Serie A preview 2011-2012, Part 3
: Weekend’s Big Finish
In closing, Sunday evening's eagerly anticipated game is a repeat of last season's Coppa Italia final between Palermo and Inter, but this fixture at the Renzo Barbera also serves as an indicator of just how quickly things can change in Italian football.
Both teams have new coaches, new systems and each club has lost their best player in Javier Pastore and Samuel Eto'o.
Great expectations: Diego Forlan has helped strengthen Inter Milan's forward line. (Photo by Luca Bruno/Getty Images)
Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini harshly axed Stefano Pioli barely three months after his appointment. He had been brought in to shore up the defense, yet his only two competitive matches in charge of the club resulted in an early knockout from the Europa League at the hands of FC Thun.
Zamparini has since promoted Devis Mangia, the youth team manager. His credentials include a particularly apt name for working under a Mangia-Allenatore or Coach-Eater like his boss.
No secret has been made of Palermo's hopes to lure Delio Rossi back to the bench for a third time, but it would appear that after leaving in tears in April, then coming back and walking away again, the 51-year-old has had the dignity to say enough is enough.
As for Inter, Massimo Moratti reacted to the pessimism generated by Eto'o's sale to Anzhi Makhachkala with a reminder that "the fans were also disappointed when Zlatan Ibrahimovic left, but look how that turned out."
Inter won the treble that season, and while they are still strong with Diego Forlán and Mauro Zárate added to their forward line, there is a sense that, with a third coach hired in the space of a year, stability is needed especially in a transition period for the club while belts are also being tightened in light of financial fair-play.
That said, the great legacy of the Mourinho era at Inter was the abandonment of the inferiority complex that had hung over the club since the departure of Helenio Herrera in the `60s and the creation of a winning mentality.
New man at the helm: Gian Piero Gasperini replaced Leonardo as coach of Inter Milan. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
It bears remembering that last season, although portrayed as a disappointment, saw Inter complete a mini treble, lifting the Italian Super Cup, the Club World Cup and the Coppa Italia.
Gian Piero Gasperini may not have been first choice to replace Leonardo, but he deserves a shot at one of Italy's big clubs. Indeed, many in the Italian media felt that his 2008-09 Genoa side which went on to finish fifth in Serie A, played the best collective football in Italy of the last five years, rivaled if not surpassed only by Luciano Spalletti's Roma.
Born on the same day as José Mourinho (but not in the same year), the Special One had more praise for Gasperini than any other Italian tactician during his time in Italy, likening encounters with him to a game of chess.
Famous for playing a 3-4-3 formation, its integration at Inter will be helped by the presence of Gasperini's former players: Diego Milito, Thiago Motta and Andrea Ranocchia.
However, question marks persist as to whether the team can adapt to a three-man defense (even though the characteristics of Walter Samuel, Lúcio and Cristian Chivu are well suited to it), while debate also centers on the positioning of Wesley Sneijder with the 3-4-3 not accommodating a typical trequartista role.
For many, it's critical that Inter get the best out of their No. 10 over the next nine months. He had a poor season last year, as did the team in general after the treble-winning campaign, the World Cup, and the post-Mourinho hangover.
Go Wes!: Holland international Wes Sneijder must improve on last season if Inter is to regain the title from rival AC Milan. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
The fact that Sneijder went over a year without scoring in Serie A between January 9, 2010 and February 3, 2011 was largely brushed under the carpet, a stat made all the more revealing when one considers that he has made just 11 assists in the 51 league games he has played over two campaigns at San Siro.
The scale of his influence is up to interpretation. After all, no player completed more passes in the opponent's half last season in Italy than Sneijder. Yet one can't escape the feeling that, while key in big moments in the Champions League during his first season, Inter have lost a consistently more decisive player in Eto'o; whose impact, tantamount to 53 goals in 102 games, will be sorely missed.
Gasperini has vowed not to privilege one player over another, putting side before self, but he's a pragmatist and isn't dogmatic, so as we saw in the first half of the Italian Super Cup against Milan in Beijing, he will use Sneijder in an advanced position, perhaps a 3-5-1-1 or a 3-4-1-2, despite frequent experiments in a deeper role.
Inter dominated their cugini for the opening 45 minutes of their match at the Bird's Nest with Sneijder giving his side the lead with a picture perfect free-kick.
Needless tinkering by Gasperini, though, saw Milan get back into the game and win 2-1 to lift their first piece of silverware of the season. Suggestions that the cycle of this Inter team is over, however, remain wide of the mark.
After all, they finished second in Serie A, were the league's top scorers and the players, for the most part, will be much fresher.
Like their colleagues at Milan, the Inter dressing room holds a psychological advantage over the rest of the division in knowing that they have been there before and won a Scudetto. They know what it takes and that shouldn't be underestimated, but then again neither should Napoli and Juventus, nor Lazio, Roma and Udinese.
With both Milan and Inter on 18 Scudetto’s each, there is an added motivation that drives the rivalry. Who will be the first to reach 20 and add a prestigious second star above their club crest? "We have to get there before Inter," said Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani. The question for the neutrals is will anyone manage to get between them?