will be 35 and 34, respectively, next year and neither was in Mourinho's good graces this year; they'll both be out the door.
Inter's shopping list, therefore, seems fairly cut-and-dried: at least one central defender, a top-drawer attacking midfielder, a winger and a reliable striker. That's quite an overhaul for a team that won the title. But right now, Inter remains a work in progress. And bringing in the right guys to go to the next level is what Mourinho needs to do if his stay at Inter is going to be deemed a success rather than one of the most expensive failures in history.