Leonardo left speechless as Inter face up to the end of an era

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Leonardo’s voice had gone long before the end of last night’s humiliation, which was just as well because there was little he could have said in defence of Inter’s performance in the Champions League quarterfinal humbling at the hands of Schalke 04.

The team may have sleepwalked through their 3-0 loss to AC Milan at the weekend but the 5-2 thumping at the San Siro stadium was a footballing nightmare for the Nerazzurri faithful.

It’s hard to believe barely a week ago there was talk of a Treble repeat in the air - but there must now be serious doubts as to whether Leonardo has what it takes to handle the pressure that comes with coaching at the highest level.

The smooth-talking Brazilian has never won a Milan derby or a home tie in the Champions League as a coach, although in his defence he has taken over an Inter team coming to the end of their natural cycle.

It is an aging side which, despite winning everything there is to win over the 12 months, has finally run out of steam both mentally and physically - and club owner Massimo Moratti cannot allow the squad to remain so depleted through the close season.

It seems as though he will keep faith in his rookie coach unless Pep Guardiola can be prised away from Barcelona, but whoever is in charge next season faces a monumental challenge to ensure Inter do not become the forgotten men of Europe.

The biggest difference between the Champions League and the Italian domestic game is the fitness and explosive pace of many of the stronger teams in the continental competition; and Inter’s weakness in this area has been laid bare.

Having already conceded three times at home to the Premier League’s fifth-placed side, Tottenham Hotspur, they have now shipped five to a Bundesliga relegation contender on their own patch.

The spine of the team has snapped completely and although Julio Cesar - who once again walked home from the deserted San Siro - is still capable of brilliant reflex saves, without Lucio and Walter Samuel in the heart of the defence the goalkeeper is all too often left exposed.

Andrea Ranocchia, scorer of an own-goal against the Germans, is a young player of promise but he needs to play alongside a cooler head like Lucio, not the rash Cristian Chivu, who last night received is marching orders for the second time in three days having also been sent off in Saturday’s Milan derby.

Had it not been for Walter Samuel’s season-ending injury, Ranocchia would have continued to serve his apprenticeship on the domestic front with Genoa before being thrown into the brutal world of European club football – but instead his battering at the hands of Edu could well see his slender shoulders slump even further.

Douglas Maicon and Javier Zanetti currently look like spent forces, with Moratti surely regretting not cashing in on the Brazilian in the summer, and the old Tractor having too many miles on the clock to keep chugging away at full-back.

Not that the veteran, for all his heart and determination, can really cut it in midfield either, an area where Thaigo Motta, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic have all had their fitness problems, having regularly been run into the ground and outnumbered by much younger and more nimble opponents.

Wesley Sneijder is another whose body and mind are giving up, with the Dutchman becoming an ever more peripheral figure with each passing game. Diego Milito is returning from injury, but his sensational campaign of last year is an increasingly distant memory, while the general malaise has cut so deep that even Samuel Eto’o no longer looks the invincible force of nature he once was.

If the starting eleven can no longer lift themselves, then what hope for those coming off the bench? There was little or no genuine quality among last night’s replacements; Houssine Khajra looked out of his depth when he came on and Ivan Cordoba is another well past his sell-by date.

Despite these evident shortcomings, no team - not least Schalke - would have ever entertained the thought of scoring five goals against a Serie A side, let alone at the San Siro - and unsurprisingly the local press took a dim view of another embarrassing evening for Italian football.  

Terms usually reserved for natural disasters were employed with plenty of gusto, with terms like ‘catastrophe’ and ‘collapse’ used in abundance.

La Gazzetto dello Sport went for the ‘No Defence’ plea and laid the blame at the feet of pretty much everyone connected with the club. However, Corriere dello Sport summed it up succinctly: ‘Inter routed.’ 

Inter’s reign as European champions is all but over, and it definitely felt like an end of an era for the current incarnation of the club after the most humbling few days of Leonardo’s brief coaching career.