Inter Milan are down, but not yet out

Inter Milan, the champions of Italy, may have as little as six days left to keep calling themselves that.

As for the Inter who until next month wear the badge saying "Holders of the European Cup", they will be obliged to watch the highlights tonight of a Champions League semi-final in which Schalke 04, their recent conquerors, take on Manchester United, a contest Inter supposed had been earmarked for them.

Instead of hosting United, Inter will defend the one trophy from last season's treble in which they still have an realistic interest. They take on Roma in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final, with a 1-0 advantage from the first match, and they will feel emboldened for it by their last meeting with opponents from the Italian capital.

Inter's 2-1 league win over Lazio on Saturday neatly encapsulated the worst and the best of a squad whose long, five-year sequence of successive scudetti is soon to come to an end.

First, they fell behind to a goal that highlighted a lack of pace, positioning and poise in defence. Lazio's Mauro Zarate pursued a long pass and, taking on Julio Cesar, drew the goalkeeper into a foul.

Zarate's opening had been helped by Andrea Ranocchia's misjudgement and an unfortunate slip, one of several errors from the defender Inter signed from Genoa in January.

Cesar's red card, for the foul, then added to a significant catalogue of mistakes the keeper has been guilty of in a season where his level of performance has compared unflatteringly with his excellence in 2009-10.

The diagonal ball over and across Inter's back line would become Lazio's preferred tactic against 10-man Inter. With good reason. Ranocchia, 23, betrays his inexperience in a centre-half role that, in the strategic domain of Italian football, rewards long study and application from its masters.

Lucio, even at 32, remains prone to safaris into unorthodox territory. The Brazilian is not a Nesta or a Baresi; what he does have is a thick skin, a bullish confidence, so that for each missed clearance, or failure to mark, he will compensate with a heroic interception, a courageous, limb-stretching tackle.

Massimo Moratti, the Inter president, praised the determination of his players after the Lazio match, the spirit that had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win that would put Inter into second place in the table, above Napoli, but still eight points behind AC Milan with four matches left. "Our character beat our fatigue," Moratti said.

He was referring to the belligerence of men like Lucio; of Javier Zanetti, the captain who at 36 can still outstrip some opponents for pace, as he showed against Lazio; and above all of Samuel Eto'o, scorer of the winning goal and a constant menace as the lone striker in a side Leonardo, the coach, had to reshape once Inter were playing with 10.

Equally Inter's veterans show too many signs of wear and tear after 18 months, of league and cup, Super Cup and Club World Cup obligations.

The long-serving Dejan Stankovic retired injured against Lazio; Walter Samuel has been out for more than half the campaign. And Christian Chivu, sent off twice in what Moratti recalled as "our terrible week" - when Inter lost 3-0 in Serie A to Milan and then 5-2 to Schalke in the Champions League - has become not so much the epitome of never-say-die as the definition of foolhardy.

Inter need rejuvenating. Of that Moratti is persuaded, even as he celebrates the valour of the ageing icons. The question - in a week when Coutinho, Inter's teenage Brazilian, complained of a lack of matches, and Davide Santon, 20, once hailed the brightest young Italian prospect at the club, could only merit a place on the bench at Cesena, where he has been loaned out - is whether all the new blood needs to be bought in this summer.

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Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.


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