Udinese were fantastic. Even before Di Natale stepped up and whipped the free-kick low into the net past the despairing hands of Julio Cesar to give them the lead, the Zebrette were dominant. They out-passed, out-fought and out-ran their opponents. The victory brought a brutal end to Leonardo’s perfect start as Inter boss. Except that, for all that it was a remarkable performance it was Inter’s defeat rather than a victory for Guidolin’s side. Not through a lack of will or effort but because Inter desperately needed a break. The European champions struggled manfully but had the thousand yard stare of the terminally jaded. The verve, the spark, the drive; all were missing. Mourinho’s Grande Inter had morphed into Leonardo’s walking dead in the space of eight months.
The Udinese game was nearly a month ago and the tiredness has only become more evident in the build-up to the Bayern game. This might be the squad which won the treble but the energy that was put into that achievement is now showing. While everyone focused on the tactical genius of Mourinho and how he managed to out-think Barcelona in that semi-final, the under-appreciated aspect is the physical hell that the players endured for him. How playing every game in the domestic league, Champions League, Coppa Italia, Super Cup and Club World Championship takes its toll. Leonardo has provided a fillip to the squad and there is a new energy that was noticeably absent under Rafa Benitez but no new coach can do the work of a prolonged break. Remember that these Inter player went straight from winning the treble to the World Cup (how Zanetti and Cambiasso did not make that squad remains inexplicable) and sacrificed their winter break to go to the Club World Championship.
The idea of footballers suffering from fatigue is often ridiculed. As though, over a certain monetary threshold simple factors such as tiredness shouldn’t exist. In the past few months, Chamakh has publically revealed how jaded he is and requested that Wenger pull him out of the firing line. Now the stresses of moving country and playing a full season should not be underestimated. But Chamakh has not had to cope with the sheer intensity of performing at such a peak level for a prolonged period of time in the way that Wesley Sneijder has had to. If the Moroccan striker is feeling burnt out, it is no wonder Inter are struggling to replicate their form of last season, regardless of who the manager is.
Obviously from the point of view of Nerazzurri fans this lethargy is a big negative. The prize of being the first team to retain the Champions League in the new format would be a historic honour and it has been said that the mark of a good side is winning titles, the mark of a great side is retaining them. But from the point of view of the competition as a whole, the opposite is true. Domination is never healthy and retention means that the prize it gets less meaningful every time.
At some point, a team will manage to retain the Champions League. Manchester United, Juventus and Ajax all fell at the final (excuse the pun) hurdle and Barcelona were only denied a place at the Santiago Bernabeu because of an erroneous refereeing decision on the Bojan goal. However, the past month has offered a compelling reason to believe that Inter won’t be the ones to set the precedent. The squad is tired, players like Sneijder and Milito gave every last drop of energy for Mourinho then went straight to the World Cup and the miniscule summer break has not been enough. Even those who didn’t go to South Africa look run down (Zanetti and Cambiasso for example) so the strain on those that did cannot be discounted. Nothing makes winning the Champions League harder than being the holders.