Whenever footballers engage in conversations on the pitch these days, particularly at the interval or at full-time, more and more often we see them covering their mouths with their hands. You’d think that what with all the crowd noise it would make them harder to hear each other. But persist they do. And you can perhaps understand why even if it does seem a little paranoid. After all, there does tend to be someone in TV production these days who claims to be a lip-reader in their spare time.
Maybe coaches could follow the same cautious example as their players here. Not when they’re giving instruction but when they’re venting their frustration. It’s on those occasions, typically when an expletive or an expression of exasperation is used, that what’s being said is most obvious and requires little or no specialist deciphering.
Inter coach Walter Mazzarri has tried his best to contain himself in recent weeks. After watching his team miss another goal-scoring opportunity in a 0-0 draw with Udinese at San Siro towards the end of last month, rather than turn the air blue he did something curious instead. Mazzarri grabbed an empty bottle of still mineral water and, in a scene not too dissimilar to that in Moonraker where Jaws sinks his teeth into a cable, bit deep into it.
A few days later in Livorno, he hurled himself back into his seat, flailing his arms as Inter threw away a 2-0 lead and were held 2-2. Innocent Emeghara’s 85th minute equaliser was assisted by Inter midfielder Fredy Guarin, who played the kind of pass to him that Livorno’s playmakers had been attempting but failing to complete all evening. By last Saturday, when another relegation-threatened side, Bologna, came to play under the Madonnina, Mazzarri could hold it in no longer. He appeared jaded.
Inter had gone ahead after six minutes through Maurito Icardi only to be pegged back before half-time when Jonathan Cristaldo deviated a Michele Pazienza shot beyond goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. That was their first goal from open play in 821 minutes. It would come against Inter, wouldn’t it? Icardi got Inter back in front just after the hour-mark with a Wanda-gol - a reference to his glamour model girlfriend and ex-wife of his former Samp team-mate Maxi Lopez. The question was: Would it be enough to send Bologna home with a fifth straight defeat? No, it wouldn’t. Because at the moment Inter always give you a chance.
So when Esteban Cambiasso jumped to head away a cross and missed the ball, which hit Rolando completely unawares, Panagiotis Kone, the player it was intentioned for, took full advantage and leveled the scores again. The game didn’t have to finish 2-2, though. For in the 84th minute, the football gods finally smiled on Inter. For the first time since May 8, 2013 they were awarded a penalty. A curse had been lifted it seemed. And yet, just like when Ricky Alvarez took Inter’s last one against Lazio, the taker Diego Milito missed.
The despair in the stands soon turned to fear. Bologna went up the other end and, were it not for a miraculous save from Handanovic, Inter could even have lost. Many questions awaited Mazzarri afterwards. What’s the formula to solve these problems? Why did Milito take the penalty just five minutes after coming on? Much of the focus, however, was on a labiale - a lip-reading. At one point after watching Danilo D’Ambrosio mishit a cross and Ricky Alvarez lose the ball again, Mazzarri had been caught on camera saying to himself and to his assistant Nicolo Frustalupi: “Are they doing it on purpose?”
Mazzarri didn’t deny it. “It’s something we say in Tuscany - that instead of shooting at goal, we shoot at ourselves. It’s a way of saying nothing’s going our way: even when we put in a cross or a shot we hit one of our own players. It’s just a saying, meant in a positive way.” Not everyone took it as such, though. Despite Mazzarri’s assertions to the contrary, journalists speculated whether his Tuscan idiom indicated that the coach believed the players were against him. The truth is Mazzarri could be forgiven at times for thinking everything is going against him.
No penalty in the league until the 32nd game of the season. Hitting the woodwork 17 times, the most in Serie A, including three in one afternoon in a 2-1 defeat at home to Atalanta, which brought to an end a six-game unbeaten run and a 355-minute spell without conceding a goal. Up until then, Inter looked to have turned a corner. For the third time this season they were only a point behind fourth-placed Fiorentina, apparently poised to overtake them.
