I’d like to start this match preview by flagging up three comments that I came across the other day. The first comes from Inter’s head coach, the second comes from an opposition head coach, and the third comes from a journalist reporting on a match that has just taken place between the two head coaches’ teams.
Quote 1: “We were really suffering at the end of the game today. We lost our balance and became quite arrogant as a team, and we could easily have conceded given that not everybody was coming back to defend.”
Quote 2: “Inter didn’t create many chances today, but they were able to make them count. They certainly weren’t technically or tactically superior to us; it felt like their goalkeeper made a lot more saves than ours did.”
Quote 3: “Inter’s performance today didn’t even impress their own coach, but his collection of splendid individuals are continuing to deliver him points.”
What exactly is so interesting about these comments, you’re probably wondering? Well here’s the thing – while those comments could easily be referring to literally any of the 8 matches that Inter have played so far this season, which have seen the Nerazzurri grind out positive results with unconvincing performances, they aren’t. They don’t come from this season at all, in fact, or even this millennium.
Those comments were all made on the afternoon of Saturday 18 October 1997 (from Gigi Simoni, Carlo Mazzone and Rai Sport reporter Salvatore Biazzo respectively), when Inter travelled to the Stadio San Paolo and recorded a 2-0 win over Napoli – a win that remains to this day, somewhat incredibly, our most recent league victory in that stadium.
According to the attached video, Inter played pretty badly that afternoon and spent most of the game under pressure from their more enterprising opponents, but they won by capitalising on the opportunities that they created and muddling through until the full-time whistle – exactly what Luciano Spalletti’s band of merry men have done pretty much every week for the last two months, in other words.
When I came across that report earlier this week and listened to some of the things that were being said about that match I couldn’t help but laugh, because it made me realise that nothing has really changed over the last 20 years, has it? The things that used to be said (both by fans and foes) about Simoni’s Inter back then - ‘they don’t play good football’, ‘they’re reliant on individual talent’, ‘they’ve been very lucky’ etc. and so on – are pretty much exactly the same things that have been said since then about Cuper’s Inter, Mancini’s Inter, Mourinho’s Inter... and now Spalletti’s Inter. (And I’m sure people used to exactly say this kind of stuff about Herrera’s Inter, too…)
| Lights, Camera, Action! Luciano Spalletti's pre-match press conference in just 6️⃣0️⃣ seconds! ️ #ForzaInter #NapoliInter pic.twitter.com/iAl42aosaS— Inter (@Inter_en) October 20, 2017
The point that I’m rather clumsily trying to make here is that, on the eve of by far its toughest test of the season so far, Inter 2017-18 is beginning to look an awful lot like the vast majority of Inter teams that have preceded it throughout the Nerazzurri’s long and illustrious history. They aren’t great to watch, sure, but what counts is that they are getting the job done by hook or by crook, week in week out, thanks to an effective mix of defensive solidity, individual quality and mental fortitude (as well as good fortune, let’s be realistic).
While the majority of us would probably prefer this team to be a bit more exciting than they currently are, it would only be fair to point out that Inter have never really been associated with champagne football down the years. 90% of the success we’ve obtained as a club over the last century has been obtained thanks to our own brand of footballing fundamentalism, in which the team focuses on nothing else but getting results, so perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely surprising to us that the Class of 2017-18 appear to be following that template.
As ugly as this lot may seem at times, all they’re really doing is adhering to tradition. Spalletti’s Inter is turning into vintage Inter: stodgy but successful.
Unfortunately however, that doesn’t bode particularly well for our trip to Naples this weekend, and here we return to the thing that I’m actually meant to be talking about in this article: the match we’re playing on Saturday evening. Because if Spalletti’s Inter really is vintage Inter like I’m suggesting it might be, then we can already picture exactly what is going to happen to them at the San Paolo without having to even turn our televisions on.
