In Serie A, sometimes perfection isn't enough. Roberto Mancini’s Inter have a perfect record of five wins from five, yet still there are critics.
Without dropped points to occupy the minds of the naysayers, the talk has turned to style and substance. Inter are boring, they say, but Mancini, a determined winner, is happy to accept monotony in the pursuit of victory.
“I don't get this thing of having to play well,” he told Sky Italia. “It doesn't take much to figure out we're not Barcelona.” The Treble-winning Catalans they may not be, but a remarkable start to the Serie A season has catapulted Inter into the conversation about potential scudetto winners. From the mediocrity of mid-table last time out, Mancini has transformed the Nerazzurri into a side capable of grinding out victories.
Four 1-0 wins in five games has attracted a degree of ire from purists; as Mancini points out, though, he faced the exact same criticisms at Manchester City in the season that the club won the Premier League.
Pragmatism has been at the heart of Inter’s good start, with the latest 1-0 triumph coming against Hellas Verona on Wednesday night. There have been whispers that Mancini will look to play a more expansive style as the season goes on, with a 4-3-3 formation said to be the manager’s system of choice.
However, given Inter’s success so far, the steady but unspectacular 4-3-1-2 looks set to stay in the short term. Significant investment from Indonesian president Erik Thohir has presented Mancini – renowned as a defensive mind in England – with a puzzle to be solved. Martin Montoya, Miranda and Jeison Murillo all arrived from La Liga this summer, Alex Telles joined from Mancini’s old club Galatasaray and Davide Santon, who had lost his way at Newcastle, made his loan spell permanent. And with just one goal conceded in five games, the early signs are very promising indeed.
Alongside the recruitment of a new defence, the Nerazzurri have also remodelled their midfield, looking to change the balance of the side. Mateo Kovacic and Hernanes were allowed to leave but that news was buried under the €40 million signing of Geoffrey Kondogbia, who became the second-most expensive player in Inter's history after Christian Vieri, signed for €45 million from Atletico Madrid in 1999.
Kondogbia, an Under-20 World Cup winner and regular France international, represented a real statement of intent from Thohir and Mancini. Felipe Melo, the man signed to partner the former Monaco player, has quietly gone about his business with real purpose. Having worked with the Brazilian at Galatasaray, Mancini knows Melo well, and if the Italian can soothe the midfielder’s rash temperament, Inter will have acquired themselves a very capable defensive shield.
The dramatic reshaping of this team was completed with the signing of Stevan Jovetic, the jewel in the San Siro crown. With Mauro Icardi – Serie A’s youngest leading goalscorer last season since Paolo Rossi finished top of the pile in 1978 – already in tow, a prodigiously gifted trequartista like Jovetic completes a devastating frontline, with the cunning Ivan Perisic another smart acquisition from Wolfsburg.
The Montenegrin has demonstrated his undoubtedly quality with three goals in five games, though the real test for the player signed from City is avoiding further fitness problems. Jovetic never really found a rhythm in the north-west of England, and his chances of regular action were harmed by persistent niggles.
Regardless of their fast start, many doubt whether this Inter side can sustain a title challenge. Mancini and others at the club have urged caution after every win in a bid to temper expectations, while Javier Zanetti, now vice-president, has insisted that Champions League qualification is the main aim this season.
Icardi has also maintained that Juventus remain favourites for the title and Mancini himself delivered the coup de grace, pointing out that not so long ago Roma won their first 10 games of the season but ended up finishing 17 points behind champions Juve at the campaign's end. It may sound like an old cliché, but Inter must take this one game at a time, with an eye constantly looking over their shoulder to Turin and Rome.
Juventus and Roma are not without their own problems, though, with the pair already clinging to the Nerazzuri’s coat-tails. Seemingly back up and running with a win over Genoa on Sunday, Juve slumped to a 1-1 midweek draw with newly promoted Frosinone, leaving them 10 points behind Inter in 14th. A summer of rebuilding has left the Old Lady with a number of worrying teething problems.
Meanwhile, Roma – for so long the favourites to pounce were Juventus’ imperious form to ever subside – aren't faring much better, with a defeat to Sampdoria on Wednesday leaving them in ninth place and seven points off the leaders. As the Serie A season gathers momentum, Inter’s closest rivals are currently Fiorentina, Sassuolo and Chievo. La Viola head to San Siro on Sunday for an early-season top-of-the-table clash, while the biggest test of Inter’s title credentials comes on October 18 when Juventus visit Milan to face Mancini’s side.
As ever, the promise of early-season form may long have faded into mediocrity by the time May comes rolling round. Inter perhaps don't have the squad depth in forward areas that Juventus and Roma possess, nor the ability to dominate games as successfully, but if stuttering starts continue in Turin and Rome, Mancini’s men could build up an unassailable lead.
There's a feeling that there is more to come from both Juventus and Roma but, just five games into their time together, there may yet be more to come from this re-modelled Inter side too.
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