It’s been a bad month for Inter. After flying high for weeks on the back of narrow, hard-fought wins, we’ve suddenly seen both our luck and our hard-fighting spirit desert us. One win, two draws and two losses in our last five league matches is not good. Dropping points in two of those matches thanks to stoppage-time goals is even worse. Was our early-season coast to the top of the table a fluke? Maybe! Is the old pazza Inter juju rearing its head for the 4,000th time? Possibly! But in spite of all the hand-wringing, things are not nearly as bad as they seem. Our pre-season goals are still within reach, and our midweek performance against Napoli showed what this team is capable of when it fires on all – or even half – of its cylinders. With that in mind, here are five reasons for cautious optimism.
1. Reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated
In spite of our abrupt loss of form, we have yet to completely fall off the map. We currently find ourselves in 4th place, but we’re tied on points with Fiorentina in 3rd place, and the Viola have been every bit as inconsistent as we have. What’s more, all of the top four are clustered together pretty tightly, with the rest of the league looking on. Napoli are six points ahead of us in first, but we’re also six points ahead of Roma, who are right behind us in 5th. In other words, as long as we don’t continue this slump, we have yet to do permanent damage to our Champions League chances. The margins for error might be going from "thin" to "quantum-sized," but everything we hoped for back in August is still entirely feasible.
2. Waiting for the man
Dodo is off to Sampdoria on loan, and it looks like Andrea Ranocchia could soon join him. Nemanja Vidic’s contract has been torn up, and Fredy Guarin is reportedly having a medical in China. Davide Santon – who continues his weird, career-long habit of playing pretty well for a good stretch, only to be inexplicably dropped for months at a time – could be on the block too. Everyone, from Ausilio to Mancini, has claimed that we would only sell in order to buy, with Ausilio promising that if we ventured into the winter market, it would only be to buy someone significant. Does that mean Eder? Soriano? Lavezzi? Banega? Toure? ...Uh, Jonathan? I have no clue, but we’re clearly making space for a serious arrival here.
3. Mancini don’t take no mess
For all of us who lived through his eventful first term at Inter, "angry Mancio" is a pretty familiar figure – flustered, sputtering, looking like his scarf is tied too tight – and we’ve been getting hints of that old screamer over the past few weeks. So far, he’s been saying what everyone is thinking: that our goal-scoring rate is unsustainable, that our strikers need to do more, that even he could’ve made some of the shots Icardi is scuffing. And if he’s proven anything this time around, it’s that he isn’t afraid to make radical shakeups. He fought hard to bring Shaqiri to Inter, then bought him a one-way bus ticket to the English hinterlands when he didn’t live up to standards. He sold our most exciting young prospect to finance the types of players he wanted. If Jovetic ever thought he could just waltz back to Italy and get guaranteed match-time, he learned otherwise real quick. You could see this as a negative, in the sense that Mancini often picks the wrong man or lacks patience with the players he does pick, but what this also means is that no one on the team thinks they can simply show up and collect a paycheck. After so many recent Inter coaches who were content with mediocrity, I like the fact that he’s trying to institute higher standards. Whether he can accomplish that is another question. But the proverbial fire-under-asses has been lit.
4. The state of the defense is strong
Our strikers might sometimes play like they don’t know each others' names, and our midfield might play like they think the goal is somewhere around the center circle, but there’s one big part of the team that needs no work whatsoever. In spite of a few stumbles and an own goal, we still have the No. 1 defense in Serie A. We’ve only conceded 14 goals – 17 clubs in the league have let in 20 or more. Our goalkeeper is in the form of his life, and our centerbacks are still killing it. It’s a cliché, but a solid defense is the one indispensable element no good team can be without. Finding a star goalscorer or a midfield maestro midseason is tough, but forging the chemistry necessary to rescue a leaky backline is often near-impossible. Let’s all offer a burnt offering to the calcio gods in thanks that we don’t have to.
5. Failure is not an option
Okay, so this isn’t exactly the most optimistic note to end on, but our management does not lack the proper motivation to get us back into the top three. We’ve mortgaged our future on it, with so many loan-to-buy deals and staggered payments that could put us in a very, very bad position if we continue to be football also-rans. If we make a big purchase this transfer window, we’ll only be doubling down on what was already a pretty huge wager. I’m pretty sure Mancini knows he’s out of a job if we fail this year. Ausilio too. Hell, half our players are probably watching poor Fredy study his Mandarin phrasebook and wondering what their future has in store if they fizzle out in Milano. I don’t exactly envy their position, but as John Travolta once said, "Sometimes you do your best work when you’ve got a gun to your head."
So let's everybody take a deep breath, put that Five Stairsteps longplayer on the old hi-fi, and think happy thoughts about all the upcoming derbies.