Throughout the 1990s, Inter have been the great underachievers of Italian football. Since the last successful line-up, which was dominated by the German contingent of Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme, whole squadrons of star players have come and gone, subsidised by the fortune of a president, Massimo Moratti, who is desperate to live up to his inheritance.
His father, Angelo Moratti, an oil magnate, was the power behind Inter's great era - the days when Helenio Herrera, the coach, and Giacinto Facchetti, his defensive icon, pursued victory through an unwavering adherence to the precepts of catenaccio. At La Pinetina, Inter's training centre in the countryside near Lake Como, a bust of Angelo stands in the foyer, a reminder to the present generation of the standards they are required to meet.
Inter's season may well be defined by what happens on Wednesday night at Old Trafford, when they meet another European champion club of the '60s, and one equally anxious to recapture a former glory. With so much at stake, we may well see the Italian club making a temporary return to Herrera's defensive formula. It's a prospect that might appear to contradict the philosophy of a club that is home to Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Ivan Zamorano and Youri Djorkaeff - some of the world's greatest attacking players. But, as we saw in Milan on Saturday night, these are strange and worrying times at Inter, times of uncertainty on and off the field.
"Our problem," Aron Winter said at La Pinetina yesterday, "is that we are not a team like we have to be. A lot of things have happened.
"We've had a lot of very important players injured. Then we changed the coach, but only for four months, until the end of the season. All those things together. We are not very calm. When everything is calm, and our minds are just on what we have to do, we're going to do much better."
Inter's experienced Dutch midfield player believed that both sides, not just his own, had taken the field on Saturday with other things on their mind. "I think so, because neither team was playing in a normal way. We were both thinking about our games on Wednesday, and everybody wanted to get out of the game without any injuries."
You wouldn't necessarily have known that from the way Fabio Galante, Inter's stopper, fouled Juan Eduardo Esnaider, Juve's tough Argentinian centre-forward, three times in the first three minutes, or from the way the two No 14s, Diego Simeone and Didier Deschamps, constantly clattered into each other in midfield. But Winter was right, nevertheless. The game had an air of unreality. No one, neither the players nor the 80,000 crowd, seemed quite sure what the evening was all about, and the tensions and anxieties ruined what should have been a marvellous spectacle, given the talent on display.
First and second in Serie A last season, Juve and Inter stood eighth and sixth respectively after Saturday's match. Incredibly, not since 1941- 42 had these two aristocratic clubs met in such reduced circumstances. Yet both were looking ahead, to their respective meetings with Olympiakos and Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the European Cup, the competition through which they achieved their greatest glory. So was this a mid-table slugfest or a meeting of potential European champions? Or was it, perhaps more pertinently, a stage in the protracted convalescence of two great clubs who came into the current campaign anticipating triumphs yet were thrown into such confusion by long-term injuries to talismanic superstar forwards (Inter's Ronaldo, Juve's Del Piero) that both found it necessary to jettison their coaches in mid-season?
The state of Ronaldo's knees, which are suffering from chronic tendinitis caused by his phenomenal acceleration and equally remarkable ability to stop suddenly and change direction, has overshadowed all other news coming out of La Pinetina this season. His bizarre failure to perform in the World Cup final had already made him the object of an even more intense scrutiny than usual, but the attention paid to his physical injuries has completely unbalanced the team's preparations, graphically illustrating the potential danger of making such a massive investment - emotional and well as financial - in a single individual.
Yet Alex Ferguson will need to beware of the uncertainty over Ronaldo's fitness being used as a psychological weapon. For the Brazilian is the shadow creeping up on Wednesday's fixture. He has played in only 16 of Inter's 38 matches this season, scoring seven goals. At the same point last season, he had played in 31 games and scored 18 goals. But he took part in games on the training pitch last week, for the first time since he played for an hour in the 2-0 defeat at Bologna on 17 January. This weekend he went back indoors, to the gym and the swimming pool, to work with his personal physiotherapist, Nilton Petroni, and today he will train with the team once more before sitting down with Micrea Lucescu, Inter's coach, and the club doctor, Pietro Volpi, to decide whether he should travel to Manchester, and in what capacity.
"I'm a lot better," Ronaldo said last week, for the umpteenth time since the summer. "There's a lot less strain in the right knee. I've been training on the field, with the ball, for the first time in a month and a half. We've made mistakes this season.
"I've played some games with pain in the knee, which isn't a good thing to do. But now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, although I don't want to make predictions, because we're taking it day by day."
His coach was reassuring. "He's worked well this week," Lucescu said.
"We began by playing two against two, then three against three, four against four, and so on. He seemed fine, and he's got back his desire to play, which is the most important thing. Everything comes from that desire. We'll see."
The betting is that Lucescu will put Ronaldo on the bench on Wednesday night, without using him in the match, simply to remind Ferguson of what lies in store when United travel to San Siro on 17 March. In between those two European Cup fixtures the Brazilian will play half the Serie A match at Bari next Sunday, and, all being well, the whole of the Milan derby the Sunday after that.
How they need him. Without Ronaldo, Lucescu - who is keeping the coach's seat warm until the arrival of Marcello Lippi in the summer - deploys the attacking talents of the enthusiastic Zamorano, the frustrating Djorkaeff, and Baggio, who can still provide moments of genius. Seldom, however, do they look like members of the same forward line, a problem that plagued Inter long before this coach's arrival. His reserve striker is the 20- year-old Ventola, one for the future - as is the 19-year-old Andrea Pirlo, who arrived from Brescia this season. He is the current captain of the national under-21s, and has technical skills and a tactical sense that mark him out as Italy's long-awaited heir apparent to the playmaker's No 10 shirt of Gianni Rivera and Giancarlo Antognoni. But this, in Lucescu's mind, is not yet Pirlo's time, although he is regularly brought off the bench in the final stages.
In midfield are two hard-working ball-winners, the forceful Simeone and the energetic Benoit Cauet, formerly of Marseilles. In the wide positions, Winter and Javier Zanetti will be required to look after David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, respectively. And at the back, Giuseppe Bergomi, the 35- year-old club captain, will use the wisdom of a man who won a World Cup winner's medal at 18 to direct his central fellow defenders, Galante and Francesco Colonnese, as they attempt to subdue Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
Dario Simic, currently Inter's most effective defender, is ineligible, having played in the Champions' League this season before his transfer from Croatia Zagreb. Taribo West, the powerful Nigerian centre back formerly with Auxerre, will probably be on the bench after returning from international duty at the weekend, but his recent arguments with Lucescu have set his career back, at least in Milan.
The last line of defence will be Pagliuca. The former international goalkeeper is now 32 years old, but when Inzaghi raced all alone into the Inter half with two minutes to go on Saturday night, the answering save was that of a man whose faculties are undimmed by the effects of his famous claim to have made love to 1,000 women (and that was a few years ago).
Inter, as Aron Winter confirmed, are not the team they ought to be. They are a collection of gifted individuals who occasionally manage to achieve moments of co-ordinated activity. When even that sporadic togetherness eludes them, their pride and commitment should not be underestimated. But they are less, far less, than the sum of their talents and reputations.
Maybe it is Massimo Moratti's destiny to be seen as that most equivocal of figures, a president whose raging ambition is a limiting rather than a liberating influence on the squad he has so painstakingly and generously assembled.