Higuain celebrates; Inter players in the backgorund dissolve.
Those are sad, sad times for football in the city of Milan. While rosso-neri are struggling to lift their team above mediocrity, their local rivals, Inter are becoming even more and more obsolete force in all Italian competitions. Yesterday, Roberto Mancini’s team went to Naples, seeking consolation for Serie A misfortunes (only 13th place after 21 games) in Coppa Italia – the competition that might yield them Europa League qualification against all odds. In fact, if it did, it would’ve been completely against the skill level and teamwork they’ve been displaying this season; it would’ve been a fluke. There was one condition to it: Inter had to defeat Napoli at San Paolo. To do so, they had to take care of the threats of Gonzalo Higuaín and Jose Callejón, improve the marking and awareness during the set-pieces and most importantly, take few chances they’ll be rewarded with and score at least one goal. It wasn’t an easy task – but it was simple, knowing how Partenopei rely on their stars to deliver the result and that they are likely to do what they’re usually doing, as they’re one of the most tactically consistent team in Italy.
But Inter failed – again. After about 10 minutes of Wednesday clash, any neutral who’s been watching the game pretty much knew that there can be only one winner of this match. It wasn’t the team in white shirts. Napoli put their semifinal claim immediately in the 6th minute, when Higuaín picked up the ball down the right wing, shrugged off Medel’s challenge as if it was the attack of an annoying fly, ran into space alone and took a shot that fortunately – fortunately! – was poorly struck and turned out to be a pass to Carrizzo rather than a real threat. Less than 100 seconds later, another alarms rang down the same visitors’ flank, as Hamšík delivered an inch-perfect cross into the box, Higuaín escaped marking way too easily and headed the ball over the bar from one of these position that are making it hard to miss the goal. At this point Inter were screwing up their play in the midfield, not even attempting to keep the possession and to slow down the onslaught Gargano – De Guzman duo were unleashing against the middle of the park. If it wasn’t for hard-working Medel and smart anticipation of the dangers by Juan Jesus, they would’ve probably conceded twice in the first half. Somehow, thanks to the random luck, they didn’t.
Let’s not forget: we’re not talking about some low-level Italian team of wimps; we’re talking about 14th richest football club in the world; the club that has just loaned one of the hottest players available this winter, Xherdan Shaqiri from Bayern with a first-buy option; the club that brought back Davide Santon from Newcastle, earning €3.7 million in the process; the club that’s supposed to be ambitious. Against Napoli, Shaqiri, Santon and the other winter signing, Marcelo Brozović from Dinamo Zagreb, all got their chance to prove themselves. And what happened? The right-back, faced against Ivan Strinić, turned out to be vastly inferior and unable to deliver even a semi-decent cross. Brozović, who supposedly should form a long-term partnership with his compatriot Kovačić one day, took a harsh lesson of how much one’s going to chase the ball fruitlessly if he cannot fit into his new team yet. And then, there was Shaqiri. The man who’s been denied first-team football in Bayern Munich because of Arjen Robben’s untouchable stature – did exactly what Robben would do. Dribbling and cutting inside, he tried to find a space to take long shot. Unfortunately, because he’s worse player than Robben, he was totally ineffective. A star player? Nope. Not even close.
Shaqiri vs Strinic: the Swiss left foot was not delivering that day.
Going forward, Inter was full of problems and liabilities. George Puscas, the eighteen years old Romanian striker who apparently was one of the most talented players for Inter Primavera last season and who scored 8 goals in 18 youth team caps, had a real nightmare when faced against top-tier pros. How wouldn’t he have one? He’s a youngster and a striker – yet he played as a left winger, the position he’s hardly suited to perform at, especially given the fact that he’s a newcomer to the first team. The only notable event he was ever involved in came in 51th minute, when he was chasing the ball down the wing and got disposessed by Kalidou Koulibaly as if he was a Sunday league player. Dries Mertens, the Napoli lad who only played for seventeen minutes as a substitute, had more impact on the match than Puscas did. And that immediately created additional complications – because with Romanian being useless and Nagatomo failing to adequately support him, Mauro Icardi could not hope for anything other than maybe abusing the home side’s defensive mistake. He almost did 13 minutes into the game, when his shot bounced off the post; but overall, the Argentinian was almost as invisible as some of his teammates.
