When Massimo Moratti appointed Jose Mourinho the new Internazionale manager in May 2008, some wondered “why”? Inter had won the Serie A for a third successive season yet Roberto Mancini declared after their Champions League exit that he would be leaving. The reasoning behind appointing Mancini’s successor was simple, Mourinho was then and is now a winner. Inter had not progressed past the Quarter-Finals under Mancini. Mourinho had an enviable track record in Europe with only the Champions League missing from his Chelsea tenure.
In his first season in charge Mourinho imposed his character on the squad. Teams travelled to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza knowing they couldn’t win and Inter changed to a slightly modified version of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 that moves to a 4-5-1 without the ball.
Jose’s first signings however were uninspiring, wingers were required for the new formation and Mourinho signed his long-term target Ricardo Quaresma and Mancini. Neither were particularly effective, with Quaresma loaned out mid-season and Mancini allowed to leave in the next transfer window. Sulley Muntari performed well in his first season but faded into the squad rotation in the second.
Overall Inter were not particularly impressive, eliminated from Europe by eventual finalists Manchester United without scoring a goal. They dominated Serie A but this was more to the regression of their rivals rather than a step forward under Jose. The highlight of their season though was the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with 25 goals in the league he seemed to show the form always expected of him whilst playing as a lone striker.
In the summer that followed Mourinho showed just why he is considered one of the best in the world. In the biggest story of the transfer window Inter allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to leave whilst getting Samuel Eto’o in return. It was no secret that Eto’o was not popular at Barcelona and many felt the signing of Zlatan would give them the goals necessary to be unstoppable domestically and abroad.
As Real Madrid signed 4 of the world’s best players and appointed another coach it seemed that Spanish football would be the dominant force in Europe in the new season. In Italy meanwhile Mourinho had a different approach in his transfer policy, rather than signing “big-name” players Jose sought to find the players who could fit into his system. He prioritised work-rate and physicality over the more skilful players.
In picking up Eto’o, Lucio, Sneijder and Thiago Motta Inter seemed to be confirming what many believed that they were a second tier power in European Football. The unheralded Diego Milito was signed as a direct replacement for Ibrahimovic, a step-down many (I included) believed.
As the season progressed Inter were not a dominant force in Europe, without a win in their first 3 group games they scraped into the knockout stages. Going into January they topped Serie A and had been drawn against Mourinho’s former charges in Chelsea.
It was at this time that Inter were able to sign the final piece of their starting eleven. Goran Pandev had been a pariah at Lazio all season and having legally been allowed to change clubs at the first registration period Mourinho signed him for nothing. It was this signing that made it possible for Inter to dominate the rest of their opposition in Europe.
After a fortuitous victory in Milan over Chelsea, it was the return leg which propelled Mourinho’s return to the top of European management. By playing with three forwards Inter made it possible to pen Chelsea back in their own half. Yuriy Zhirkov was caught out time and again by Maicon’s forward runs and Inter were able to fashion clear cut chances.
The goal that changed the game however was the work of two Outcasts, Lampard was pick-pocketed in midfield and the creative ability of Sneijder alongside the pace and composure of Eto’o led Inter into the next round and a meeting with the defending European champions.
After an impressive first leg where Lionel Messi was kept quiet by the attention of Estaban Cambiasso. Inter were well set-up for the second leg. However not even Mourinho could plan for what happened, after Busquets play-acting Inter had no choice but to shut down and stop Barcelona from scoring by any means necessary.
It was the defensive performance of the season. Inter were accused of playing anti-football and as Mourinho himself said ‘parking the plane’. How else were they to play, the players were specifically informed to lose the ball so not to risk the shape. It was a testament to their differences that when in persuit of a goal Ibrahimovic was removed, but whilst defending Samuel Eto’o was left on the pitch an idea unthinkable during his time at the Camp Nou.
It was with this performance that Inter galvanised themselves for their Serie A run in. Having kept the so called ‘best side in the world’ at bay with ten men, Inter played with a dogged determination and winning mentality that allowed them to never falter in their final games of the season.
Diego Milito continued his goal-scoring form in the ‘big games’ by scoring the winning goals of the Coppa Italia, the final game of Serie A and both goals in the Champions League final. The final itself was somewhat formulaic Inter were imperious in defence the work of Zanetti and Cambiasso cancelling out Bastian Schweinstager’s fine form, with the only threat coming from Chivu’s mis-match with Arjen Robben.
Inter’s goals were well worked and taken and Mourinho has become the only manager the elite club’s in the world would take over their own.
Finally the scenes on the pitch after the final whistle showed what Mourinho brings to a club. Despite his falling out with certain players (Super Mario) and with the press, Inter showed that they were a family. Returning Kaka to form and rebuilding the defense Real have lacked will be the basis for success, but bringing that kind of cohesion to Real Madrid will be Mourinho’s biggest challenge.