For the first three months of the current Serie A campaign, it seemed like Inter Milan were unstoppable.
After a disastrous season in 2016/17, the Nerazzurri had captured the signature of boss Luciano Spalletti from Roma and it seemed like the Tuscan tactician really could be the one to take the side forward. The Milanese giants had not won a Scudetto trophy since the treble-winning days under José Mourinho in 2009/10 and their fans were desperately seeking a return to this former glory.
While all the pre-season talk was surrounding whether Napoli could finally mount a credible challenge to Juventus – who had utterly dominated by winning the past six consecutive titles – it seemed like Inter had taken advantage of the fact they weren’t even in the discussion. Their squad had been bolstered by the signings of Milan Škriniar from Sampdoria in defence and former Fiorentina midfield duo Matías Vecino and Borja Valero, all key to improving in areas where they had previously lacked.
Where once the Inter defence was leaky, Škriniar provided the quality to plug the holes that had been exploited by opponents. The Nerazzurri breezed to six points in tough opening fixtures versus Fiorentina and Roma, winning 3-0 and 3-1 respectively before recording 2-0 wins against SPAL and Crotone.
They went on to rack up the points throughout the early part of the season, having conceded just three goals by the end of September, lacking the entertaining style of Napoli or the ruthlessness of Juventus, their play unconvincing at times but the results were still impressive.
They relied on defensive solidity paired with deadly accuracy from striker Mauro Icardi, the Argentine hitman having fired in a whopping 49 per cwnt of his side’s attacking output, scoring 18 times in the league from a team total of 37, form which has seen him become a Real Madrid transfer target.
Indeed by mid-January, Inter had netted more goals from the 87th minute onwards than any other side, finding the net seven times in those final stages.
It was an unusual way to find success but, by the beginning of December, Spalletti found his side top of the league and unbeaten in 16. The acid test was always going to be whether they could beat Juventus on December 9 and, in reality, their 0-0 draw with the reigning champions wasn’t a bad result.
Yet for a club known as Pazza Inter – “crazy Inter” – that was all it took to crack the thin veneer of confidence they had built in those opening few weeks and from that point on, they crumbled.
The club was plunged into a deep crisis when, in the very next match, third-tier Pordenone took Inter to penalties in a Coppa Italia tie, the top flight outfit narrowly winning in the shootout. Perhaps extra-time had taken it out of the players, as the next match saw Spalletti suffer his first defeat since taking up the position as lowly Udinese romped to a 3-1 victory at San Siro. However, it was duly acknowledged that the unbeaten run was bound to come to an end at some point.
“This must teach us that when you lower the intensity in a league with such narrow margins, you will drop points,” concluded Spalletti after that defeat. “Even the tiniest situations can make the difference.”
His words turned out to be prophetic as that defeat – tiny as it may have seemed in the grand scheme of things at the time – was the first of a terrible run of form that has seen only ten teams in Europe’s top five leagues score less points in the last six matches.
A 1-0 defeat to Sassuolo made it back-to-back losses after the aforementioned loss to Udinese for Spalletti, and where Inter breezed past Fiorentina, Roma and SPAL in the opening three matches, the reverse fixtures have seen Inter only able to record a hat-trick of 1-1 draws versus those same sides in recent weeks.
So what is the problem here? The first is an over-reliance on Icardi. The striker was scoring at a rate of a goal per game in the early rounds, a ratio that was never sustainable as the season went on.
The main issue however, is a question of mentality. Spalletti struggled with these same issues at Roma, securing some truly impressive results at times but not being able to stand up and be counted when the pressure was really on.
It's no coincidence that the make-or-break game with Juventus started such a negative run, almost as if their early confidence was an illusion, the side’s belief so fragile that one single event could shatter the good work done in the early days of the campaign. In a match with SPAL last weekend, the Nerazzurri allowed the relegation-threatened side a late equaliser, the minnows showing a much higher level of desire and fighting spirit than the gigantic opposition.
Now they face a home-match with Crotone with Icardi an injury doubt, talk of a dressing room rift between the striker and Croatian duo Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisić – a former Manchester United transfer transfer target – and fans unhappy with an underwhelming transfer window.
Talk of a Scudetto win is now long gone, but it is up to Spalletti to halt the slide in order that Inter achieve the minimum target of a Champions League finish by the end of 2017/18.