Tomorrow's tilt between Roma and Inter Milan, in addition to being an important contest between two of Serie A's top five clubs, is a reunion of sorts. Roma's new manager, José Mourinho, rose to an entirely new level of fame after capturing the European treble with Inter during the 2009-2010 season; the first and only time an Italian club has managed that feat. While Edin Dzeko, who currently trails only Lautaro Martinez for the club lead in goals, returns to the scene of perhaps his greatest personal triumphs: Rome, a city and club he called home for six seasons, leaving as Roma's third all-time leading scorer.
Prior to Roma's ill-fated encounter with Bologna on Wednesday, we had slim hopes that they could mount an upset over the defending champions, but with Tammy Abraham, Rick Karsdorp, and Stephan El Shaarawy all set to miss Saturday's match via suspension and/or injury, that once tall task now looks almost insurmountable.
It will take every ounce of Mourinho's cunning to find a way to win tomorrow, but to get some insight into his former club and Roma's next opponent, we turned to David McFarland of Serpents of Madonnina.
Let’s start off with the most obvious question: How’s our old pal Edin Dzeko doing? Has he managed to fill Romelu Lukaku’s shoes? What’s different/similar about Inter’s approach with Dzeko vs. Lukaku?
David McFarland: I admit to being somewhat disappointed when Dzeko was brought in as the first-choice Lukaku replacement, especially with Belotti available. But I’m glad to say I was wrong about the Bosnian. He’s been superb for Inter this season, notching ten goals and one assist in 15 appearances. The 35-year-old struggles to maintain a high-level during multi-game weeks but that’s what depth is for. Other than that, though, the transition from Lukaku has been seamless. Dzeko even managed to score the two crucial goals against Shakhtar Donetsk that sent Inter to the Champions League round of sixteen, while Lukaku drew blanks in both games against the Ukrainian side. Playing style-wise, Dzeko’s lack of speed makes counter-attacks (a heavy component of Conte Ball) a bit harder to pull off but Inzaghi’s focus on possession-based football cancels out those concerns. Dzeko’s physicality and awareness on the ball mean he’s a natural fit for the 3-5-2 and hopefully his connection with Lautaro continues to blossom.
From a purely emotional standpoint, what was it like to watch your team win the title only to see the team picked apart weeks, if not days, later?
DM: As you might expect, it wasn’t fun! From going from dreams of a dynasty to starting over completely, the last week of May was quite the whirlwind of emotions. I remember being halfway through a season review piece and then switching tracks to a Conte farewell article. Losing Hakimi a couple of weeks later was expected to balance the books but no less painful; both Joao Cancelo and Hakimi lasted just one season at the Meazza before leaving thanks to financial constraints. The Lukaku sale was definitely a surprise, though, and seemed to be a clear message that Inter was done competing at the top for now. Beppe Marotta’s genius in the transfer market and Inzaghi’s tactical success have kept that from becoming reality but as long as Suning is on rocky financial ground, there won’t be much stability on the pitch.
Going into the season, were Inter fans worried about any lingering shell shock from that drastic turnover? Was there any way to spin it as a positive? What’s been key in Inter’s early successes this year?
DM: If you asked most Interisti back in August, you’d hear that it was a summer of doom and gloom in the blue side of the Meazza. That was the collective reaction throughout the fanbase to losing three key parts of the Scudetto victory because of Suning’s lack of funds. Obviously, most first reactions are usually overreactions, and that’s been the case so far. Inter’s still very much a title contender despite its losses. Improvements from players already on the roster, immediate impacts from new signings, and a quality manager in Simone Inzaghi have Inter near the top of the table and progressing to the UCL knockout stage for the first time in a decade.
After a relatively slow start to his Inter career, Nicolo Barella seems to be blossoming into a top-class midfielder. Two parter: A) What’s been the key to his maturation? And B) Generally speaking, what makes him such a dangerous player
DM: Conte’s impact at Inter was immense thanks to the Scudetto alone but perhaps just as importantly, he played a major role in developing some of the Nerazzurri’s younger players. Bastoni, Lautaro, and Barella were the main benefactors of Conte’s time at the club. Barella had already been an established player and captain at Cagliari but his improvement has been incredible to watch over the past couple of seasons. The Italian is a constant force in the midfield and has a seemingly non-stop energy reserve. Up until the midweek Spezia game, he had started every single game in all competitions. Barella had been showing signs of wear recently but hopefully, the rest will mean he’s back to 110% for Roma. It’s practically impossible to contain him when he’s at full fitness and he’s a marauding presence down the right side of the field.
Roma fans like to tease Inter fans about the Nicolo Zaniolo saga, which is well documented, but give us a few Inter U-23s calcio fans should keep an eye on over the next few years.
DM: Inter doesn’t have a positive recent history with young players and the Zaniolo deal is the most glaring error. You could make an argument that neither team truly won that trade but Inter definitely has more regrets. The Nerazzurri will try to avert repeating history with its current crop of youngsters. Midfielder Lucien Agoume is currently on loan with Brest in Ligue Un and has spent time at Spezia as well. The 19-year-old is still a few years from contributing at the San Siro but he has the potential to be a Brozovic-esque player and has a nifty range of on-the-ball skills. Bayern Munich reportedly had serious interest in him last season so it’s clear he’s on the radar of some of the best clubs in Europe. Martin Satriano is another name to keep an eye on. He’s made a few appearances off the bench for Inter this season but hasn’t gotten a chance to fully showcase his talents. It wouldn’t surprise me if the striker leaves on loan in January so we can get the full picture of the Uruguayan.
Let’s shift the focus to Saturday’s match now. Roma are one of the league’s most aggressive and creative sides, so are there any individual players or matchups you’re particularly concerned about? Any glaring weakness Mourinho could exploit?
DM: Injuries to Andrea Ranocchia, Stefan de Vrij, and Matteo Darmian have Inter a bit short on defensive depth and Bastoni missed out on the Spezia game with gastroenteritis. Federico Dimarco and Danilo D’Ambrosio were adequate stand-ins against Spezia’s less-than-lethal attack but I’m not so sure I’d want to see them start Saturday. No Abraham will obviously hurt Roma but Shomodurov and Mayoral can definitely cause problems against a make-shift Inter backline. I’d also keep an eye on the flanks; with Darmian out, Denzel Dumfries is the starter on the right. He’s been far from stellar after arriving from the Eredivisie and could be a liability defensively.
Finally, give us a prediction for the match. And if you’re feeling really bold, predict the scoreline and goal scorers.
DM: I’ll go with a 1-1 draw. That’s been a frequent scoreline throughout Inter’s big games so far and despite Roma’s many absences, Mourinho will get a point off his old club. As for who gets their name in the spotlight, Lautaro will open the scoring before a second-half Eldor Shomurodov equalizer.
Big thanks to David for lending us his time and insights. You can catch his work at Serpents of Madonnina. He also dips his toes into the MLS waters, covering Atlanta United for our colleagues at Dirty South Soccer.