After a strong performance against Genoa, Inter came to the Stadio Carlo Castellani with fans in a pretty joyous mood. Last week's match had produced a win, Empoli was winless in their last 6 matches, Kovacic was back, Shaqiri was expected to play, so this was supposed to be a fairly simple win. Right? Turns out not so much...
Empoli started the match much stronger than Inter did and threatened within 5 minutes, with Elseid Hysaj taking a strong shot from distance forcing a save from Handanovic. Empoli continued to have more possession and better chances throughout the half and Handanovic had to be on his toes to keep the team level.
When Inter did get the ball the players were getting swarmed pretty quickly and effectively in midfield, breaking up any attempt to get a passing rhythm together and forcing either wayward passes or ineffective long balls from the back. While this method of pressing has its advantages, it also leaves open men (usually on the opposite wing) who would be left with acres of open space provided the right pass. Hernanes did try a few of these, mostly in the second half, but counteracting this system required players with quick feet (or a good eye for sudden passes) to pick out the open players and make the opposition wary of overloading one side of the field. Essentially the first half was begging for Kovacic or Shaqiri and by halftime, most fans were expecting to see them pretty quickly (if not at the start of the second half).
Those changes did not happen as early as most hoped for. Instead, the halftime substitution we saw was Anderolli replacing Ranocchia, who had a problem with his left knee around the 41st minute but stayed on till the break (initial reports believe it to be a sprain in his knee).
In the second half Inter did have a few chances, with Vidic and Palacio both heading wide from good opportunities. Empoli continued to have most of the possession though and forced Handanovic into more saves. Mancini brought on Kovacic and eventually gave Xherdan Shaqiri his debut but neither of these introductions were enough to secure the win.
So far, I have been able to praise Mancini for his tactics and good use of subsitutions but this time it is hard not to fault his performance. By halftime the team had two shots, only one on target. That was unacceptable and it was clear that changes were needed, yet he waited until the 60th minute to bring on Kovacic and in doing so took off Icardi, who has proven himself time and time again to get a goal out of nothing (which was probably the only way the team would have scored in the match) and then in the 74th minute he brought on Shaqiri for Podolski. I would not have had a problem with this substitution if Icardi was still in the match but leaving Palacio as the only real goalscorer worried me, and he really did not trouble the keeper once he started to lead the line.
This was a chance to move into 6th place, to put pressure on the teams above, and to show the rest of the league that the side has the momentum to push on for 3rd place. Unfortunately the Nerazzurri were unable to do so. Inconsistency plagued the side during Mazzarri's time as coach and that is something that Mancini needs to work on. If the lesser clubs cannot be regularly beaten then we have no place seeing our team in the Champions League next season.
Empoli 0-0 Inter
Goals: If only...
Empoli: Sepe; Barba, Rugani, Tonelli, Hysaj; Vecino, Valdifiori, Croce; Verdi (Zielinski 65'); Mchedlidze(Maccarone 71'), Pucciarelli (Tavano 84')
Unused Subs: Pugliesi, Bassi, Laurini, Perticone, Signorelli, Laxalt, Bianchetti,
Coach: Maurizio Sarri
Inter: Handanovic; Campagnaro, Vidic, Ranocchia (Andreolli 45'), D'Ambrosio; Guarin, Medel; Hernanes, Palacio, Podolski (Shaqiri 74'); Icardi (Kovacic 60')
Unused Subs: Carrizo, Berni, Kuzmanovic, Obi, Dodò, Mbaye, Krhin, Donkor, Bonazzoli
Coach: Roberto Mancini