With the exception of the Dallas Cowboys, there is no other sports franchise on god's green earth I hate more than Inter Milan. It's not a hatred born from ancestral animosity or stemming from some sort of spurious officiating, no, this hatred's roots are recent and rational. Why do I hate Inter Milan, you ask? Simple. 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Inter won five straight titles between 2006 and 2011, four of those (see above) came at the expense of the Giallorossi. While we can throw out '06 and '07--since Roma trailed Inter by eight and twenty two points, respectively--the last two...well, the last two stung a bit. Roma were denied the 2008 and 2010 titles by a total of five points. Five points!
If that isn't a justified reason for hatred, I don't know what is. But a funny thing has happened since then; Roma has turned the tables on the Nerazzurri, winning five out of six against their northern neighbors across all competitions, nearly erasing their perpetual second class status. Nearly.
What happened in the last one? Well, I'm glad you asked...
October 5, 2013: Roma 3, Inter 0
Rudi Garcia led the Giallorossi into the San Siro to take on Ricky Alvarez and the Italian Alec Baldwin, Walter Mazzarri. It was only the Frenchman's sixth match in charge, so we hadn't been exposed to his full arsenal, but this victory was steered with a very Roman hand. In only the 18th minute, Francesco Totti would put away the eventual game winner. Taking a feed from Gervinho at the penalty arc, Totti unleashed a low angle stunner, beating Samir Handanovic low and away to put Roma up one-nil.
Although Inter would test Morgan De Sanctis several times in the intervening twenty minutes, Totti would capitalize on a penalty drawn by Gervinho, narrowly beating the outstretched hands of Handanovic from the spot in the 40th minute.
Roma's killer counter attack would rear its head four minutes later. Totti would guide Roma once again, this time some 60+ yards away from the Inter goal. Corralling a loose ball away from Álvaro Pereira, Totti, in mid-twist/juggle, mind you, quickly laid the ball off to a streaking Kevin Strootman, who proceeded to drive right at the heart of the Inter midfield. Strootman, virtually unmolested, calmly shuffled the ball off to Alessandro Florenzi roughly 25 years from the goal, who let it roll several more yards before seizing its momentum and burying it past Handanovic on the far post.
It's really been true since the days of Spalletti, but when Roma is in her right mind, no one can rival the beauty with which she plays the game, and never is this more evident than on the counter attack.
Life is seldom better than when Inter loses, but on days like this, when they're done in by two born and bred Romans, well, that just makes the victory a bit sweeter.
Recent Forms & Risky Futures
For both squads, the next 13 weeks are all about watching your backs, or, if you prefer, protectin ya neck. For Inter's part, they find themselves mired in a surprising duel for Italy's final Europa League spot. Surprising in the sense that they no doubt had grander aspirations, but also because their 40 points means they're barely better than newly promoted Hellas Verona. As if that weren't enough of a blow to the Inter ego, they only have a four point cushion over eighth place Torino for the same honor.
Over their past six, the Nerazzurri have squeaked out a pair of one-goal victories over Sassuolo and Fiorentina, dropped two points to both Cagliari and Catania, while coming up short versus Genoa and Juventus. While taking eight points from six matches isn't necessarily cataclysmic, it should help explain why they're racing with the likes of Verona and Parma for European silver
While Mazzarri's 3-5-2 has performed as expected--maintaining possession, facilitating a large number of shots, and generally moving the ball as they please--they simply haven't been able to put opponents away. Through 25 weeks, Inter has spent an average of 52% of their matches level on the scoreboard; a completely arbitrary stat in which they rank third league wide.
While being level a majority of the time is certainly better than trailing, Inter's 10 draws leads the league, but what is really odd is this: when you break up the match into 15 minute chunks, Inter only trails in scoring in the first 15 minutes, where they've scored four while conceding five. Outside of that segment, and their seven scored and seven conceded in the 31st-45th minutes, they come out on top in every other 15 minute chunk, so it's not as if they're perpetually surrendering late equalizers or constantly trailing from minute one.
So, whether you chalk it up to a run of bad luck or the lack of a killer instinct, Inter has been trapped in the Serie A friendzone all season. Even their top scorer, Rodrigo Palacio, though he has 11 goals, has only netted once in 2014.
But, when you can't put opponents away, yet have enough to hang in there, Europa League is what you deserve.
