After an extremely difficult week for Italian football in which the nation has mourned the sudden passing of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori, the time has come for Serie A to return to action following the blanket postponement of last Sunday’s fixtures as an irreproachable mark of respect.
Before matchday 27 was tragically cut short Inter were scheduled to round off the weekend’s games by facing one of Astori’s former teams in the Derby della Madonnina, and as fate would have it their opponents at San Siro this Sunday are a club that the Italian came within an inch of joining in the summer of 2015 - only for a protracted dispute over image rights to block the move and pave the way for him to sign for Fiorentina instead.
On the one hand league leaders Napoli are the perfect opponents for a weekend on which Inter are celebrating their 110th birthday (an occasion that will be marked before kick-off by what the club have billed as ‘an unmissable spectacle on the pitch’, along with a ‘splendid choreography in the stands’ and the return of Inter Village outside the ground); if we have any kind of history to brag about on occasions like this then it is thanks to the unforgettable performances this team has produced down the years against the toughest opponents at San Siro.
On the other, Maurizio Sarri’s side would appear to fit the role of unceremonious guastafeste like a glove.
More than the astonishing rate of travel that Napoli have kept up throughout this season in Serie A (at the moment they’re on course to match Inter’s then record-breaking points tally of 97 from the 2006-07 campaign) it’s their away form that poses particular cause for concern heading into Sunday’s big match: 12 wins in 13 league games outside the Stadio San Paolo, with the only imperfect result arriving in the form of a goalless draw against Chievo in November. ‘When they pick up their suitcases they are never afraid’, wrote the Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday. Eek.
If the capolista’s supersonic rate of travel on the road isn’t enough to scare the bejesus out of Luciano Spalletti and co., though, then perhaps last Saturday’s unexpected reverse at the hands of Roma will do the trick.
Because if Napoli already knew before losing to the Giallorossi that this match would have a crucial bearing on the outcome of their Scudetto challenge then it has taken on even more importance now, as another slip would be akin to a waving of the white flag given Juventus’s chronic inability to drop points anywhere. It might well be win or bust for them here, and they know that better than anyone else.
Despite all of that, though, there are two reasons for us to be hopeful of getting a result on Sunday, both of which were addressed in an article that appeared in Wednesday’s Corriere dello Sport.
The first is Inter’s record against the big teams so far this season. For all the trouble we have had in winning games since the start of December we remain the only unbeaten team in matches against the rest of Serie A’s top seven this season (P7 W3 D4 L0), while our score of 13 points in 7 matches puts us joint-second with Juventus in the mini-league made up of just those sides (joint-second to Napoli, who’ve taken 16 points in 8 matches, admittedly).
Is ours a team that ‘senses danger’ and raises its concentration levels against the top sides, like Spalletti suggested in his press conference last week, or is there a more tactical explanation for Inter’s success in the big matches relating to the amount of space we are left to play in, like Joao Cancelo suggested a few days before that? Whichever is closer to the truth it gives us a decent chance of causing Napoli problems.
The second is Spalletti’s recent history against Sarri. Since returning to Italian football in January 2016 Luciano has faced his fellow Tuscan on four occasions and between those four occasions he has picked up two wins, one draw (October’s goalless stalemate at the San Paolo) and only one defeat, which makes him one of only two domestic coaches to have won more games than he’s lost against Sarri since he took over at Napoli (Max Allegri being the other, W3 D1 L1).
Spalletti’s decent track record against Sarri derives mostly from his ability to obtain the upper hand in the pair’s tactical battle, with his greatest triumph in that sense coming in Roma’s 3-1 win at the San Paolo back in October 2016, when he invented a sort of back three-and-a-half (note Alessandro Florenzi’s unorthodox position in the photo) to shut down Napoli’s normally irrepressible hub of creativity on the left-hand side of their team.
It’s a ploy he used again this season with Yuto Nagatomo occupying a similarly high position (albeit on the opposite side) when Inter were playing out from the back in the reverse fixture and one imagines it’s a strategy he may deploy again on Sunday.
The moral of the story, therefore, is that we have enough ammunition at our disposal to get something out of this match; be it our ‘blue blood’, as Gazzetta dello Sport spoke of during the week, or our canny head coach. So there’s room for optimism, despite the strength of the team we are up against.
Napoli are yet to lose away from home in the league this season, but as a wise man once said there’s a first time for everything - after all, special birthdays deserve special presents...
Date & Time: Sunday, March 11th, 2018; 8:45 PM CEST (2:45 PM on the U.S. East Coast)
Location: Stadio Giuseppe Meazza; Milan, Italy
TV/Streaming: In the US the game will be shown on both beIN Sports and Rai Italia (as well as fuboTV and beIN Sports Connect online), while UK residents will find it on BT Sport 1 HD (available online via BT Sport Live). Click here to find out where you can watch the match everywhere else in the world.
Inter’s Matchday Squad
Goalkeepers: Handanovic, Padelli, Berni
Defenders: Lisandro Lopez, Joao Cancelo, Ranocchia, Santon, Miranda, Dalbert, D’Ambrosio, Skriniar
Midfielders: Gagliardini, Rafinha, Vecino, Borja Valero, Brozovic
Forwards: Icardi, Karamoh, Eder, Perisic, Candreva
Unavailable: Pinamonti, Emmers
Match Thread Rules
There are only three rules: don’t be hateful, don’t disrespect anyone else’s opinion and enjoy the game!
Want to contribute? Sign up for an SB Nation account and join the conversation on Serpents of Madonnina. Whether it is match coverage and analysis, breaking news, mercato or you just want to be immersed in all things Inter, we have it right here.