Reshaped Inter Milan slowly emerging from Jose Mourinho's shadow
The Serie A side play Tottenham this evening
The scars of three years ago, Internazionale insist, will make little impression on them tomorrow night. Their coach, Andrea Stramaccioni, shrugged off suggestions last night that his team will have any lingering psychological issues with Spurs. Defender Juan Jesus was unambiguous about it: "We don't fear anyone."
In truth, though, this may not be to do with Inter's robustness or resilience. They are probably a weaker side than those reigning European champions who lost at White Hart Lane in November 2010. In the intervening seasons they have changed beyond recognition.
That was one of the great European nights at White Hart Lane, as a Gareth Bale-inspired Spurs tore apart the treble-winners and beat them 3-1. That was an Inter side just coming down from the peak of the game. This one, two and a half chaotic years on, is trying to learn how to climb back up it.
Julio Cesar, Maicon, Wesley Sneijder, and Samuel Eto'o all played against Tottenham but all have since left. Other stalwarts in Diego Milito, Dejan Stankovic and Walter Samuel are all now laid low by injury.
So Andre Villas-Boas, who was a scout at Inter for 18 months, admitted that his inside knowledge of the club will count for nothing tomorrow night in the first leg of the teams' Europa League last 16 tie. "There have been a lot of changes," Villas-Boas said. "Not many of the old guard are there, they're a different team, basically."
That team has been broken down and new players brought in. Stramaccioni, the fifth post-Mourinho manager and the most successful yet, is 37 years old and seen as being perfect to oversee this painful transition.
"We are starting a new process, with a lot of new faces in our team," explained Stramaccioni yesterday. "We closed a very winning cycle and now the club and president Massimo Morratti [are] trying to build a new, successful team as soon as possible, mix of new and young players and important and experienced players."
Stramaccioni, brought in at the end of last season, should be perfect for the task. He was promoted after great success with the Roma and then Inter youth sides, with the climax at Brentford's Griffin Park of all places when Inter's Under-19s won the inaugural NextGen Series last March.
Stramaccioni is less than two years older than Villas-Boas and the Spurs coach has sympathy with another young manager, working in a shadow he is familiar with. "The position he found himself in was very difficult," Villas-Boas said. "There are constant comparisons to Jose and what he has achieved, for any manager who lands in Inter Milan, and to cope with that pressure I think is an example."
Stramaccioni's Inter started this season very well, ending Juventus's remarkable 49-game Serie A unbeaten run and becoming the first team to win at the new Juventus Stadium. But they have slipped to fifth in the table, struggling with injuries and rifts, as Stramaccioni has fallen out with Antonio Cassano, but he made the forward available for tomorrow night.
"Injuries are making our goal quite difficult," said Stramaccioni, with Milito recently ruled out for months and Fredy Guarin, Samuel and Andrea Ranocchia undergoing fitness tests today. The coach has also had to call up six youth players to his squad for tomorrow night's game. "It is not an excuse but an emergency now. The Europa League is important, but we don't want anyone to get longer-term injuries. Our main target is third place in our league."
Last month Inter, desperate for more experience, even after buying 35-year-old Lazio forward Tommaso Rocchi, tried to sign veteran free agent John Carew but the move fell through.
Clearly they are some way away from the historic side of 2009-10, the best Inter team for a generation. But for the first time since that great season of Mourinho, Eto'o and Sneijder, they might just be on their way back up.
Three in, three out: Inter's changes
Fredy Guarin Colombian international who provides power and goals from midfield.
Samir Handanovic The Slovenian goalkeeper starred in the recent Milan derby.
Rodrigo Palacio Has added guile since arriving from Genoa, scoring 18 goals.
Wesley Sneijder Never recreated 2009-10 form and finally left for Galatasaray in January.
Samuel Eto'o Joined Anzhi Makhachkala in 2011 and has proved very hard to replace.
Maicon Went to Manchester City last year.
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