Inexplicably, though, Inter stalled. And after taking only three from a possible 12 points in games at home to Atalanta, Udinese and Bologna and away to Livorno, they now risk not only losing sight of Fiorentina but also, more seriously, their grip on a Europa League place altogether. Milan’s win at Genoa last night means that, even though they’re still down in 11th place, five points is all that separates them from their rivals with six games to play. Considering that their run-in includes home games against each of the bottom three, a visit to fellow Europa League hopefuls Atalanta and the Derby della Madonnina, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Milan could still rescue their season and get into Europe.
That’s a big if of course. But Inter’s fixture list over the next six weeks seems trickier. They’ve got to go to Samp and Parma and play Napoli and Lazio. It’s definitely more uphill than downhill. The margin for error is so small now - and Inter’s players keep making them - that a win here or a defeat there could be the difference between finishing in the top six or the bottom half of the table, which would of course be worse than last season’s ninth place.
Much has been made of how Mazzarri’s Inter have the same number of points as Andrea Stramaccioni’s this time last year. It can also be argued that he hasn’t had nearly as many problems as his predecessor either: from the disruptive effect of Inter attempting to get Wesley Sneijder to take a pay cut, which ended in his sale, a horrendous injury crisis, to the failure to equip the team to deal with it in the January transfer window, Antonio Cassano’s fits of pique and a more congested fixture list including a deeper run in the Coppa Italia and a Europa League campaign - all of which exposed a very talented but inexperienced coach.
Mazzarri hasn’t had it easy either. Recall for instance how Inter exceeded expectations at the beginning of the season, going unbeaten in their opening seven games. There was an order to their play. Mazzarri’s imprint was clear. Lost causes like Jonathan and Alvarez were found again. Then, with the in-season change of ownership, came instability. Sensitive to what goes on around it, that impacted on the team. Injuries to Hugo Campagnaro, Mazzarri’s chief lieutenant on the pitch, began to make themselves felt. So too did Icardi’s and his off-the-field antics.
The strikers Inter had brought in to help share the goal-scoring burden with Rodrigo Palacio were either in the treatment room, not trusted or both and so there he was up front again all on his lonesome. To help him out Mazzarri wanted to sign another forward over the winter. Inter offered Juventus Guarin for Mirko Vucinic. The fans protested which led to it being called off. Then out of nowhere and as though to appease them, Hernanes was bought from Lazio, which was okay, but Mazzarri’s wish for a reinforcement in attack went unfulfilled.
And so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn Inter have only scored seven goals at San Siro since the turn of the New Year. Saturday’s draw was their 14th of the season. Only Montpellier have held teams to more across Europe’s top five leagues. Mancini’s Inter of course drew 18 times in the 2004-05 season but only suffered two defeats and still managed to finish third. Intriguingly, the Galatasaray coach has been linked with a return to San Siro in the last week.
Since the completion of Erick Thohir’s takeover in November, Mazzarri has had to put up with speculation like this. He’s experienced enough to acknowledge that typically when a new owner comes in, he wants to appoint his own coach. And Thohir has made no secret of his admiration of Frank de Boer, not least because of his record at bringing through youngsters at Ajax.
Not placing enough faith in kids is one of the principal criticisms made of Mazzarri - see Mateo Kovacic - but for now he seems to have got Thohir to compromise on his ideals and recognise that, in order to get the results they need, Inter require experience, hence why they have lined up Nemanja Vidic.
Still it remains to be seen if Mazzarri will be in the job next season. In addition to Mancini, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Diego Simeone have also been linked. Thohir claims a review will be held at the end of the current campaign when Inter intend to plan for the next three. Stick or twist, that’s the dilemma.
Dismissing Mazzarri would be expensive, not least because they’re also still paying Stramaccioni. Appoint a new one and three could be on a wage bill Thohir is trying to cut. Also think what that would mean for Mazzarri. It would be the first failure of his managerial career. Remember, he has never been sacked and has always left the clubs he has worked for in a better state than when he found them.
'The best is yet to come' is the title of Mazzarri’s recent autobiography. He gave Thohir a signed copy. Unable to read Italian it might end up on the shelf. Like Mazzarri.
James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle
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