It was a routine European win. Rodrigo Palacio scored twice as Inter defeated Romanian side CFR Cluj at San Siro. The game itself, however, could prove to be the point the Nerazzurri’s season fell apart.
As Diego Milito went down in a heap inside the first 10 minutes, it was fairly clear to everyone what had happened. “I saw him make an unnatural movement with his leg,” teammate Fredy Guarin said after the match. “I saw his face, so I could tell it was serious straight away. He landed awkwardly and twisted it horribly.”
It was only an operation, and hundreds of messages later, that the full magnitude of the injury finally struck the club – not only had they lost their best striker for the rest of the season, but they were extremely threadbare up top.
Antonio Cassano has obvious class, but eight League goals and a patchy injury record means he can’t always be relied upon when it matters most. Palacio initially hit the ground running after joining from Genoa last summer, but no goals in five matches is a worry when your side are relying on your predatory instincts for a Champions League spot. And then there’s Tommaso Rocchi, who’s started all of two games after signing from Lazio.
One striker injury-prone, another goal-shy and the other hardly used – it’s not a roster that inspires great confidence. But despite that, President Massimo Moratti was clear that no free agents would be brought in to fill the gap. “We don't like to think about these things 12 hours on from an injury like that, but I can categorically rule out the chances of bringing anyone else in,” he stated.
“I don't think the team will crumble now and I actually think this will give us more strength to play well because the injuries are starting to mount up. We need to keep going and keep winning. We need to stay in the Europa League and secure third place in Serie A.”
The sentiment was clear, but that didn’t stop rumours circulating that the Beneamata were in fact lining up a centre-forward on a short-term deal. And when he arrived in Milan, no one could quite believe it.
John Carew had been released by West Ham United at the end of last season for not being good enough in England’s second tier – now the 33-year-old was being given a chance at one of Italy’s biggest and grandest clubs. That was until he failed a medical and was sent on the next plane home.
It was perhaps a lucky escape for the Nerazzurri, but there have been stories since of a move for former Manchester United man Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
The irony, however, is that Inter had two forwards at their disposal just waiting to be given their chance at the highest level. Samuele Longo, 21, has been on-loan at Espanyol since the start of the campaign, and although clearly not the finished article – just three La Liga goals shows that – he is surely better than an over-the-hill former great?
Then there’s Marko Livaja. Sold in a co-ownership deal with Atalanta in January, the 19-year-old has already shown, given the chance, he can produce at the highest level in Italy – scoring two in a 3-2 loss to Roma last weekend. And his Europa League exploits for the Nerazzurri earlier this term – four strikes in six matches – means he is currently second-top goalscorer for them in the competition.
Milito’s injury was a shocking and unfortunate accident, but the current striker crisis was staring the club in the face all along. If Inter don’t make the top three because of a lack of goals, then it was bad business off the pitch, not on it, that will cost them.