x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

'A new era' for rejuvenated Inter Milan

After years on the fringes, Philippe Coutinho can look to finally establish his credentials in the Milan derby, writes Ian Hawkey.

Philippe Coutinho, right, was instrumental in Inter Milan's victory in Azerbaijan on Thursday, scoring in the 3-1 win. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA
Philippe Coutinho, right, was instrumental in Inter Milan's victory in Azerbaijan on Thursday, scoring in the 3-1 win. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA

When the draw was made for European club competitions at the end of August, a collective groan could be heard on both sides of Milan.

Both Inter and AC Milan already had the first weekend of October circled in bold, date of the season's first derby and when the Champions League schedule decided that AC Milan should whizz off to Zenit Saint Petersburg four days before it, executives sighed.

Their anxieties would soon be eased by the knowledge that three nights before the neighbourhood clash, Inter Milan, in the Europa League, would be making their way back over the long distance that separates Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, from Lombardy.

Inter rested senior players for their 3-1 away win at Neftchi with tomorrow's San Siro collision in mind. But the bold performance of a young Inter in Azerbaijan has given head coach Andrea Stramaccioni genuine selection posers.

Wesley Sneijder has fitness problems which may rule him out, which suggests an opening for Brazilian Philippe Coutinho, brilliant in Baku, scorer of the first of Inter's three goals, each of them netted by a player under 22. Joel Obi, the Nigerian, and Marko Livaja, the teenaged Croatian, struck Inter's second and third goals.

It was always likely that Stramaccioni, promoted to the top job last season after having guided Inter's youth team to success, would promote younger footballers and, having been confirmed in the position in the summer, he was given a cautious manifesto rejuvenate. Veterans such as Lucio, Julio Cesar and Diego Forlan left Inter; Ivan Cordoba, the pugnacious Colombian defender, retired.

The club captain, Javier Zanetti, who at 37 is a year older than Stramaccioni, continues to defy the physical symptoms of age, and even if some strong instincts of the club's recruiters in the summer transfer window leaned towards tried and tested Serie A campaigners - Antonio Cassano from Milan; Rodrigo Palacio from Genoa; Gaby Mudingayi from Bologna - there is a freshness about Inter.

"We are building a new era," says Stramaccioni.

Coutinho, 20, has been hailed as the face of that new era before. Fully two years ago, Rafael Benitez, on taking over from Jose Mourinho at the then holders of the Champions League, Italian league and Coppa Italia, declared the wispy Brazilian with the mop of curly black hair "the future of Inter".

It was quite a burden to carry at a club where turmoil appears to have a permanent locker in the dressing room and an office in the boardroom, neither of whose doors are very securely locked.

Of Coutinho's potential there was no doubt when he arrived at Inter from Vasco da Gama as an 18 year old. The club had had him contracted from two years earlier. Real Madrid had tried to tie up an agreement with him then.

And the Brazilian had his moments in his first season, notably an excellent Champions League quarter-final performance against Bayern Munich, but through a process of five managerial changes in his first 18 months as an Inter player, there were bound to be different assessments of his development. Claudio Ranieri, who took over at Inter last September, had doubts, and approved last January Coutinho's loan to Espanyol in Spain.

It proved beneficial. He scored goals regularly in the Primera Liga's more open spaces and enjoyed working with another young head coach, Espanyol's Mauricio Pochettino. Stramaccioni admits the Brazilian has made a case to start the derby.

"You would always, as a coach, want Sneijder available but Coutinho has shown we have an alternative," he said.

Third in the table, set against Milan's 11th spot, would logically make Inter favourites. Not so, insists Stramaccioni, who tried to take pressure of his team: "After Milan's [3-2] win at Zenit, they start favourites."

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