On Thursday evening at St Mary’s Stadium Inter headed into what some had justifiably depicted as a season-defining match, with a fraught Europa League campaign on the line after two hideous defeats in their opening two group encounters. With Frank de Boer sadly handed his P45 on Tuesday morning, the job of guiding a disgraced team through this rather delicate game fell to Primavera coach Stefano Vecchi, who selected a rather more cautious 4-4-1-1 formation than the 4-3-3 we have been used to seeing this season in the hope of tightening up our leaky defence. (Then again he did also select Andrea Ranocchia to start alongside Miranda at the back, so his approach wasn’t entirely safety first.) Mauro Icardi had Ever Banega in support of him with Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic in the wide positions, making this the strongest possible attack we could possibly name ahead of this weekend’s league match with Crotone, while Gary Medel returned with Assane Gnoukouri in midfield and Danilo D’Ambrosio and Yuto Nagatomo got a chance to shine (cough) in the full-back positions.
In his pre-match press conference on Wednesday evening Vecchi had made one concept clear to the journalists present - after weeks of shaky defensive displays his first objective during the match would be to not concede, and the first half proved that he was as good as his word. The first chance of the match went Inter's way when Banega was set up by Icardi, but couldn't find room to release a shot, after which the team decided to stay compact and frustrate Southampton with relative success. Jay Rodriguez forced a simple save out of Samir Handanovic early on before Nathan Redmond fired wide from a tight angle, but that aside Claude Puel's men were not able to cause us huge problems in an uneventful opening half-hour, despite the magnificent support of a jam-packed home crowd that featured former Nerazzurri coach Roy Hodgson amongst its ranks. A welcome throwback to the last time this club was as much of an ignominious circus as it is currently.
Just after the 30-minute mark had passed the game sprung to life however, as Inter took the lead with a strong counter-attack that included some splendid work from Candreva. He danced around the Southampton players for a good few seconds before driving towards the by-line and crossing to the far post, where Perisic's initial effort was blocked and the ball fell for Icardi to hammer in on the half-turn. It was another exceptional striker's goal, exactly the kind of goal Maurito has got us used to in these last three years, and capped a very professional first-half in which we maintained a good degree of organisation and discipline.
Our hard work almost disappeared in stoppage time however, when referee Pawel Gil gave the home side a totally non-existent penalty for a handball offence against Perisic. A scuffle broke out which delayed the taking of said penalty, after Candreva gave Sam McQueen a shove and was extraordinarily lucky to have his utter stupidity punished with just a yellow card, but after almost three minutes Dusan Tadic stepped up and was denied by a wonderful Handanovic save. We could have been reduced to 10 men had the referee seen directly what Candreva did, but justice had been done and the score remained 1-0 at the break. It was a professional display up until that point from the men in green and blue and whatever other colours that bizarre third kit has in it, opting for prudence and seeing it pay off pretty well.
Unfortunately, football matches last 90 minutes and tonight Inter did not.
From the moment the second half began it was clear Southampton had upped their intensity, and produced two dangerous shots on goal immediately through James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. Handanovic then produced another fine save from Ward-Prowse, very dangerous with his efforts from distance, but the pattern for the remainder of the evening had been set and from that moment on there was very little indeed to speak highly of.
After a couple of speedy counter-attacks from Perisic Southampton got back on the front foot and created two more big chances, with the fabulous Hojbjerg putting Miranda on his backside and having his shot blocked by Ranocchia before Handanovic was again called into action by Van Dijk, tipping the Dutch defender's header over the bar. From the resulting corner however, the home side found a fortuitous equaliser that had nonetheless become nothing more than a matter of time, such was Inter's inability to get out of their own penalty box and slow the tempo of the game back down. Romeu's clipped effort hit the bar and bounced out perfectly for Van Dijk, who slotted in from close range after managing to keep himself onside. A metre lower and Handanovic would have caught Romeu's effort; a metre higher and it would have cleared the crossbar. It's one of those moments for us.
Within five minutes of that the hosts' comeback was complete, and again it was a stroke of bad luck that did for us. Tadic, who had disappeared from the match following his penalty miss, was offered too much space on the left and saw his cross deflected first by D'Ambrosio and then by Miranda, leaving Nagatomo helpless at the far post as the ball hit him and was diverted past Handanovic for an agonising own goal. Pure 'sfiga' once again, but it's matches like this that tell you why some people in football tell you that they don't believe in good or bad luck. The goals in themselves were fortunate to a degree, but Southampton had gone looking for that fortune with verve and enterprise; Inter on the other hand had almost deliberately seeked out their misfortune, coaxing those two dodgy deflections towards them with a knowing smile and a seductive wink.
Straight after the goal the team tried to react and earned a couple of corners, but within five minutes it became clear that our course had been run for the night. Physically and most of all mentally there was no longer a contest to be spoken of. The only chance Vecchi's side were able to 'produce' was a long-range effort from Icardi 10 minutes from the end, after Southampton cheaply lost the ball in their own half. Eder, Felipe Melo and Jonathan Biabiany were brought on to replace Medel, Gnoukouri and Candreva, but it was to no avail as the Saints comfortably saw out the final few knockings. They were not made to suffer whatsoever from minute 80 onwards; in fact it was they who created the last few chances of the night, with Ward-Prowse again trying from distance and Handanovic rushing out to take the ball off substitute Charlie Austin's feet.
The game thus petered out in mind-blowingly depressing fashion and the final whistle confirmed a fair 2-1 win for Southampton, which leaves us rooted on 3 points after four matches in Group K. Qualification to the knockout stage is still just about possible following this result, but we're really going to need snookers from this position - we first of all need to win both our remaining games to stand any chance of progression, but our fate is now well and truly out of our hands. A draw between Sparta Prague and Southampton on matchday 5 would practically secure both teams' progression to the last 32, leaving us with nothing but the Coppa Italia to play for between now and May.
To sum up what happened this evening I shall delve into some Brazilian literature. In his post-match interview with Sky Italia, it was mentioned that Vecchi once gave all his players a copy of his favourite book, Paulo Coelho's Manual of the Warrior of Light, as a Christmas present, while he was manager of Tritium in 2010. Here's what Amazon has to say about it: "This book is for all of us who look for meaning in our daily lives as we struggle along the spiritual path. Within each of us is a warrior of the light. Each of us is capable of listening to the silence of the heart, of accepting failure without letting it get us down and of holding onto hope even in the face of weariness and depression." Sadly, Inter were not capable of any such feat. They played pretty well for the best part of an hour but then they did the very first 'failure' of this match get them down, and in the face of weariness and depression they instantly lost all hope, demonstrating a frightening lack of self-belief once the score had rapidly been turned on its head. They showed the desire to start putting a hideous season right, going in front in a difficult stadium where only Chelsea have managed to win as a visiting team in the whole of 2016, but vanished from the pitch at the first moment of difficulty and accepted their fate long before it officially arrived on the final whistle. There's little to say other than that; in times such as this it's sometimes best just to say nothing.
Warriors are thin on the ground in this neck of the woods.