Inter headed into their second UEFA Europa League group stage match with a sizable amount of pressure on their shoulders, following the embarrassing slip-up at home to Hapoel Be’er Sheva a fortnight ago. With that in mind Frank de Boer picked a reasonably strong outfit to start the game, despite being just over 72 hours away from Sunday’s huge clash against Roma, allowing just four of the first-team players available to him a rest: Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic, Gary Medel and Miranda.
At least, it looked like a reasonably strong outfit on paper before kick-off. Within seconds of referee Artur Soares Dias’ whistle it became clear that the 11 corpses who had stumbled out onto the Generali Arena pitch were anything but strong. In fact, they were woefully weak in every department possible – technical, physical and most worryingly mental – and it stayed that way for practically the entire 90 minutes. Sparta arrived at this match off the back of sacking their Head Coach Zdenek Scasny, with Under-19 coach David Holoubek taking over on a temporary basis, and the customary post-sacking reaction that you typically get out of the players was evident for all to see. Not that they even needed much of one to beat the ignominious rabble they were up against.
After seven minutes of sloppiness Inter were already behind, as Andrea Ranocchia gave the ball away and a couple of nifty passes – not to mention an horrifically unsuccessful attempt from Felipe Melo to cut the last one out – put Vaclav Kadlec directly through on goal, who didn’t mess up from close range. It was the seventh time in eight official matches under De Boer that we have conceded the first goal of the game, and a sign of the shameful mess that was to come.
If one had hoped that going behind again would spark the players into a reaction, they were to be disappointed in double-quick time. It was nearly 2-0 less than five minutes later when Jeison Murillo lost the ball under pressure from the possessed Sparta front-line – a theme that would run throughout the game – and no one was on hand to tap into an empty net from the cross. Both he and Andrea Ranocchia endured a quite awful evening together, demonstrating just how important Miranda is to this team’s hopes of success this season, but the rest of the defense was no better and soon enough they’d given up a second goal – a goal that spoke volumes for the way Inter approached this match. A free-kick was taken quickly and slid into a totally unmarked Kadlec, who could hardly believe his luck as he beat a hapless Handanovic for the second time. The team completely got their offside trap wrong and ended up conceding a goal that not even a second-string U10 side would be pardoned for conceding.
The remainder of the first half proceeded in a similar manner – Inter playing like 11 men who’d never met each other or even seen a football before in their lives, and Sparta playing at twice the speed, with twice the physicality, twice the lucidity and seven hundred and seventy-seven times the hunger and determination. Were it not for a couple of unfortunate bounces and a super last-ditch clearance from Murillo, the home side could have returned to the dressing room with an even healthier advantage, and it’s what their magnificent team display would have fully deserved. The 2-0 scoreline after 45 minutes was harsh on them, not Inter, who had managed one whole shot on goal from Antonio Candreva (and a speculative one, at that). The midfield had no time to think and the forwards had no service whatsoever, with Ever Banega playing one nice diagonal pass and then disappearing into the Czech night-time.
The half-time interval came and went and it seemed nothing had changed. Within 45 seconds of the restart Ranocchia was booked and left-back Vyacheslav Karavayev missed a gaping chance to make the lead even more comfortable, with Danilo D’Ambrosio – who isn’t Maicon, as he so kindly pointed out to us in an interview back in March – bypassed in a quite extraordinarily easy manner. Another two glaring opportunities presented themselves shortly after, but they too were spurned by the home side, whose only error was their profligacy in front of goal.
The game then changed thanks to two things happening: firstly Sparta’s intensity dropping, and secondly Cristian Ansaldi replacing D’Ambrosio to make his long-awaited debut. The Argentine played like a professional footballer from the moment he came on and it immediately gave the side a new impetus, setting up Candreva for a cross that Eder headed wide on the hour-mark. That was followed up by Rodrigo Palacio having his first shot of the match and Ivan Perisic replacing Candreva, as Inter began to creep forward.
Just after Mauro Icardi had replaced Assane Gnoukouri – a shadow of the young man who’d played so well against Bologna at the weekend – the game was reopened. Icardi and Eder combined well in a tight space after Melo had headed the ball forward and Palacio was sent clean through on goal, with keeper Tomas Koubek helpless to stop the Argentine finding the far corner. Unfortunately, no sooner had the team started to play to anything close to their potential, the game was sealed for the home side in 60 dismal seconds. Ranocchia picked up his second booking for a blatant body-check, leaving the team down to 10 men, and from the ensuing free-kick Sparta found their third goal through centre-back Mario Holek, who was left completely free on the goal-line to nod in following a cut-back.
And there the game ended, to all intents and purposes. Icardi and Eder both had good chances to make it 3-2 in the final few minutes, but it was too little too late and would only have hidden the quite appalling 80 minutes that had gone before it. Inter deservedly lost 3-1 on a night that no one – other than perhaps Candreva and Ansaldi – should escape criticism for, including De Boer after his total failure to psyche the players up and correct things when it was clear they were going wrong. The team therefore remains on 0 points from 2 matches and has an enormous task on their hands to turn this Europa League campaign around in the remaining 4. The question this pitiful performance raises, however, is whether they really want to turn it around. On tonight’s evidence you’d be forgiven for thinking they don’t.