Sleepwalking Inter risk going from heroes to zeros after European exit

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It was always going to be an exercise in futility for Inter as they desperately attempted to defend their Champions League title in the second leg of a quarterfinal in which they already trailed 5-2, but the holders could not even exit the competition with some semblance of pride.

The task in Germany had been made nigh on impossible after conceding five goals at home to Schalke 04, so the return leg was of mere academic interest, with only the Italian press flying against the wind of common sense.

“Inter, Believe”, ran the headline in La Gazzetta dello Sport yesterday which was met with a wave of head shaking and shoulder shrugging over coffee in the Milanese cafes, while this morning’s “Game Over” on the front page of the same paper was greeted with knowing nods.

The 2-1 defeat in Gelsenkirchen ensured that the team could not even return home with their heads held high - with Diego Milito doing his best Fernando Torres impression, Wesley Sneijder a spent force mentally and physically, and everyone else sleepwalking through the evening, only Samuel Eto’o kept the embers of hope flickering.

In the end, however, the lights have gone out on Italy’s presence in Europe this season and for Inter the repercussions are likely to be felt back on the domestic front.

Leonardo now has to pick up his worn-out players for Saturday’s league match at Parma - who are themselves battling for their Serie A lives - before facing a resurgent AS Roma in the first leg of the Italian Cup semi-final next Tuesday.

After all the strutting and posturing under Jose Mourinho throughout last year’s treble success, opposition fans up and down the country cannot wait to don t-shirts emblazoned with ‘zero titles’ this time around.

Inter are currently five points off Milan at the top of the table with six games to play and the momentum is certainly with their city cousins, who welcome free-falling Sampdoria to the San Siro on Saturday evening.

While Massimo Moratti has slinked back into the shadows to plot for next season’s rebuilding programme, Silvio Berlusconi is basking in the limelight and at the same time blinding the populous with extravagant promises.

Using ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ we win the league, the happy cavalier promised a summer filled with beautiful young things parading in front of him – and before you get any ideas the aging Lothario was talking about new signings - in particular Cristiano Ronaldo.

Such statements may be instant vote winners and although the sight of the Portuguese poser and Zlatan Ibrahamovic hogging the ball is a tantalising one there is more chance of the Real Madrid player appearing as a defence witness at the prime minister’s ‘bunga bunga’ sex trial - and that’s not a joke, the former Manchester United man really has been listed as potential witness.

Unsurprisingly, Ibra does not appear on the defence team’s star-studded roll-call of those expected to testify for the PM’s standing as an upright citizen.

The sulky Swede obviously attended the same finishing school as Wayne Rooney, but rather than swear at inanimate objects he took his wrath out on the referee’s assistant last weekend at Fiorentina and was shown a straight red card.

Slapped with a three-game suspension, Zlat was much more sanguine and accepted he had been wrong, no doubt in the hope of only having to sit on the naughty step for two games - although the three fixtures would be Samp, followed by Brescia and then Bologna.      

It is no surprise that Massimiliano Allegri is not too concerned and Ibra’s absence solves a selection headache, what with the Alexandre Pato finding the back of the net at the rate of a goal every other game and dovetailing neatly with Robinho, while for all his foibles Antonio Cassano is just the type to have a field day against lesser sides.

Not only does the thought of Milan running away with the title in the final weeks occupy Inter minds but also the threat posed by Napoli for the runners-up spot.

Walter Mazzarri’s side are two points clear of Inter and face a pivotal moment on Sunday against Udinese, who have slipped off the pace of late. But they do so knowing they are at home in front of a sell-out San Paolo stadium where belief of an unlikely title success remains very much alive.

Such conviction is now in short supply at Inter, who after relinquishing their European crown face the very real prospect of going from treble-winning heroes to trophyless zeroes unless they can find an instant pick-me-up.