On Thursday night, Inter headed into their final UEFA Europa League group game against Sparta Prague already knowing that they would be going no further in the competition, as well as knowing that they were guaranteed to finish bottom of the group after a series of shambolic performance had earned them four defeats out of five matches. Given that there was no possible material gain for the Nerazzurri from this game, Stefano Pioli took the chance to give some minutes to those who had had less exposure during the first half of the season, and named a rather bizarre-looking 3-4-3 system that featured men such as Marco Andreolli, making his first appearance for Inter since May 2015, Jonathan Biabiany, making his first appearance since September, and 17 year-old Andrea Pinamonti, making his first-team debut after flying through all of Inter's youth teams in the last couple of years. If it wasn’t a special night for anybody else inside San Siro, it certainly was for him.
Given that this was a game which meant nothing whatsoever for either team, with Sparta Prague having already secured top spot in Group K, the first half understandably began in rather pedestrian fashion, with Inter blandly controlling proceedings in front of a very sparse crowd that failed to reach the 15,000 mark. What made the stadium particularly quiet was the emptiness of the Curva Nord, with its usual residents deciding not to turn up for the game and instead leave a message for the Inter players: "Four defeats in five matches - this is what you deserve for your indecorous efforts. Shame on you!"
All things considered, it wasn't exactly the ideal atmosphere for Primavera star Pinamonti to make his first-team debut, but the youngster was not fazed by the unfriendly environment he'd been catapulted into and made a very good impression up front on his own during the opening 45 minutes. On a night from which it was always going to be practically impossible to learn anything substantial about Inter, both for Pioli and the fans, it was a pleasure to watch him grab the opportunity he has been working towards for two years with both hands and demonstrate all his talent and personality, and unsurprisingly he had a very big hand in our opening goal that arrived after 23 minutes. Senna Miangue sent a teasing cross into Sparta's penalty box and the Italian managed to bring it down very nicely with one of his long legs, before shielding the ball from two defenders and poking it through to the onrushing Eder, who had his first attempt saved but then tapped into an empty net at the second time of asking.
The goal was a fair reward for the positive performance Inter had put in until that moment, and they managed the remainder of the first half comfortably against a Sparta team that did not appear to care much about the match that they had come to play. Pioli's experimental 3-4-3 system was holding together reasonably well, although the away side were almost gifted a comical equaliser before the break when Andrea Ranocchia nearly headed the ball into his own net. It would have been an excellent addition to his very large personal collection, but unfortunately for Froggy it wasn't to be and our lead remained intact.
But it would not remain intact for very long in the second half. Even though Sparta were playing poorly, you know that when you're playing against Inter you'll be able to create chances even when you're not particularly trying hard to do so, and within eight minutes they had made it 1-1 through Lukas Marecek. Cristian Ansaldi cheaply lost the ball in central midfield, as that was where he was playing tonight alongside Felipe Melo (I told you it was a bizarre-looking team), and the Czechs took immediate advantage as Marecek headed past Juan Pablo Carrizo from close range, thanks to a nice cross from the timeless Borek Dockal.
Shortly afterwards Inter responded with a nice run and shot from Ivan Perisic, who had replaced Rodrigo Palacio at half-time, but the overall inertia of the game did not change and ten minutes later Sparta were awarded a penalty as Andreolli fouled David Lafata inside the box. Andreolli was entrusted with the captain's armband for this game with Mauro Icardi watching on from the stands, but this was a mistake on his part in the middle of a performance that remained generally encouraging nonetheless. With Samir Handanovic suspended, for having conceded a penalty in our last Europa League game, most Interisti had probably already mentally accepted the 2-1 scoreline before Dockal stepped up to take the spot kick, but miraculously Carrizo pulled off a fine save and kept the match level. Nobody in the ground would have thought it possible, and yet it really happened. Seeing is believing.
With that let-off behind them Inter mustered up the energy for a half-baked late surge, as Miangue crossed for Eder to head over before Ansaldi had a shot saved at the near post, but it didn't last particularly long and wasn't enough to enable us to regain the lead. The Argentine had been able to go through on goal after some great tenacious work from Pinamonti to win the ball back in midfield, but he picked up cramp in the process and it forced him to make way for fellow Primavera player Axel Bakayoko, with San Siro offering him some warm applause as he went. He's young, but the early signs tonight were definitely promising.
Biabiany went close straight after the substitution was made with a sizzling volley from long range, but the game had begun to peter out by that stage and everything pointed towards it finishing in a draw - until the 90th minute, that is, when Ansaldi fed Eder and the Italo-Brasilian turned sharply on the edge of the box before beating Tomas Koubek at his near post. It was a fine individual goal from Inter's man of the match, and was enough to secure three empty points that extended our winning streak in all competitions at home to five games. (I know, I hadn't realised we were on that kind of run either - who'd have thunk it?)
Ultimately we can take very little from this win, which was not even enough to prevent us finishing bottom in Group K thanks to the disasters we'd produced in the previous five matches. This was a patchwork XI to say the least and we will never ever see these eleven players take to the field together again, while the opponent we were up against clearly weren't trying their hardest after they had already secured qualification on match-day 5, so we will have to wait until Sunday's game with Genoa to see if any real progress has been made following the defeat to Napoli. It was nice to see Pinamonti make a good impression on his senior debut though - if this display was anything to go by then I'm sure this won't be the last team he appears in our first team.