As the Reigning European Champions prepared for their trip to Gelsenkirchen, Argentine captain Javier Zanetti surmised his team’s task all too simply when he said: “We have to believe.” Indeed Internazionale would have needed to win by four clear goals in order to overturn the shock 5-2 home loss they had suffered at the hands of Schalke 04. There might have been a measure of hope for the Nerazzurri however, both in Zanetti’s words and in history itself. As it were, another Italian side, Parma had managed a similar undertaking by defeating Swedish club Halmstads BK 4-0 after having lost the first leg 3-0 in the ‘95-‘96 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Although that Parma side was a supremely talented outfit boasting of talents such as Fabio Cannavaro, Dino Baggio, Fernando Couto, Hristo Stoichkov, Gianfranco Zola, Filippo Inzaghi, and even had the luxury of a certain Gianluigi Buffon on the substitutes’ bench. Could Inter match this historic feat?
In the end Inter ultimately failed to do so. Not only that but Leonardo’s men fell to another defeat as the German side completed the double over them. Winning by four clear goals was always going to be a challenge and the more pertinent problem was always going to be keeping the clean sheet. Indeed, under Leonardo, Inter’s propensity to concede was always going to be the major obstacle to their qualification. The Inter defense would have felt great confidence in the return of towering center-back Lucio. But in the end however, it was the Brazilian who was at fault for the first goal.
Inter’s main tormentor, Jefferson Farfan, had missed the game due to yellow card accumulation. The Peruvian’s absence allowed Yuto Nagatomo to slot in at left-back and provide more forward impetus down the left flank, while Zanetti returned to a more familiar midfield position alongside Thiago Motta and Dejan Stankovic. The midfield three would have offered good protection to a porous central defense while allowing both Maicon and Nagatomo to overlap and provide width down the right and left wings respectively.
In the end and in spite of the added security Leonardo afforded himself, it was Raul who found himself walking through the heart of the Inter defense, rounding Julio Cesar and slotting into an empty net. As mentioned above, it was Lucio who was at fault for what was an uncharacteristically – for him but not necessarily his team – calamitous defensive lapse. The Brazilian found himself guilty of ball-watching and never went to close down Raul who collected Jose Jurado’s pass without a single Inter defender near him. At the stroke of halftime, it was a heavy blow for the reigning European champions who would now find it very difficult to respond. Thiago Motta grabbed an equalizer early in the second half but it all came crashing down at the 81st when it was Raul again, this time the architect of Inter’s demise, who played in Benedikt Höwedes with a perfectly weighted chipped pass. The German center-back ran onto goal and fired in a low drive past the Brazilian shot-stopper and into the net.
Leonardo’s tactical acumen had once again come under scrutiny. It most certainly had been the case in the first leg, where it must be said the tie was already lost and the Brazilian tactician’s naivete was very much at fault for the 5-2 scoreline. Indeed at 2-2 the game was still evenly poised. However, once Raul scored the third, Leonardo would have had done better to opt for damage limitation after having conceded three away goals. Instead the he went for it, in a desperate effort to overturn the tie right there and then. In hindsight we see this to have been a foolish decision of course. But in reality, the Brazilian should have known better to realize that Champions League ties are two-legged affairs and that a 3-2 loss was hardly an unacceptable platform from which to attempt to overturn the tie. In fact, had Leonardo realized this, he would have had to only win by two clear goals as opposed to the four goals his team had to score against Schalke. Moreover, the extra goals came as a direct consequence of the Brazilian’s cavalier abandon as they were picked off on the counter by Schalke and made to severely pay for it.
It was truly a night to be forgotten for Inter, and one that we would have to ask when the last time the reigning European Champions had been so thoroughly defeated in Champions League history? The task seemed all but insurmountable. In a way however it was a feat that they were capable of, especially against a Schalke team [as their domestic form might have hinted it]that is anything but assured at the back. However the problem for the Nerazzurri is that they are just as likely to leak goals, and so winning by a four-goals margin was never a given. Defense has indeed been Inter’s undoing in the Champions League this year. Since the appointment of Leonardo, Inter have been a much more free-flowing side but at the expense of solidity at the back. The reasons for it are manifold. Leonardo has moved away from Jose Mourinho’s double-pivot midfield system and no longer requires the front men to help defensively. Instead, Leonardo only utilizes Thiago Motta as the sole defensive anchor to shield the defense. Furthermore, because of injuries, the starting defensive partnership of Lucio and Walter Samuel has not been available to the Brazilian. Lucio has suffered from injuries and thus been in and out of the side while Samuel was ruled out for all but the entirety of the season. Moreover Julio Cesar has suffered from a significant dip in form, having been guilty of a string of high-profile errors as of late. His poor form could be explained by the absence of Mourinho’s goalkeeping coach, Silvino Lauro, who worked with him when the Portuguese was at the club. Yes Inter’s striking potency should have proven too much for the frail Schalke defense, but the likes of Raul have proven just as dangerous to an Inter back-line which has been too often and too easily picked apart this season.
The fall from grace is indeed baffling, Inter succumbing to a 7-3 aggregate loss defeat over the two legs. Indeed for a team that defined itself on its defensive solidity under Mourinho last year, to be so thoroughly humiliated by a team that sits mid-table in the Bundesliga is somewhat unbelievable. Leonardo’s men had it all to do while Ralf Rangnik’s team comfortably sat and waited for their opponents. After all Schalke were under no obligation to bring the game to their opponents, and were happy to absorb pressure and pick their spots on the counter-attack. The statistic of eight shots and 37% possession to Inter’s 19 shots and 63% possession tells us all we need to know. After the derby humiliation a second inquest has now befallen Leonardo, as he now finds himself having to pick up the remains of his once treble winning team.