Winners without love: Champions fail in battle of hearts and minds

<i>Internazionale</i> arrive at Anfield heading for a third straight Serie A title but, as Frank Dunne explains, lacking due credit at home for their great success
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The Independent Online

Roberto Mancini, the coach of the Serie A champions Internazionale, must wonder what he and his richly talented team need to do to win friends in Italy.

Most outsiders – those who neither play nor coach in Serie A – would probably agree that the 43-year-old Mancini and his record-breaking side have not had anything like the credit they deserve over the past two seasons. But it will probably take nothing less than winning the Champions League this season to change that.

Inter arrive in Liverpool for tonight's first leg in the first round of the knockout stage unbeaten in the league, with an 11-point margin over second-placed Roma courtesy of Saturday's 2-0 win against Livorno. With almost half the season remaining, they could even better last season's extraordinary winning margin of 22 points – a record for Serie A.

Take into consideration the 2005-06 title – which the Italian Football Association awarded to Inter after the winners and runners-up, Juventus and Milan, were punished for match-fixing – and Mancini's side are on for a third straight Scudetto. Despite this achievement, Inter remain respected, but largely unloved in Italy, while Mancini is very much a prophet without honour in his own country.

There are several reasons why Inter have not won hearts and minds. Unlike, say, Roma and Fiorentina, they are not committed to all-out attacking football. Mancini's side play a technical game based on high levels of possession and they will not go chasing three goals where one will do. Think Chelsea and Liverpool, rather than Manchester United and Arsenal.

Another reason why many Italian neutrals struggle to identify with Inter is that they have so few Italians in the team. The defender Marco Materazzi, one of only three Italians in Inter's 21-man squad for tonight's game, has been the only Italian regular during Mancini's reign. By contrast, rivals such as Juventus and Milan still have a solid base of Italian players.

The thing that most annoys people about Inter, however, is the club's success. It was not meant to be this way. Inter were supposed to be the butt of jokes, with the long-faced millionaire president firing several coaches a season in the vain hope of matching all-conquering Juventus. Now Inter are winning and are making no apologies for it. Inter are, in fact, the new Juve. This success has prompted the inevitable backlash and conspiracy theories about referees giving Inter dodgy penalty decisions have filled the sports pages in recent weeks.

Then there is the Mancini factor. After a dazzling playing career in which he was regarded by many as the most gifted Italian of his generation, Mancini started out in coaching as assistant to Sven Goran Eriksson at Lazio. After a season coaching Fiorentina and two more at Lazio, he was recruited by Inter's owner, Massimo Moratti, in 2004.

His meteoric rise got up the noses of a lot of coaches. They felt that Mancini had not paid his dues, not taken the traditional route through youth coaching in the provinces, through the badlands of Serie C and Serie B, to the big time. He was not, as one observer put it, "part of the family". Their envy was fuelled by the Italian federation's decision to tweak its own rules to help fast-track Mancini's appointment at Fiorentina, when he had not yet completed his Serie A coaching badge.

Mancini's colleagues last month chose Fiorentina's Cesare Prandelli as coach of the year for 2007. A month earlier, in the players' poll, the prize went to Roma's Luciano Spalletti. Mancini was not even shortlisted. It was an incredible snub from the professional game. The Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who voted for Mancini, felt sufficiently embarrassed to make a public defence of his colleague. "Roberto is one of the architects of the success of the Nerazzurri. He has given Inter a precise identity. There are coaches who think that it is easy to win the league with the kind of players that Inter have available. But this is a small-minded vision.

"Inter are full of top-class players and it is not easy to manage a dressing room full of great players with strong personalities."

Claudio Ranieri, the former Chelsea manager who now coaches Juventus, was also full of praise for Mancini. "With well-targeted choices he has managed to create a solid group. These days Inter is no longer like an airport, with players coming and going. You don't get the sense, as you did in the past, of something precarious. Mancini has constructed a strong team. They are winners."

To be fair, the begrudgers had some good arguments about the true scale of Mancini's achievements last season. The Calciopoli match-fixing scandal meant that Serie A was weakened by the enforced relegation of Juventus, while potential title rivals such as Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina were deducted points.

With Inter taking advantage of Juve's crisis to beef up an already powerful squad by nabbing striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and midfielder Patrick Vieira from the Turin club, the title had to be a shoo-in, and so it proved. The critics have pointed out that where Inter were competing on a level playing field, in the Champions League, they failed to get beyond the last 16, going out to Valencia on away goals.

The contest with Liverpool should provide a sharper perspective. Are Mancini's Inter just playground bullies in a soft Serie A, or a group of winners, ready for the big European stage? The performances of Ibrahimovic and Vieira are likely to be central to answering that question.

