Inter’s problems remain unresolved
When Internazionale recovered from the loss of a two-goal lead last week to defeat CSKA Moskow 3-2 in the Champions League many may have been forgiven for thinking that, whatever defensive uncertainties may have lingered from Gian Piero Gasperini’s brief time in charge, at the very least Claudio Ranieri had restored a sense of mental fortitude to the team. Saturday’s defeat by three goals to nil at the hands of Napoli suggests that Inter’s psychological malaise has not been so swiftly dispelled.
Inter started brightly, and Giampaolo Pazzini may feel somewhat aggrieved not to have enjoyed the benefit of the linesman’s doubt as he swept the ball home from a marginally offside position in the 24thminute. Diego Forlán was busy, Maicon, a surprise inclusion, charged freely down the right, and on the opposite flank Joel Obi was starting to show his qualities as a crosser of the ball.
Unfortunately for Obi, the events surrounding his dismissal were to serve as catalyst for his team’s collapse. Booked unfairly for a legal challenge early on, he was later adjudged to have fouled Napoli’s outstanding wingback Christian Maggio in the area. Replays clearly showed that contact had taken place outside the box, but a penalty was awarded nonetheless and the Nigerian wide player received a second yellow card. Marek Hamsik’s tame effort from the spot was saved by Júlio César, but Hugo Campagnaro was on hand to slam home the loose ball from a tight angle and Napoli were about the enjoy the benefits of the collective madness that was to descend on their Lombardy-based rivals, against whom they had thus far given little quarter.
In fairness to Obi, not only were both his yellow cards extremely harsh and the penalty wrongly given, but warning signs pointing towards a large self-destructive streak had been evident even during Inter’s brightest spells of the match. Both fullbacks, Maicon and Cristian Chivu, showed a reluctance to attack the ball in the air, with the former’s at one stage letting the ball drop over his head to present the much smaller Juan Camilo Zúñiga with a chance to head Napoli into the lead at the far post. Indeed it was a hobbling Chivu’s inability to assume pick up Maggio’s run that led to Obi’s being dragged out of position and the commission of the fateful challenge.
In addition both of Inter’s centre-halves were guilty of cynical and needless fouls on Ezequiel Lavezzi. Indeed Inter were lucky not to have been behind before the penalty incident, when one such challenge by Lúcio presented the quick-thinking Lavezzi with a chance to send Goran Pandev scampering clear on goal. Only the Macedonian’s distrust of his right leg prevented Júlio César from being called into action and saw instead the ball bobble out after an instant of comedic miscontrol.
What we learnt after the concession of the penalty was that Inter are a club whose wounds have not yet healed. After the break a lack of defensive alacrity saw Christian Maggio make a diagonal run from the right to the top of Inter’s penalty area, where he was found by a delightful ball by substitute Giuseppe Mascara to make the score 2-0. Only Nagatomo Yuuto, on at fullback for Chivu, tracked the wingback’s movement, with Lúcio and Walter Samuel barely breaking into a leisurely jog.
Similarly lackadaisical defending led to the third goal, where the centre-halves seemed not to be alert to Marek Hamšík’s run, though in all honesty they can hardly have expected Maicon to have remained so deep. The Brazilian fullback first played the Slovakian midfielder onside and then, rather than attempting to atone for his error, simply waved his hand in the air in a laughable attempt to earn an offside decision.
Though Gasperini may have shouldered the blame for the disjointed way the team played under his stewardship, the truth is that Inter have likely been struggling for an identity since the departure of José Mourinho. Last season Rafael Benítez, a manager with no modest CV, underperformed dramatically and Leonardo’s cavalier approach masked a defensive frailty that was finally exposed by Schalke in the Champions League quarter-finals, which indicates that while Gasperini’s introduction of a 3-4-3 system, followed by significant tactical rejigs in each of his matches in charge admittedly made him an easy target, Inter’s problems may well have a much deeper-lying source. Even the now-feted Mourinho only began to win plaudits once the arrival of Wesley Sneijder had injected a much-needed degree of imagination into a formidable but dull side.
Perhaps what we are now witnessing is the true depth of the cracks that the club had attempted to paper over in the absence of first Mourinho and more recently Samuel Eto’o. The usually composed captain Javier Zanetti managed to talk himself into the referees notebook, and Júlio César was surely lucky to escape with only the same punishment when just before the end of the first half he laid his hands on the referee during a petulant outburst. Claudio Ranieri, dismissed during the half-time interval, may well have found himself sitting next to his first-choice goalkeeper had the head official been a mite less lenient.
Ranieri’s particular example may not be the one by which his employer Massimo Moratti would most like him to lead. Ranieri is developing a reputations as something of a fixit man. Unfortunately for him it looks as though the problem will require a little more than just the re-adoption of a back four and some self-righteous half-time indignation. Something needs to change, or Inter will remain liable to implode every time a major decision goes against them.
None of which of course is to rob Napoli of any of the praise their win richly deserves. The men from the south showed that there can be life in the absence of Edinson Cavani, though both Pandev and Lavezzi’s wastefulness threatened on occasion to make the Uruguayan striker’s ruthless finishing seem indispensable. On this evidence it looks as though only one of these two teams will be harbouring realistic ambitions of claiming the Scudetto come season’s end. Still, the term is yet young and it would be foolish to write off Inter’s hopes at this stage; if Napoli can however find an able deputy for Cavani then they may well be in line to be the first team to break up the Milan-Inter-Juve axis since Roma managed the feat just over ten years ago.