If winning ugly* is Inter’s greatest tradition as a club then losing away to Napoli might well be our second greatest tradition – at least in the last two decades it has been. The last time the Nerazzurri walked away from that stadium with maximum points in their pocket, Bill Clinton was still President of the United States, Britain was still mourning the death of Princess Diana and Spalletti still had hair, with the Tuscan having just brought Empoli back into Serie A after a nine-year absence. (Seriously, look here if you don’t believe me...)
[*I’m talking ‘ugly’ in purely aesthetic terms, here – it goes without saying that, in absolute terms, the treble-winning side is one of the most beautiful things any of us will ever see in our entire lives.]
From our subsequent 11 visits to Naples (Napoli got relegated from Serie A that season and wouldn’t return stably for another decade) we have collected 3 draws and 8 defeats, with an aggregate score of 19-7 in the Azzurri’s favour. This match is effing cursed for us, honestly.
But if the past suggests rather strongly that we’re not going to win this weekend, the present is perhaps an even greater source for pessimism. We are now eight games into the 2017-18 season and Napoli are still yet to drop a single point in Serie A, and if you go back to the end of last season then that winning run becomes 13 games long. As well as that there’s the fact that their most recent success, away to Roma last Saturday, was an extremely morale-boosting one, as it heightened belief both inside and outside the club that they are finally ready to clinch their first Scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona (who we don’t like on this site but was a decent footballer). So they’re full of enthusiasm heading into this match against Inter.
But that’s not the only issue, as alongside all that winning there’s also been a heck of a lot of scoring. Since the new league campaign started Maurizio Sarri’s men have been finding the back of the net at a rate of 3.25 goals per game – 1 goal every 27.7 minutes – which is a rate that no other team in Europe’s top five leagues can currently match. In Jose Maria Callejon, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne (who is expected to recover for this match) the Partenopei boast one of the most prolific attacking tridents in the world at this moment in time, having racked up a total of 20 goals between them since August, and they’re not the only men in the team who know how to score either.
In short, this is going to be extremely difficult for us. Despite our unbeaten start to the season there is a strong chance that we will lose this match, and if that were to happen in a dignified manner then we should not create any dramas about it. Napoli are the best team in the league as things stand and we have problems that are waiting to be exploited, so as long as we put in a solid team performance (i.e. one that prevents us losing heavily) accept whatever result emerges. Getting through the first five minutes of the game without conceding twice, like we did last season, would be as good a place as any to start.
Trasferte a Napoli in A 1997-2017— Fulvio Santucci (@SantucciFulvio) October 20, 2017
Having said that, the brilliance of football is that quite often it doesn’t make any sense, so despite what current form and the history books suggest you can never say never in this ridiculous sport. As Rai Sport’s Salvatore Biazzo pointed out while reporting on that win of ours two decades ago, ‘playing good football doesn’t always guarantee you points, and vice versa’ – we don’t necessarily have to be ‘better’ than Napoli to beat them this weekend.
And if that doesn’t convince you to reserve a modicum of optimism for Saturday’s big match, perhaps the following will: this is the first time that Inter will play away to Napoli in the month of October since that triumphant afternoon back in 1997. What’s more, we’re only two days away from this game falling exactly twenty years on from that one, as this Saturday will be 21 October.
Might those be two good omens for us this weekend? If they are, then our luck may finally be in; if they aren’t, then we might as well never play at the San Paolo again. If not even divine intervention can help us get our hands on a win in that godforsaken stadium then what chance do we have?
Location: Stadio San Paolo, Napoli.
Time: 8:45 p.m. CEST (2:45 p.m. on the U.S. East Coast)
TV/Streaming: In the United States, the game is available on fuboTV, beinSPORTS Connect USA and Rai International, while in the UK it will be shown on BT Sport 3 HD. Click here to find out where you can watch the match everywhere else in the world.
Inter Milan squad
Goalkeepers: Handanovic, Padelli, Berni.
Defenders: Cancelo, Ranocchia, Santon, Miranda, Dalbert, D’Ambrosio, Skriniar, Nagatomo.
Midfielders: Gagliardini, Joao Mario, Vecino, Borja Valero.
Forwards: Icardi, Karamoh, Eder, Perisic, Candreva, Pinamonti.
Match Thread Rules
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