When God smiled at Mancini: The craziest Serie A comeback of the 21st Century

They had become a garden with no water, an oak with no leaves, a dry and thirsty land where vessels were filled only with shame for failing to triumph for more than a decade.

With Giovanni Trapattoni no longer the Captain of their ship and the golden era of Walter Zenga, Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthäus long past, Internazionale spent 15 weary years watching on as Maradona’s Napoli, the Old Lady, the giants of the Capital and their own city rivals were all crowned in gold, leaving Nerazzurri fans with no reason to rejoice.

The man behind the Verona miracle, Osvaldo Bagnoli, could not revive their fortunes, Ottavio Bianchi was unable to repeat his Napoli heroics, Roy Hodgson and Mircea Lucescu both failed to make an impact, while Marcelo Lippi could only achieve success with the team in black and white stripes. Even club legend Luis Suarez could not live up to expectations. Only Hector Cuper had his fingertips anywhere near the Scudetto trophy, before Lazio thumped his side 4-2 in the final game of the 2001/02 season to hand the glory to the city of Turin.

Chairman Massimo Moratti could not stand being the ugly face behind all this misery, and after firing Alberto Zaccheroni, he decided Roberto Mancini was the right man to break his duck. And so the former hero of Stadio Luigi Ferraris kicked off his journey at the Giuseppe Meazza.

Having only retired from playing a few years earlier, Mancini brought fresh ideas to the game and was able to put his own artistic stamp on the coaching role. A former leader on the pitch, he was now paving his way to become a maestro on the side-lines. He had already claimed two Coppa Italia titles and taken Lazio to the Champions League, and Moratti was hoping he would be the psychiatrist to pull him out of his depression.

Mancini’s tenure at Il Biscione did not get off to the best start following a run of 12 draws in his first 17 Serie A games in charge. However, they did remain unbeaten in that time. The new Coach had one goal on his mind, to implement a never say die attitude and form an unbeaten side, able to fight as a unit until the end. In those first 17 games, Internazionale scored in the last 10 minutes on six different occasions, saving face by grabbing a victory or a draw.

And then they faced Sampdoria.

This was only the second season back in the top flight for the team from Genoa and thanks to Walter Novellino’s masterful tactics, they would end the campaign in fifth position, their highest finish in the last two decades. I Blucerchiati travelled the 145 km to Milan hoping to end the unbeaten streak of their former prodigy. However, their deadly strike partnership had been broken up following Fabio Bazzani’s loan move to Lazio leaving Francesco Flachi’s ferocious feet dangling alone. With no decent options to fill Bazzani’s boots, Novellino opted to start with Fausto Rossini who would go on to fire just one goal all season. Meanwhile, despite his recent poor form, Mancini decided to persist with Brazilian striker Adriano who partnered Christian Vieri upfront.

Inter kicked-off the game, expressing their sheer dominance all over the field. Their players conveyed poise, power and flair against a well-organised Sampdoria defence guided by impressive shot-stopper Francesco Antonioli.

Around the half hour mark, the Samp goalkeeper was able to deny two golden opportunities. The first came from a wicked Adriano pass which cut open the defence providing a clear chance to Esteban Cambissao on his left foot. The second came courtesy of an Emre Belözoğlu free-kick that arrived with precision to the head of Vieri who was somehow denied by Antonioli.

Despite the home side’s early dominance, it was Sampdoria who struck first. Aimo Diana’s delightful cross was met by Max Tonetto who unleashed a left-footed volley, delivering a real kick in the teeth for the hosts who went into the break a goal down.

As the second half started, Antonioli continued to reign. With confidence and total command over the penalty area, he produced yet more brilliant saves, forcing Mancini to switch to three men upfront with Obafemi Martins replacing Cristiano Zanetti.

At the other end, in an attempt to exploit the spaces on the counter attack, Novellino replaced Rossini with the pacey Vitali Kutuzov. Inter continued to pressure Sampdoria’s area but the visibly drained Adriano was unable to score his customary goal to rescue his side from their melancholy.

On the 83rd minute, Diana produced a slaloming run away from the Sampdoria penalty area and passed the ball to Flachi, who flicked the ball back to Diana with his heel. The midfielder quickly crossed the ball to Kutuzov who struck the ball beyond Francesco Toldo for Sampdoria’s second.

At that point, a huge number of the Interista decided they couldn’t bear to watch any more nails being hammered in their coffin and left the stadium. The ones left standing behind Mancini kept bombarding him with disrespectful words, rubbing salt into his gaping wound and forcing him to escape by hiding in his seat.

A few minutes before the goal, Mancini had introduced Alvaro Recoba at the expense of the misfiring Adriano. El Chino had yet to earn the trust of Mancini, who had started him in just three Serie A games. He dropped into the playmaker role behind the strikers and produced a virtuoso performance, beginning with a remarkable long range shot that struck the post.

In the 88th minute, Recoba made a shrewd pass to Martins who carved open the resolute backline and hit a low shot with the outside of his foot that deflected off the post and into the bottom right corner.

With the score now 1-2, and with the final corner of the game, Recoba curled the ball on to the head of Martins. The effort was blocked by Cristian Zennoni who then appeared to block Vieri’s rebounded strike with his hand. However, the referee failed to see the incident, leaving Martins shouting in tears.

The Nigerian teen soon found redemption, leaping to divert what seemed like a lost ball over his shoulder and away from the approaching keeper where Vieri was waiting to tap the ball home. The youngster celebrated with his teammates like a mad man.

The clock was ticking but Inter were not finished, yet as Recoba produced two more screamers from outside the box. The first found the keeper but the Uruguayan had saved his best for last. His final strike left Antonioli helpless, the clocks stood still and Recoba was hailed for resurrecting the dead and claiming the most sensational victory.

Everyone in the stands went mad. The commentator was in hysterics: “Goal! Nothing is impossible for Inter and spectacular Meazza.” Meanwhile, Mancini was out of his seat pointing back at every fan that had resented him 10 minutes earlier.

After the game, Chairman Moratti expressed his astonishment at his side’s performance: “Extraordinary! This is a great advert for Inter and for football!”

Mancini’s unbeaten record lasted for 25 games until his side were finally sunk by a Ricardo Kaka goal in the Milan derby. The same team went on to knock Inter out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage. However, that did not stop Mancini from finally securing the silverware Inter had been longing for, defeating Roma 3-0 on aggregate to win the Coppa Italia for the first time in 23 years.

The next three years were filled with glory as Mancini and his team achieved three Scudetti in a row, the first handed to them as a result of the Calciopoli scandal, the next two won on the field of play. Another Coppa Italia also followed as did two Supercoppa Italiana. However, his lack of progress in European competition ultimately soured his relationship with Massimo Moratti and led to his departure in 2008.

He returned to the club in November 2014, leading them to a fourth place finish in his first full season back in charge before leaving by mutual consent. However, when Mancini looks back with fondness at his legacy with Inter, he will remember those five crazy minutes against Sampdoria in which three goals helped shape the future of both club and coach.

Words by Ramez Nathan: @RamezYNathan