For Roma's part, you know the scoop. Keep ahead of Napoli, that's job one, job two and job three.
Keep An Eye On
First off, duh. We talked about this at length last week (remember, we even had a poll), but unfortunately, tomorrow's song remains the same. No Maicon. No Dodo. No Balzaretti. There is a sliver of good news, however. With the return of Vasilis Torosidis, Rudi Garcia only has to worry about the left flank, presumably limiting his choices between Alessio Romagnoli and Michel Bastos, both of whom featured to varying degrees in the Bologna victory, though Bastos actually came on for Mattia Destro. Given his age and inexperience at the position, Romagnoli fared relatively well last week, completing 90% of his passes, intercepting two passes and making three clearances.
So, while he may be the odds on favorite, with the prospect of Mazzarri's five man midfield on tap, Garcia will need his fullbacks to be a tad more offensive to relieve the pressure off Daniele De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Strootman, who will assuredly be hounded by Inter's quintet.
Hernanes' New Home
Inter's biggest purchase, and Roma's former city rival, has made quite a splash in his first two league matches for the Nerazzurri. Against a hapless Sassuolo side, Hernanes was Inter's chief playmaker, taking a match high 88 touches, putting 67% of his shots on target, creating two scoring chances and assisting on the game's lone goal. Although his passing wasn't terribly crisp, Hernanes had virtual free reign up and down Inter's left flank and was the engine to Inter's attack.
Against a decidedly tougher Viola side, however, Hernanes' effect on the match was somewhat subdued; he still managed three key passes, after all, well over his season average. Really, the only difference we can see between Fiorentina and Sassuolo's respective approaches against Hernanes is the degree to which they let him work out wide. Vincenzo Montella's men made a concerted effort to deny Hernanes the ball out wide, effectively shutting down any and all offense on that side of the pitch. In fact, Montella didn't let Hernanes see the ball, full stop, limiting him to only 50 touches.
In order for Roma to replicate Montella's approach, they need to be active in limiting Hernanes touches, be it by picking him up further up the pitch or committing two men to him; this is especially true in the areas in which he is most effective--on the left flank or slightly withdrawn and leftish...these are technical terms, stay with me. With a five man midfield to contend with, Miralem Pjanic figures to have a tough day all around, making the vitality of Vasilis Torosidis all the more important. Not only will he have to provide an offensive outlet for the congested midfield, but he needs to be in Hernanes pocket all evening, disrupting his movement, his passing and generally making his life hell.
Gervinho's Fuel Gauge
Gervinho has loomed large over Roma this season, that much is certain, but, as has often been the case throughout his career, consistency is suddenly a factor. Only in this instance, the variance in his recent form is a product of exhaustion rather than a crisis of confidence. Gervinho has played each and every minute in Roma's last seven matches, and although he was up to snuff against Verona and Napoli, he was virtually non-existent last week against Bologna, failing to make a single successful dribble, turning it over three times and straying offsides twice.
So, what is Roma to do? Gervinho, from a pure athletic standpoint, is Roma's greatest weapon, one that cannot be easily replicated, but his time on the factory floor is starting to take its toll.
With Alessandro Florenzi a game time decision, this matter becomes more pressing, as Gervinho's nominal second man, Adem Ljajic, may be forced into starting on the right flank, leaving the reserve minutes to Michel Bastos, and with only 139 minutes under his Roman belt, we simply don't know what he's capable of on this team.
It's certainly a cause for concern, one that could be blunted if Florenzi's ankle is good to go tomorrow, however.
Let The Hate Flow Through You
I'm nearly two years into this, and that might be my first Star Wars reference, but given our collective disdain for Inter, it seems fitting. While Napoli gifted Roma two points of breathing room by bailing out against Genoa on Monday, facing lowly Livorno, we shouldn't expect the same this week.
In order for Rudi Garcia to effectively channel the collective ire of Romans worldwide, he needs to find a way to once again bust through Mazzarri's five-man midfield, render their newest toy ineffective, and rely on a 19-year-old defender playing out of position against a potent offensive side to garner three difficult points.
Sharing Serie A's sole Saturday stage should enable Inter and Roma to focus on the task at hand, making table watching just another Sunday chore to endure.
But, before we can get to that, Roma must defeat Inter; not only as a matter of vengeance, but for a new hope.