After a positive end to 2016 that had seen Inter start to repair some of the extensive damage they had caused to their season between August and November, 2017 began with optimism but of the cautious kind as the Nerazzurri headed to take on Udinese at the Stadio Friuli. Despite the return of Joao Mario from suspension the starting XI remained unchanged from our last match of the calendar year against Lazio, with Stefano Pioli giving Ever Banega another chance to impress while Geoffrey Kondogbia kept his place in central midfield. Udinese meanwhile were also able to name a full-strength side with no injury worries, which included former Inter defender Felipe in central defence.
Despite the good form that we had put together at the end of 2016, I had a very bad feeling about this game from the moment I woke up on Sunday morning. That won't come as a surprise to those who know me, as I tend to find a way to convince myself before every Inter match that we're destined to lose, but on this occasion there was concrete reasoning at the base of my pessimism: first of all, in the last five seasons we had only picked up five points from our first matches of the new calendar year, while Pioli's record in Serie A rounds directly after the Christmas break was not much better (W2 D1 L4). Then there was the ominous kickoff time, as we had played Udinese away in this slot twice before and lost both on both occasions, and on top of that you had the fact that Daniele Doveri had been signed to referee the game, a man with whom Inter seem to always a) be on the end of terrible officiating and b) fail to win (W1 D4 L4 before today).
And then, as if all that weren't bad enough, came the realisation an hour before the match that Inter would be wearing those atrocious, vomit-inducing 7-Up shirts (other soft drinks are available) that had accompanied the players on that horrific night at San Siro against Hapoel Be'er Sheva. In other words, the writing seemed to be very much on the wall for our first appointment of 2017 - and sure enough, for 45 minutes it was living up to every single bit of bad hype I had given it inside my head.
Without wishing to call a spade anything but a spade, the first half was abysmal. From the moment the match started it seemed that Inter's players still had their minds nestled deep inside a Marbella nightclub, with a sloppy pass from Samir Handanovic inside two minutes setting the tone for the performance to come. It was the only lapse in concentration he would have all afternoon, and it was just as well he got it out of his system early as he was soon being forced into his first save of the game, after Seko Fofana tried his luck from the edge of the box.
Delneri's men appeared to have come out far more concentrated than ours and just beyond the quarter-hour mark we witnessed the opening goal of the game, which to nobody's surprise went to Udinese after having already gone close on two occasions. Samir dribbled past Marcelo Brozovic as the Croatian foolishly went to ground without winning the ball, and slid a nice assist through for Czech Republic under-21 international Jakub Jankto to score, with Danilo D'Ambrosio and Jeison Murillo failing to stop the forward run that arrived between them. It was a deserved lead and it could very easily have become worse straight afterwards.
Instead of Inter producing a reaction to the first goal they had conceded in over 300 minutes of football, it was the home side who continued to look ominous every time they came forward and were unlucky not to double their advantage when Rodrigo De Paul hit the post, having been left completely unmarked inside the box by an inexcusably slack back four. Murillo and D'Ambrosio in particular were enduring two of the worst performances they had put in throughout their entire careers, let alone their time at Inter, and immediately after the last let-off the former was to be embarrassed yet again, as Jankto skipped past him and almost found the net from a very similar position to the one he did score from. Soon after Duvan Zapata scored from close range but the goal was disallowed for a foul in the build-up, with the same two men at fault for the umpteenth time. For thirty minutes it was a complete and utter disaster for Inter without a single positive to cling onto, with Pioli watching on bewildered from the sidelines as he tried to work out what it was he had said in the dressing room to make them play this badly.
Mercifully, as the end of the half approached we began to find our feet and started pushing Udinese back into their own half, and managed to craft a disallowed goal of our own as Ivan Perisic slotted in from an offside position. Both decisions seemed correct; no qualms with Doveri or his assistants on this occasion. Nonetheless it looked as if we would be heading in at half-time behind, but with the very last action of the opening 45 Inter found a precious equaliser that they scarcely merited - Icardi moved out wide to receive a Cristian Ansaldi pass and picked out Perisic inside the Udinese area, who had cut in to fill Maurito's vacated space and beat Orestis Karnezis at his near post. The fact we had ended the half at 1-1 was further proof of an intangible sensation that a lot of Interisti have had lately: while Pioli is clearly a better, more suitable general for this team than Frank de Boer ever was, he is also a luckier one.
The second half began in a very different manner to the first, with Inter looking like a different animal to the one that had limped through proceedings so far and going extremely close to completing the comeback on 49 minutes. After Karnezis parried a dangerous Ansaldi cross to safety, Antonio Candreva put in another one and picked out Banega at the far post, but somehow El Tanguito could only hit the side-netting and a glorious opportunity disappeared.
Udinese responded immediately and nearly restored their lead with two great chances, as Danilo headed wide from a corner and Zapata almost deceived Handanovic at his near post with a shot from a tight angle. The defence continued to creak but at least we were offensively in the game ourselves, making for a very entertaining spectacle at the Dacia Arena (at least, if you don't support Inter it was probably a good watch). Joao Mario replaced Banega before the hour mark and entered well into the match, with Udinese sinking further and further back as time passed.
With 20 minutes left Perisic almost found his second goal that would have put Inter in front, but instead he saw his free-kick curl just wide, and after that our pressure abated as the home side sprung forward again in search of the winner. Our second-half play had been a lot more threatening but we seemed to have used up all of our energy reserves, making the draw seem like the inevitable result as we entered the closing stages. But that was not to be the case.
After Banega had wasted an enormous chance at the start of the half, it was his replacement who would next be ruing an incredible miss. Karnezis parried a D'Ambrosio cross straight into Joao Mario's path inside the box, but somehow Widmer managed to deny what looked like a certain goal with a brilliant block. Eder replaced Kondogbia with six minutes left as Pioli decided it was time to go all out for the win, and soon after that Inter found the winning goal they had been looking for. Joao Mario redeemed himself with a superb delivery from a wide free-kick, and Perisic leaped higher than the rest to head in and secure a victory of enormous importance. It had taken 87 minutes to get there, but three points are three points.
The four minutes of stoppage time signalled by Doveri's assistant passed without much happening, as Andreolli came on for Perisic to help run the clock down, and finally the full-time whistle blew to confirm a 2-1 win for Inter. It had looked decidedly unlikely until thirty seconds before the end of the first half, but the team had the merit of recovering from a bad start and insisting until their second-half pressure told. Pioli will know that this was far from our best performance, but I lost count of how many people I saw on Twitter before the game saying that the win was all that mattered, so on that basis we have to be satisfied. It extends our winning run in Serie A to four - and our winning run in all competitions to five - and ensures that our hopes of qualifying for the Champions League are still, just about, alive. 2017 has started well.