At halftime, with 0-0 still in hand, Mancini had to cut his losses – fast. He saw what was going on right before the break: Hamšík’s killer shot was blocked in the nick of time and seconds later, after a festival of headers in Inter’s penalty area, Britos and Koulibaly almost squeezed in a goal. Mancini got to the right conclusions and probably gave his forward four a serious hair-dryer treatment because once they got back on the pitch, they finally started applying real pressure, giving their defenders some breathing room. Andújar had to save two semi-dangerous shots before the momentum swung back again in his team’s favour. The Argentinian, who’s been only a backup to Samir Handanovic, did a particularly good job in 62th minute, when he had to parry Icardi’s shot from the closest of ranges. Not to be to enthusiastic about his performance, it has to be noted that Inter hardly challenged him in multiple set-piece situations, which were all handled horribly by the visitors. For instance, in 68th minute, Andújar swept Shaqiri’s corner ball with ease, threw it far forward to Higuaín who instigated a counterattack down the left wing. Fortunately for Inter, his final ball to Gargano was inaccurate. The execution has been postponed…
…but not long. After all the heroic defending that’s been done, after all luck that’s been used, Inter succumbed in a silly fashion. A quick throw-in by Gargano down the left went to Higuaín, who let Ranocchia execute his misplaced sliding tackle, ran with the ball deeper into the penalty area and finished it brilliantly, shooting with power to hit the top-right corner past completely helpless Carrizzo. Ranocchia, the captain who’s been with Inter for five years already, has to take the blame – but where were the others? He had little support there – and, considering Higuaín’s strengths, and the time, Inter should’ve been much better prepared. After all, it was the second extra minute out of four the referee added to the second half! Literally one or two moments before another break that would lead to the extra time. Thus Inter, the team that only won twice in the last 13 games in all competitions, suffered another defeat. Not only that: thus Inter, who were taken out at San Siro by Torino to another very late goal less than two weeks ago, managed to recreate that experience by losing focus when a draw was just within their grasp. Will they finally learn before their final league position gets totally ridiculous for such big club to be in?
The saddest thing about this loss is that Napoli were not even at their best; hell, in fact, they were not even at their 80%. Callejón and Hamšík, the two star players in Partenopei’s midfield, posed some problems but weren’t nearly as dominant as you would expect them to be in a home game. Unfortunately for Inter, they never had to be because Gargano, who had an excellent game, schooled Hernanes how to be a midfielder pivotal to any move his team makes. Another great piece of effort was provided by Koulibably, who, by the looks of it, might be the most consistent Napoli player this season. This towering centre-back, known for good athleticism and timing of his tackles, was repositioned to be a full-back, down the right-hand side. Basically, Rafa Benitez figured that if his Frenchman is there, forwards runs made by Yuto Nagatomo are going to get denied, killing any damage that might result from them. And he was right; though, to be fair, with Nagatomo playing this badly, Napoli could probably live without any special precautions. As it was, the Japanese international did nothing and if it was not for his stamina that could be useful in the extra time, he would’ve been subbed off early.
“We played really well throughout the game” said Mancini in a post-match interview and it was confusing. “The match went well, we were playing well. (…) I can’t believe how little reward we’re getting for all the work we’re putting in.” added Hernanes and it was even weirder. A manager, who did nothing to reverse the game that was going downhill, other than making the players play decent 15 minutes of the second half – says that? A player, leading player of the team, who barely even scratched the opposition in a game he was to supposed to shine in – says that? And another Mancini’s beat: “We hold the Coppa in high regard and want to perform well.” – he said before the match. Well, if so, why did he play three rookies, three new faces to the team, out of which Santon, the only one with significant experience, still has his official Inter presentation ahead of him? Let’s allow Don Roberto to speak again: “Higuaín is a smart player and he nipped in there before anyone else on the throw-in. We were like a bunch of chickens, it was five against one. It was a ridiculous goal to concede.” Yeah. Headless chickens. That’s more to the point.
So, although in the end, the final outcome of this game might not be the same as the final outcome of the season – Inter’s short-term prospects look grim. With Coppa Italia out of the window, Mancini’s side finds itself eight points away from the spot that would qualify them to Europa League through league competition. What’s worse, teams like Fiorentina, Milan or Udinese, who aren’t even in the qualification spots right now, all seem to be playing better football than nerazzurri. And so does Palermo: the opponent that will visit San Siro next Sunday. Paulo Dybala, eleven-time goalscorer this season and Franco Vazquez – the second top rated player in the Serie A accoriding to WhoScored.com – are already major concerns. They love to operate down the left flank and the one who they’re going to face – Santon – might be easily exposed as too thin of a wall to hold off all their runs. With Hugo Campagnaro and Danilo D’Ambrosio both injured, Mancini has no choice; he must rely on Inter’s homegrown right-back to deliver. And it’s not just about Palermo or Atalanta: the first game against Celtic in Europa League’s Round of 32 is only two weeks away.