Scouting report: Internazionale

Champions LeagueScouting report: Internazionale

Published 15th February 2022
By Scott Fleming

Meetings between Liverpool and Internazionale don't come around very often.

But if they have one consistent theme running through them, it’s that the Reds always seem to catch I Nerazzurri during historical peaks rather than troughs, at times when Inter are almost indisputably the best team in Italy and a force to be reckoned with in Europe too.

In 1965, when Bill Shankly’s legendary Liverpool side controversially lost a European Cup semi-final 4-3 on aggregate to the equally mythologised ‘Grande Inter’ of Helenio Herrera, the Milanese were reigning European and Intercontinental champions, and would soon after add a second successive European Cup triumph and a Serie A title to that haul.

The Reds gained some long-awaited revenge (for those Kopites old enough to remember) with a 3-0 aggregate victory in the Champions League last 16 in 2008, when Inter were in the middle of a streak of five consecutive league titles and went on to lift their third European Cup two years later in Madrid – in the process becoming the only Italian club to do a Serie A/Coppa Italia/Champions League treble.

And now, ahead of their third competitive tie with Liverpool that starts this Wednesday? Well, for the first time since that famous ‘tripletta’ campaign under Jose Mourinho in 2010, the coveted Scudetto badge has once again been stitched onto Inter’s blue and black jerseys, after a run of 16 wins from 19 matches down the home straight saw them charge to last season’s Serie A title by a comfortable 12-point margin.

Ending the club’s decade-long hiatus from the Champions League knockout phase was item number one on current coach Simone Inzaghi’s to-do list when he took over last summer, and he duly delivered by seeing off the challenge of surprise package Sheriff to finish second behind Real Madrid in Group D. 

“The day I signed the contract, I said this was the objective,” Inzaghi, a former Lazio striker and younger brother of AC Milan legend Filippo, commented after a 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk guaranteed his team’s spot in the last 16. “We wanted this victory at all costs.”

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In the league campaign, after a slow-ish start where they occasionally seemed to be lacking the ruthlessness that was a trademark under Antonio Conte, Inzaghi’s men were utterly relentless throughout November, December and January, chalking up eight consecutive Serie A victories – including a one-sided 3-0 away to Mourinho’s AS Roma – climbing from third to first, and snatching a 120th-minute winner against Juventus to lift their first Supercoppa Italiana since 2010.

That form added extra gloss to the already burgeoning reputation of the new boss, whose task was a lot more complicated than simply being handed the keys to the best team in the country when he left Lazio – whom he had guided to one Coppa Italia and two Supercoppas in his first job in management – last June. The unexpected departure of Conte, followed by the sales of top scorer Romelu Lukaku and influential wing-back Achraf Hakimi, plus the loss of Christian Eriksen due to Serie A rules preventing him from playing with a defibrillator, meant that Inter were top of very few pundits’ projected tables when 2021-22 started.

Once those early hiccups were out of the way, however, Inzaghi appeared to have achieved the perfect synthesis between Conte’s style and his own, sticking with the established 3-5-2 system but interpreting it in a more fluid, attack-minded fashion, while also rotating more and creating competition within the squad. Twenty different players have scored for Inter this season, the defenders alone accounting for 14 goals between them.

“I was content even in October when we were a long way off the top,” Inzaghi told La Gazzetta dello Sport in December. “That’s because I’d meet the fans around the city and they’d tell me that they liked the way we played, happily coming to the stadium. That is the most important compliment for a coach.”

Inter are competing on three fronts and remain in firm contention to retain their Serie A title, although their late collapse in a 2-1 Milan derby defeat and subsequent 1-1 draw at Napoli mean they currently trail AC in the table by one point with a game in hand.

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Familiar faces abound in Inzaghi’s squad, with Edin Dzeko, Alexis Sanchez, Matteo Darmian, Andrea Ranocchia and Felipe Caicedo all having played Premier League football in the past. But there is youthful vigour also, supplied by the likes of Denzel Dumfries – a standout performer for the Netherlands at Euro 2020 and an able replacement for Hakimi on the right flank – and midfield dynamo Nicolo Barella, though the latter will miss both legs as punishment for his group-stage red card against Real Madrid.

On the opposite wing from Dumfries, Germany international Robin Gosens – a scorer in Atalanta BC’s 2-0 win at Anfield last season – was the headline January arrival, but is only thought to be in contention for the second leg as he recovers from a thigh issue.

For those whose memories of Inter mainly stem from the golden era of Italian football being broadcast on terrestrial UK television in the ’90s/early ’00s, when their squad was overflowing with superstars such as Christian Vieri, Alvaro Recoba and Ronaldo, and the club was nicknamed Pazza Inter – ‘Crazy Inter’ – in keeping with their dramatically unpredictable style, much of what defines the 2022 incarnation will seem unfamiliar at first. They have changed the badge, got rid of the vertical blue and black stripes – for this season at least – in favour of a snakeskin design, and are also planning, alongside city rivals AC, to rebuild San Siro as ‘The Cathedral’ in the coming years.

What hasn’t changed, or what has been restored under Conte and Inzaghi, is the pride, ambition and showstopping entertainment value, all of which combined have the potential to make the Champions League last-16 clash with Liverpool an enthralling tie.

Published 15th February 2022