Liverpool are at the top of the list of clubs I had hoped to avoid in the draw,” admitted Inter Coach Simone Inzaghi.
Inzaghi wasn’t alone in hoping his team would avoid such intimidating opponents.
Despite winning the Scudetto last season and being favourites to win the league title again this year, less than half the people asked on radio and newspaper surveys in Italy believed the Nerazzurri had any hope against their English rivals.
Such pessimism seems unmerited when you consider how formidable Inter have looked domestically, especially at the time the draw was made
Their greatest talents may have departed yet Inter looked more complete and more reliable.
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Inzaghi has taken Antonio Conte’s work and improved upon it. Playing with more ambition, every member of the team is encouraged to take part in attacking schemes, allowing for such a high number of goalscorers.
Players have admitted to having more fun under Inzaghi than Conte, as he allows them to take defensive risks in the name of attacking fluidity. Despite this, they have remained solid.
Having already secured their first trophy of the season, the Supercoppa, the blue and black half of Milan are still in the running to lift three further trophies. Yet no one takes them seriously as genuine contenders for the Champions League. Why?
Inter may have been the last Italian club to have lifted the coveted European trophy but prior to this year, they exited the competition at the group stage for the past three seasons.
Watching teams like Atalanta and even Lazio last year get further despite their budgets and inferior talents left many questioning the Nerazzurri’s ability to conquer Europe.
Inzaghi, the least experienced of the coaches to have presided over the club in recent years, finally got Inter into the last 16 but it wasn’t without a few nervy moments.
The biggest criticism levelled at his squad has been their inability to finish off their chances.
Statistically, no team in the competition has produced more shots per game than Inter this season, 19.7 shots on average, yet this has only resulted in eight goals.
For reference, Liverpool took 17.8 shots a game and have scored 17 goals.
The team has four forwards that Inzaghi has praised equally, but Edin Dzeko remains a virtual certain starter – the 35-year-old valued for his ability to both take chances and enhance overall quality of play in the final third.
Alongside him, there’s usually Lautaro Martinez who Jurgen Klopp described as “one of the most exciting strikers in the world”. However, the Argentine did not register a single goal or assist in the group stage and has failed to score in his last six consecutive Serie A games.
This bring us to another Inter problem – squad rotation and substitutions.
The Milanese giants may boast a bench that is the envy of their Serie A rivals but the manner in which Inzaghi utilises his resources has raised eyebrows both at Inter and Lazio before that.
Inzaghi has been greatly criticised for his use of substitutes, either for changing too much too quickly or by accepting the result too early and therefore weakening his side’s control in the latter stages.
As Lazio coach last season, Inzaghi needed a point against Club Brugge in the final group game to secure qualification. At 2-1 and on the 75th minute, he decided to take off his three most important players. The Belgians equalised a minute later and Lazio had to hold on for dear life to secure a point.
The recent derby loss to Milan was painful but it also highlighted one more issue the coach must address if he hopes to continue challenging for trophies – his team’s inability to control their emotions.
Goalscorer Olivier Giroud barged into Alexis Sanchez to win back possession and score Milan’s goal. Inter complained but the goal was allowed to stand despite the ‘challenge’.
Angry with the decision, the Nerazzurri switched off and the Frenchman doubled his tally only three minutes later, capitalising on their anger to secure all three points.
A similarly emotional response happened in their only other Serie A defeat this season, against Lazio.
Maurizio Sarri’s side didn’t put the ball out of play when an Inter play was down on the ground and eventually went on to score a goal. Their lack of ‘fair play’ incensed Inter and they struggled to recover, suffering the first league defeat of the season.
Inter may be Serie A’s most complete team but there is a reason why calcio observers struggle to trust this side.
Steel nerves and a never-say-die attitude is key and Inzaghi hopes he has enough to at least ask questions of Liverpool.