Inter arrived in Israel knowing they had only one result available to them against Hapoel Be’er Sheva if they were to preserve slender hopes of extending their Europa League campaign beyond Christmas: a victory. Following the dramatic last-gasp draw obtained in Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina, Stefano Pioli made five changes to his starting XI for this match: out went Gary Medel, Cristian Ansaldi, Joao Mario, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Perisic and in came Jeison Murillo, Yuto Nagatomo, Felipe Melo, Ever Banega and Eder.
The first half began with a slight scare as Maor Buzaglo had a cross deflected onto the bar after four minutes, but after that Inter settled well with a very mobile 4-2-3-1 system and began to control the game fairly comfortably. Soon enough they had found a very nice opening goal, as Eder came in off the left wing and crossed low for Mauro Icardi to glance in at the near post, across Hapoel’s hapless goalkeeper David Goresh. It was a classic striker’s goal from a man who has nothing to learn from anybody else inside the penalty area, anticipating his marker and finishing coolly with one svelte touch.
With the lead established, an impressive first-half display proceeded in which there was very little to worry Pioli and his players, as the front four rotated their positions consistently to confuse a dazed back-line and the rest of the team maintained a good degree of balance. For large periods in the opening 45 there really was no contest, and within ten minutes of scoring their first Inter had a deserved second when they crafted almost certainly the best goal the team has scored all season. A series of one-touch passes and movements eventually freed up Marcelo Brozovic on the right wing, who had space to shape up his direct opponent and curl in a lovely shot off the far post, provoking a vintage Epic Brozo-style celebration with his teammates.
Hapoel were struggling so much that coach Barak Bakhar made his first substitution after 36 minutes, bringing Maharan Radi on and swapping to a more positive 4-3-3 system, but his team were unable to come up with any attacking ideas that might concern the Nerazzurri and went in at half-time with a large amount of thinking to do. Inter on the other hand were looking more creative and more convincing than they had all season, giving the impression of a team that had everything under control.
Then the second half happened.
Exactly as we had seen happen against Southampton, it was clear rather quickly after the restart that the players were quite simply out of gas, and were totally incapable of maintaining the rhythm that had caused Hapoel so many problems up until half-time. And so a 45-minute period of horror duly ensued, with the home team gaining in confidence and intensity and the away team disappearing from the pitch, almost literally.
Without having conceded any extraordinarily dangerous opportunities, what had already become the inevitable arrived just before the hour mark, as substitute Radi crossed for Brazilian centre-forward Lucio Maranhao to head in from close range, with Miranda prolonging his disturbingly bad run of form with a very lazy piece of defending that saw him completely forget to mark his man. The crowd raised their voices and the inertia of a game that had been totally, totally dominated in the first half, almost to an embarrassing extent at times, was transformed. Shortly before the goal Icardi had had a great chance to finish the game off, but was unlucky to see his snapshot come down off the same bar Buzaglo had hit earlier after more excellent forward’s play.
Pioli responded by bringing on Ivan Perisic and Assane Gnoukouri for Eder and Melo, but unfortunately it did nothing to arrest the quite incredible physical collapse that was unfolding in front of his eyes, and within ten minutes of their first goal Hapoel had won themselves a penalty, just moments after Buzaglo had poked the ball an inch wide from a Nwakaeme cross. Samir Handanovic came flying out, raised his leg and effectively karate kicked Buzaglo in the chest as Murillo failed to read a long ball, and after picking up a booking for time-wasting just before half-time he received a second yellow card and left Inter down to 10 men. Carrizo came on to replace him with Banega being sacrificed, but despite going the right way for Anthony Nwakaeme’s penalty he was unable to stop the ball squirming under his arm and into the net. From 2-0 to 2-2 and 11 vs 10.
Even now that Inter were obliged to score again to avoid immediate elimination, they remained powerless to stop the home side coming onto them. None of the second balls they had done well to govern in the first half were being won anymore, which forced the team to sit back without a minute’s respite and hope desperately that Hapoel missed all the chances they created. Eventually Brozovic and Perisic got forward and combined to free up Icardi inside the box, but he miskicked his effort and send the ball into the stands to his immense frustration. Candreva had a go next with a stinging effort from distance, but it was straight down Garesh’s throat and the brief revival faded.
The game became very stretched in the final few minutes as Hapoel began to tire as well, but it was still Carrizo being called into action with regularity, with five saves in the space of two minutes as Pioli watched on from the side-lines with a dismayed look on his face. As added time began Inter produced one final force to look for the goal that would keep them alive in Group K, but Icardi’s shot was deflected for a corner and Candreva’s drilled effort from it was blocked by the throng of bodies in the box. There was time for one final Hapoel attack after that, and they made the most of it to snatch a victory that was utterly unthinkable at half-time. Carrizo played an awful pass directly out for a throw-in, the throw-in was taken quickly and Sahar slotted in from close range after a very neat back-heel from Mohammad Ghadir. The full-time whistle sounded immediately after kick-off, and Inter’s elimination from the Europa League was officially confirmed after four defeats in five games.
So, in conclusion this was an utter humiliation that extinguishes any lingering sense of optimism that the derby draw had left behind. We were great for 45 minutes and abominably shambolic for the other 45, which I think you can put down to the inexplicably hideous physical condition of the entire squad. It’s frightening how much the team drooped after half-time, practically never to be seen again, and it’s definitely not the first time we’ve seen that this season. The good news? Our Europa League adventure is over and we’ll never have to think about this harrowing three-month experience again after our final, meaningless match at home to Sparta Prague.
More than a coach, this team needs an exorcist. And I think I will soon too.