Inter hosted AS Roma today in a match with massive significance for the home side. A win meant they would move to three points of 3rd placed Napoli, while a loss meant they would end the round behind Lazio and Atalanta with Milan only a point back. There was a 0% chance Roma would roll over for them though, and Radja Nainggolan pretty much single-handedly won his team the game.
Surprisingly enough Stefano Pioli stuck with his 3-4-2-1 formation but made a couple of personnel changes. With Miranda suspended the defense was comprised of Jeison Murillo, Gary Medel, and Danilo D’Ambrosio. Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic were the wingbacks while Roberto Gagliardini and Geoffrey Kondogbia stood in the center of midfield. Marcelo Brozovic returned from injury to partner Joao Mario in supporting Mauro Icardi who was also returning-though from suspension.
Inter tried to surprise Roma with a Gagliardini ball over the top to Icardi but Federico Fazio got back quick enough to prevent the captain from taking a shot. Two minutes later Perisic was booked for one of the lesser known laws of the game when he illegally flicked the ball up in the box and headed it back for the keeper to catch. Thankfully for him Roma were unable to capitalize from the indirect free kick they were awarded inside the box. The away side had control of the game though and Samir Handanovic had to be quick on his feet to stop a Mohamed Salah shot. Four minutes later Roma took the lead thanks to Nainggolan. He picked up the ball, cut inside, held off Gagliardini, and curled in a sweet shot from outside the box into the far corner.
Inter looked rattled in the opening stages of the match but not just because of the goal. Gagliardini and Kondogbia were being smacked around in midfield by Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi, and with the midfield bossed out of the game Inter were forced to trying long balls towards the attack. The problem there was that with Perisic playing as a wingback and two midfielders supporting Icardi, there was nobody to stretch Roma’s defenders. With everything so narrow it was simple for their back three to crowd out Icardi and make sure he couldn’t have any chances. It didn’t help that J. Mario and especially Brozovic were having bad evenings. Brozovic in particular seemed to be tactically lost, unsure as to where he was supposed to be positioned and what he was supposed to do. All this meant the opening 30 or so minutes were painful to watch for Inter fans.
The home side slowly began to grow into the match and seemed to have a real wakeup call in the 36th minute when Handanovic had to get low quickly to keep out an Edin Dzeko effort and D’Ambrosio also had to react fast to make sure Salah couldn’t tap home from the rebound. The stadium erupted in fury a few minutes later when the referee refused to point to the spot after Icardi went to the ground from Fazio’s challenge (though the captain seemed to lean into the tackle). Icardi and Brozovic had chances before the halftime whistle and by the time the teams went into the dressing rooms it looked like the Nerazzurri still had a chance.
Neither side made changes at the break and Inter had the first chances of the match through Candreva and Perisic. Pioli clearly wanted a goal and made a switch early, replacing a thoroughly ineffective Brozovic with Eder. Despite the positive change the next goal came through Roma and Nianggolan again. This time he charged down the pitch on the counter and ripped an absolute screamer from a ways away from the box to leave a sprawling Handanovic with no chance. At this point desperation began to sink into the home players and they began to rush things. Candreva and Icardi both wasted efforts before the home crowd appealed again for a penalty after Gagliardini fell to Kevin Strootman.
Stefano Pioli made his last two changes within 5 minutes of each other, removing Candreva and J. Mario for Gabriel Barbosa and Ever Banega. With 9 minutes remaining in the match Inter got some hope when Icardi slid the ball into the back of the net to half the deficit. Those hopes only lasted 4 minutes though. Dzeko fought off D’Ambrosio and fell to the challenge of Medel to win a penalty for the away side. Diego Perotti scored what might’ve been the calmest penalty I’ve ever seen to extend Roma’s lead yet again and guarantee the away side left the city of Milan with all three points.
There are a lot of things Inter fans could complain about. They could complain about the referee’s decisions, they could complain about the poor performances by Candreva, Brozovic, and others, and some might complain about Pioli’s choice of tactics. But even if the Inter players were in form there’s still a good chance we would’ve lost this game because Nainggolan was playing like he was from another planet. Watching him rip apart Inter made me ask myself a painful question, does Inter have a player who can beat another team’s midfield into submission like Nainggolan? That can score stunners out of nothing like Nainggolan? The answer to those questions is no. Inter has good players, maybe some great players, maybe some game-changing players but I don’t think the team has any world-class players that can win a match all by themselves regardless of what the other team does. Untill this team secures a player (or two) like that, Pioli’s Inter will be better than the Atalanta’s, Torino’s, Milan’s, and Lazio’s (usually) of the world but they won’t be better than Juventus, Napoli, or Roma. And if they aren’t better than the top three, we can’t honestly expect them to end the season above any of those teams.