If you've been with CdT for a while, you're probably familiar with my long-standing hatred of Inter Milan, a club I detest almost as much as the Dallas Cowboys, who are undoubtedly the worst franchise in all of sports. My disdain for Inter stems largely from the early to mid-2000s, a period in which Roma finished second to Inter four times in a five-year stretch, including the agonizing 2009-2010 campaign when Roma fell two points short of ruining Jose Mourinho's treble.
But that hatred doesn't spill over to actual Inter fans, one of whom, David McFarland from our sister site Serpents of Madonnina, was kind enough to do a Q&A exchange with us ahead of Sunday's six-pointer.
Inter are now in year two under Antonio Conte. How have the results matched up to the initial expectations: is Inter ahead of pace? Behind? In-between? Following that, what have been the biggest differences (good or bad) between the first and second years?
David McFarland: Inter’s Conte project has certainly gone well so far. Last year saw the Nerazzurri comfortably reach the top four, go on a run in the Coppa Italia, and challenge for the Scudetto during much of the campaign. Making the Europa League final was an added bonus, but one thing is still missing. A trophy. There have been many bright spots from Conte’s time in charge, including the emergence of young stars like Nicolo Barella and Alessandro Bastoni but if it’s not capped off with Inter’s first silverware in a decade, there’s no way to call it a success, especially as Inter repeatedly failed in the UCL group stage. And that trophy really needs to be the league title. Inter has poured hundreds of millions of euros into this, and it will all be worth it if the Nerazzurri break Juve’s grip on the Scudetto. If not? Well, that leaves Inter’s owners with some very difficult choices about just how much they will commit to the club.
As for changes between year one and two, the coronavirus pandemic has obviously impacted the way Conte would like to improve the squad so the starting eleven is almost identical to last season, with the exception of Achraf Hakimi. With that said, Inter has varied playing styles, going from a more possession-based 3-4-1-2 to a pragmatic 3-5-2. As we have learned through trial and error, the latter is by far ideal, especially considering Christian Eriksen’s well-documented struggles in Milan.
Outside of Romelu Lukaku, what are Inter’s biggest strengths?
DM: When the Nerazzurri’s first choice backline is on the pitch, Inter boasts one of the best defenses in the league. With Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij, and Milan Skriniar starting, Inter conceded just two goals against Napoli, Atalanta, Sassuolo, and Lazio, not an easy feat at all. Inter hasn’t been as strong in recent games, though, with one shutout in the last six and two goals conceded to both Crotone and Sampdoria in the new year. But on its best day, Inter can keep anyone off the scoresheet.
Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez have accounted for 66% of Inter’s league goal so far. The obvious question to ask is are they too reliant on them? Is there a Plan C when those two aren’t scoring or just can’t get into the flow of the match?
DM: Inter is unquestionably very reliant on the goal-scoring of Romelu Lukaku, who has 50 strikes in 70 games in an Inter kit. Whether it’s “overeliant” is up for debate, but the Nerazzurri aren’t at top form without him on the pitch, as we saw against Sampdoria. Lautaro Martinez is an up-and-down player, capable of going from a hattrick one day to blasting shot after shot off-target the next. Because of that, it’s Lukaku who is the heart of Inter’s attack, with Lautaro relegated to high-quality side piece more often than not. Last season showed glimpses of a Lautaro-Alexis Sanchez combination that could do some damage when Lukaku isn’t available, but Sanchez has fallen out of form this season thanks to injury after injury. In short, there’s no reliable back-up option upfront, so it’s an open question as to who will score if Lukaku and Lautaro aren’t.
What has to go right for Inter to win the Scudetto this season? What would be the nightmare scenario that might see Inter fall out of the top four altogether?
DM: Injures, for one. Inter’s starting eleven is perhaps the strongest in Serie A but depth is a sizeable concern. As mentioned previously, no one can replace Lukaku, while the back-three needs all three centerbacks available to fully function. Even missing just one cost Inter several points early in the season. The midfield is dependant on Nicolo Barella, the engine of the Nerazzurri. Danilo D’Ambrosio (CB) and Roberto Gagliardini (CM) are significant drop-offs in quality at their respective positions. So while a first choice Inter is clearly a title contender, the farther down the depth chart you go, the farther down the table. As for what needs to go right, Inter has to start showing up in big games against title contenders. Last season Conte’s side went 1W-3L against Juventus and Lazio, which not only affected the standings but the mentality of players as well. Having already lost to Milan this season, Inter’s next two games against Juve and Roma could give us a lot more confidence in a title push, or start sowing the seeds of doubt in whether Inter can live up to its potential.
Lastly, give us a prediction for Sunday’s match: can Inter rebound, or are there any lessons/warning signs from their loss to Sampdoria that Roma might take advantage of?
DM: I see a sixth straight draw with a score of 2-2. Both teams are in strong form and match-up very well. The x-factor, at least from Inter’s perspective, is Lukaku’s fitness levels. If he isn’t able to start, the odds tip heavily in Roma’s favor in my eyes. As for the Sampdoria loss, I’m inclined to believe it was just a blip. Inter could easily have won if Alexis Sanchez converted his early spot-kick, and every team stumbles at one point or another.
Big thanks to David for his time. Look for the rest of our matchday coverage over the next 24 hours.