Cup success and astute signings raise FC Internazionale Milano's spirits but FC Shakhtar Donetsk offer a stern test.
By Michael Harrold
The sun was actually shining as Roberto Mancini left Fratton Park on 31 July. FC Internazionale Milano's pre-season tour of England had started under a dark cloud, over fears of the terrorist threat, and the poor weather had followed Inter around southern England. By Sunday, however, Mancini, a former assistant coach at Leicester City FC, could afford to smile. "It's been good coming back to England," he told uefa.com.
Friendly victories against Crystal Palace FC, Norwich City FC and Portsmouth FC will not leave the red half of Milan trembling, but they do strengthen a growing belief running through Mancini's side and amongst Inter's supporters.
It is a belief forged by victory in the Coppa Italia last season, tangible reward for a positive first campaign under Mancini. Not the most glamorous piece of silverware on offer, but symbolically important; for the first time in 16 years Inter had won a domestic trophy. "It was so important for us to win the Coppa Italia," Mancini said. "After so many years without a trophy it's a real boost to our confidence to have finally won one."
Inter have built on that success, buying wisely over the summer. Walter Samuel, a Scudetto winner with AS Roma, bolsters an already effective rearguard, eager to put a disappointing season at Real Madrid CF behind him. The versatile and committed Santiago Solari represents another astute piece of business. He will relish a real shot at a first-team place denied him at Madrid.
Competition is intense in the Inter midfield, but €10m David Pizarro has already staked his claim. Pizarro orchestrated Udinese Calcio’s unexpected rise to the UEFA Champions League places last season and the compact Chile international has fitted seamlessly into Mancini's plans. Juan Sebastián Veron watch out.
"Pizzarro is a great player, he has just arrived but he has important technical skills and brings great quality to the team," Mancini said after watching Pizarro run the show against Portsmouth. "Even if we are without Veron he guarantees the same style of play for us."
Add Friday's signing of Luís Figo to the equation and Inter's attack-minded midfield should prove a dream to play in front of. Good news for Adriano, but also Obafemi Martins who should profit greatly from Christian Vieri's departure.
Martins has blossomed under Mancini. The 20-year-old had his most productive season last year, scoring eleven times in Serie A and five in the Champions League, and Inter have shown faith in him by not buying in a replacement for Vieri. "I think Martins will have a great season," Mancini said. "He is much fitter than last season and though we have lost Vieri our forwards guarantee us goals."
Martins was twice on target in England, but the real test will come against FC Shakhtar Donetsk. Inter have perhaps the hardest of the third qualifying round ties and Shakhtar will provide an early indication of just how good Mancini's new-look side really are.
Good enough to avenge a string of defeats by AC Milan? Mancini laughs. "The secret of beating Milan is not to throw fireworks," he said in reference to the crowd disturbance that brought an early end to last season's Champions League quarter-final. "Last season the matches against Milan were all quite similar. Milan were lucky to score their goals, they didn't deserve to win any more than we did." For the first time in a long while Inter fans feel their side is well placed to right that perceived wrong.