Italian Serie A News, Results, Analysis and Features on Football Soccer

Andrew Murray On December - 14 - 2011

Team of the Week: Inter Ease to Victory

Inter Milan took a toothless Fiorentina side apart on Saturday night to claim three valuable points that see them move up to 11th in Serie A. Missing the likes of Javier Zanetti, Dejan Stankovic, Diego Forlan and Wesley Sneijder through injury and suspension, Claudio Ranieri had to shuffle his pack. Maicon, Yuto Nagatomo and Lucio came into the backline while Philippe Coutinho replaced Ricky Alvarez on the left flank. The Jovetic and Montolivo-less Viola, meanwhile, handed Adem Ljajic a rare start and started with an unfamiliar 4-4-1-1 shape.

The hosts started in the ascendancy with Giampaolo Pazzini firing straight at Artur Boruc in the opening minutes. Inter drove forward with immediacy but struggled to conjure anything in Fiorentina’s half, displaying a Roma-esque lack of fluency in the final third. The ever-improving Coutinho eventually carved the Viola defence open on 30 minutes, showing Alessandro Gamberinia clean set of heels before firing a powerful effort at Boruc’s near post.

Inter and Countinho grew in confidence and the young Brazilian provided Inter’s opening goal 11 minutes later. His long pass from the left flank was perfectly weighted for Pazzini to run onto, and the Azzurri forward clipped the ball home from an acute angle. It was a sweet finish, the ex-Fiorentina man’s first in Serie A since September, and exactly what Inter deserved having controlled play for most of the first half.

Fiorentina’s hopes of a good start to the second half were dashed almost immediately as Inter doubled their advantage on 48 minutes. Nagatomo collected the ball from a poor Viola throw-in and fed it to Pazzini. The Japanese international then ran onto Pazzini’s through-ball that was almost snuffed-out by Manuel Pasqual. The defender’s botched clearance ricocheted off Nagatomo’s leg and into the back of the net, leaving the Viola with no one to blame but themselves.

The visitors spurned a couple of half-chances later on, with Alberto Gilardino and Cesare Natali the main culprits, but Inter were rarely in any real danger. An unmarked Sulley Muntari missed from six yards and a good Boruc save denied Pazzini a brace as the game went on. Late headers from Valon Behrami and Santiago Silva failed to trouble Julio Cesar as Inter coasted to a third home win of the season.

It’d be a stretch to say that Inter are back to anything near their best form, but this was one of the Nerazzurri’s most assured performances of the season. They’ve now won four of their last seven Serie A games, their best run of the season, and look to be finding stability at long last. Delio Rossi’s Viola were limp and lifeless without their star men, but that shouldn’t detract from Inter’s showing.

Defensively, Inter were solid. Julio Cesar sat idly for most of the game, while Walter Samuel and Lucio were hardly troubled by Fiorentina’s static attack. Nagatomo and Maicon did what they do best, bombing up the pitch and exchanging cross-field passes all night while breaking into dangers positions around the channels. Nagatomo had a particularly good game, showing great endeavour to create Inter’s second despite the luck of the finish.

The central midfield pairing of Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta proved functional and effective. The duo screened a collapse-prone defence well with Motta approaching something close to his terrier-like best. Wingers Coutinho and Marco Davide Faraoni continued to impress, while Pazzini’s lively showing up-front made-up for another pedestrian showing from Diego Milito, who looks a shadow of the player he was a year or so ago.

Ranieri still hasn’t figured out his strongest XI, but Saturday’s game was a definite step in the right direction. This isn’t a Scudetto winning side, not by a long shot, but it’s a huge improvement on the Gasperini era’s mass confusion. Inter look more cohesive and together than they have all season, and now have a great chance of putting a run together with fixtures against Genoa, Cesena and Lecce in the coming weeks.

What they’ll do when Sneijder returns is anyone’s guess. Rafa Benitez, Leonardo and Gasperini all struggled to get the best from the Dutchman and, on-paper, there doesn’t seem to be a natural slot for him in Ranieri’s system. Dropping the ineffective Milito appears feasible, but that would mean Pazzini, a player who typically peaks as part of a more orthodox strike parternship, playing up front on his own. Sneijder is undoubtedly a world-class talent and arguably Inter’s best player, but his return could provide Ranieri with an unwanted headache.

If Saturday’s game is anything to go by, Javier Zanetti is one player Inter are clearly better without these days. Zanetti is a club idol and a model professional, but maybe it’s time for him to slip into a less-involved role. Cambiasso looks far more comfortable without having to compensate for his fellow countryman’s lack of mobility, and Motta provides a bulldog-like aggression that Zanetti has never had. Motta/Cambiasso is Inter’s most balanced midfield pairing at the moment and it’s hard to see where the ageing captain fits in these days.

It’s no surprise that Inter’s upturn has coincided with Motta’s return from injury and Coutinho, his fellow Brazilian, is growing in stature with ever game. The 19-year-old played just 62 minutes on Saturday but was excellent throughout. The architect of most of Inter’s major attacks, Coutinho was lively on the ball and came back to defend when he needed to. If Coutinho’s development continues he can be the first real triumph of Massimo Moratti’s new era of austerity and a key Nerazzurri player for years to come.

As encouraging as the younger generation’s performances were, Inter still have some serious age issues to deal with. Six of Inter’s starters on Saturday are 30 or older, and that’s without Zanetti (38), Stankovic (33), Forlan (32) and Christian Chivu (31). You’d imagine that all of the above will still have big roles to play when they return, and that’s worrying. It’s becoming a cliché, but Inter still put too much reliance on declining players.

Fortunately the Nerazzurri realise this. Moratti’s focus has shifted. A few exceptions aside, Inter now look to sign young, hungry players with their best years still ahead of them rather than splashing megabucks on over-the-hill superstars. Faith in the likes of Coutinho, Nagatomo and Alvarez will pay-off over the coming years but but these players still have work to do. Alvarez & co. aren’t quite ready to be automatic starters, which, unfortunately, makes relying on the old hands almost unavoidable.

Inter’s attack is one area that could use immediate improvement. The Nerazzurri have struggled without Samuel Eto’o's goals and have netted just 16 all season. Milito (3) is the club’s top scorer followed by Pazzini (2), while Forlan has scored just once and summer signing Mauro Zarate is yet to break his Serie A duck. Pazzini should escape his malaise soon enough, but Milito and Forlan are long in the tooth and Zarate, for all his talent, is one of the most erratic players in the league.

Worryingly, Inter don’t have any obvious young strikers ready to break into the first team. Moratti gambled by assuming that Milito, Pazzini, Zarate and Forlan would make-up for Eto’o's lost goals, but it hasn’t worked out. A new striker, along with a young centre-back to compete with Lucio, Samuel and Ranocchia, should be Inter’s top priority in the next couple of transfer windows.

An encouraging performance from Inter, but one that shouldn’t be used to paper over the cracks. Theirs is still a squad divided by talented youngsters who aren’t quite ready for the deep end and swiftly-declining veterans. Claudio Ranieri has a big job ahead of him and, all things considered, should help the Nerazzurri threaten the top six before long.

Andrew Murray

Scottish football writer with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for all things calcio. Visit http://aroundthepeninsula.wordpress.com for more from Andrew.

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