Injuries have meant that Vieira, a colossus with Arsenal, has largely been invisible in Italy. The proud Ibrahimovic was shocked to be overlooked in the World Player of the Year awards last season, despite having driven Inter to the title. In the Fifa award, he did not garner a single vote from the world's national team coaches and captains.

Mancini may harbour some frustration at not getting his due recognition, but Liverpool should fear the two former Juve players, who arguably have even more to prove.

Vieira risks being forgotten man in San Siro revolution

Remember Patrick Vieira? The 31-year-old midfielder, who was the bedrock of Arsenal's Double-winning teams of 1998 and 2002 and a key member of the France squad who won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, seems to have fallen into a kind of footballing black hole.

Vieira was arguably at the peak of his powers when Arsène Wenger sold him to Juventus in July 2005 but, while Cesc Fabregas has been busy erasing his memory in north London, injuries have prevented the Frenchman from establishing himself in Italy.

Things started brightly in Turin, where Vieira's early-season form was impressive. Juve went on to win the title – later stripped from the club and awarded to Inter – but a persistent groin injury led to a dramatic dip in Vieira's form in the second half of the season.

At the beginning of the 2006-07 season, with Juventus sent down to Serie B, Vieira jumped ship to Inter. They duly won the title but injury limited him to 20 league games. This season he has fared even worse, with a calf strain limiting him to just eight appearances. In his first league game since October, against Empoli two weeks ago, he was sent off for verbally abusing the referee.

Vieira may have to wait until the return leg at San Siro to make his mark on the Champions League tie with Liverpool. "The ideal thing would be to bring him on once the pace of the game has dropped," Inter's coach, Roberto Mancini, said ahead of tonight's match at Anfield. "But I don't think that will happen until very late in the game."

Alien invasion: Mancini's multinational Inter

Only three of Internazionale's 21-man squad for tonight's match against Liverpool are Italian, the reserve goalkeepers Francesco Toldo and Paolo Orlandoni and the World Cup-winning, Zidane-taunting former Everton defender Marco Materazzi. None was born within 150 miles of San Siro.

Each Inter player tonight was born, on average, 3,598 miles from Milan.

Goalkeeper:

Julio Cesar Age 28; 104 Inter appearances. 20 Brazil caps. Born Rio de Janeiro, 5,635 miles from Milan.

Defenders:

Ivan Cordoba Age 31; 354 Inter apps, 16 goals. 40 Colombia caps. Born Medellin, 5,552 miles from Milan.

Javier Zanetti Age 34; 574 Inter apps, 18 goals; 117 Argentina caps. Born Buenos Aires, 5,576 miles from Milan.

Maicon Age 26; 63 Inter apps, 4 goals. 33 Brazil caps. Born Novohamburgo, 6,417 miles from Milan.

Nicolas Burdisso Age 26; 93 Inter apps, 6 goals. 15 Argentina caps. Born Altos de Chipion, 6,915 miles from Milan.

Nelson Rivas Lopez Age 24; 7 Inter apps; Colombia. Born Pradera, 5,825 miles from Milan.

Cristian Chivu Age 27; 20 Inter apps. 57 Romania caps. Born Resita, 614 miles from Milan.

Midfielders:

Maxwell Age 26; 57 Inter apps, 1 goal. Brazil. Born Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, 5,558 miles from Milan.

Dejan Stankovic Age 29; 163 Inter apps, 23 goals. 72 caps for Serbia (and Yugoslavia). Born Beograd, 550 miles from Milan.

Luis Figo Age 35; 105 Inter apps, 9 goals; 127 Portugal caps. Born Almada, 1,047 miles from Milan.

Patrick Vieira Age 31; 35 Inter apps, 4 goals. 105 France caps. Born Dakar (Senegal), 2,630 miles from Milan.

Esteban Cambiasso Age 27; 149 Inter apps, 20 goals. 32 Argentina caps. Born Buenos Aires, 5,576 miles.

Maniche Age 30; 5 Inter apps. 44 Portugal caps. Born Lisbon, 969 miles from Milan.

Pele Age 20; 13 Inter apps; Portugal. Born Oporto, 941 miles from Milan.

Forwards:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Age 26; 61 Inter apps, 34 goals. 49 Sweden caps. Born Malmo, 718 miles from Milan.

Julio Cruz Age 33; 158 Inter apps, 68 goals; 17 Argentina caps. Born Santiago del Estero, 6,832 miles from Milan.

Hernan Crespo Age 32; 88 Inter apps, 41 goals; 65 Argentina caps. Born Florida (Arg), 6,552 miles from Milan.

David Suazo Age 28; 21 Inter apps, 7 goals; 33 Honduras caps. Born San Pedro, 6,678 miles from Milan.

And The Manager?

Roberto Mancini Age 43; 36 Italy caps. Born Jesi, 266 miles from Milan.

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