Gregory Sica
Wednesday January 16th, 2008

After years of ups and downs, it finally seems like Inter Milan has reached its full potential. The Italian Serie A leaders have been sensational this season, and if they continue their outstanding form, there's little doubt they'll cruise to their third successive Scudetto in May.

Roberto Mancini's side has swept aside all opposition so far this season, and has remained undefeated in league play. In the UEFA Champions League, it's been a similar story, as the Nerazzurri won their qualifying group in style and are strong candidates for the title.

Much of the reason for Inter's success is the overwhelming depth of its squad, where Latin players have taken center stage. When Inter defeated Siena 3-2 on Sunday, eight members of its starting 11 were Latin Americans.

In fact, 14 players in Inter's 27-man squad are South American (and one more is Central American), a tradition the club has carried for years. With seven Argentines, four Brazilians, two Colombians, a Chilean and a Honduran, the Latin representation in the current squad is overwhelming.

While Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic has accounted for 11 of Inter's 40 goals in Serie A this season, Julio Cruz has also been terrific with 10 of his own. The underrated Argentine striker has established himself as an important figure in the Inter attack and has helped fans forget about Adriano, who was sent to São Paulo on loan. Honduran striker David Suazo has also shown flashes of brilliance after a slow start until sustaining a thigh strain last week.

But much of the success of Inter's strikers is credit to the tireless efforts of its midfielders, who not only break down attacks, but also help assist their front men. While Argentine internationals Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti have been brilliant this season, they have been complemented by the work of Brazil's Maxwell and Argentine substitute Nicolás Burdisso, particularly when moving forward.

Then there's Luis Jiménez -- the highly rated Chilean international has been sensational in recent weeks and has added an extra dimension to the Inter attack. Since arriving from Lazio this season, the classy anchor man has been Inter's main revelation and could be destined for superstardom (he's already a favorite of club president Massimo Moratti).

On defense, the likes of Brazilian Maicon, Colombian Iván Córdoba and Argentine veteran Walter Samuel have been as strong as ever, giving Inter the best defensive record in the league, with only 11 goals conceded in 18 matches. Brazilian goalkeeper Júlio César has also been in great form this season, and his performance was much of the reason why Inter escaped from Siena with three points on Sunday.

With this much talent it's no wonder Inter (which has only four Italians on the 27-man squad) has a seven-point advantage over second-place Roma in the Serie A standings. And unlike the past two seasons, in which Inter benefited from weaker competition after the Italian Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, the Nerazzurri are proving they can finally win the championship without anyone's help.

Inter has shown its strength against its main challengers: It thrashed Roma 4-1 at the Stadio Olimpico in September and picked up a vital 1-1 draw against Juventus in Turin in November. Then, in late December, Inter came from behind to edge city rival AC Milan 2-1 at the San Siro, with goals from Cruz and Cambiasso.

At this pace, the Scudetto may be a formality; the club's main season objective continues to be the European Cup, a trophy it hasn't won since the 1964-65 season. Inter has emerged as one of the favorites to win the Champions League after a superb start in which in won its group in style, with five victories in six matches thanks to a 12-4 goal differential.

But Mancini's side will need all the inspiration from its Latin players when it faces Liverpool in the round of 16, which begins next month. Although Liverpool has reached two of the last three Champions League finals, Inter is by far the stronger squad at present.

The experience of elimination on the away-goals rule in last year's round of 16 against Valencia should also play in Inter's advantage -- it knows it can't afford to slip up at home if it wants to continue to progress in the competition.

But when it comes to flair, good ball movement and danger on the attack, Mancini's men are the most in-form in Europe right now. If they want to stay that way, the Latin contingent needs to stay consistent -- at this rate, they could win everything.

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