Just before the first group stage clash against Slavia Prague, I wrote a piece outlining the five lessons Inter Milan had to learn from last year’s Champions League. I discussed the pitfalls Inter had to dodge falling into to avoid another situation whereby the side fail to pick up enough points in the final group game and narrowly end up reassigned to the Europa League. Déjà vu, anyone?
We’ve had time now to reflect not only on that Barcelona game, but on this year’s group stage campaign as a whole. It seems fitting then to revisit these five lessons and grade Inter for their efforts to learn from past mistakes.
Spoilers: There aren’t any 10/10s to be found here.
Barca are stronger, but not unstoppable - 4/10
The majority of the four marks come solely from the away tie against Barcelona. If not for a Suarez masterclass and for a slight inability to take chances in this fixture, maybe we’d be reading a different story. Regardless, Inter certainly didn’t embarrass themselves at the Camp Nou.
In Milan, the game changed entirely. A much-rotated Barcelona side, a packed San Siro and a fired-up Lautaro Martinez seemed to be a recipe for success; yet everything fell apart. It was a case of no Messi, no problem for Barca whose deployment of largely inexperienced youngsters added the element of surprise into a game where Inter needed to stick to the script, knowing they couldn’t rely on an upset in Dortmund. It’s a game that also exposed a lack of squad depth, a much-discussed issue for Conte. If Sensi and Barella were available, would Inter’s midfield have been exposed so much against such a young side?
But these are hypotheticals. The facts are that Inter had their chance against a Messi-less Barcelona and blew it. And for that, they paid the ultimate price.
Enough of the late show - 6/10
Inter immediately fell into this trap in the first fixture, salvaging a draw with Slavia in stoppage time. But from this point onwards, things seemed to get better. While Inter failed to score first in any Champions League game last season, they did it in every game but one this time around. Martinez in particular notched four goals in the first 25 minutes of games.
In the away leg in Prague, two late goals saved Inter the three points. Clearly these issues didn’t fully go away, especially against the weakest side in the group. Notably, the difficulty in this year’s campaign against the stronger sides was conceding in the second half, rather than scoring. Both of Barcelona’s winning goals came in the last ten minutes of games. Dortmund’s three-goal turnaround was achieved solely in the second half. Inter’s goalscoring, and the timing of these goals, clearly improved this season. But in doing so, the backline failed to hold firm until the end in crucial matchups.
Go for the kill - 5/10
Had Inter managed to get three points against Barcelona in the final match, Candreva’s late goal against Dortmund at the Meazza to seal a 2-0 win would have gone down as Inter’s most crucial in the group. It is this goal that would’ve seen Dortmund crash out on head-to-head goal difference.
Inter scored more goals in this campaign than last year, and winning by two goals against the main rivals for second was essential. But wastefulness killed the Nerazzurri this year. Chances were squandered again and again, especially in the away fixture against Barca. Things got better from last year, but not better enough.
Give the underdog some respect… - 3/10
Inter’s first game against Slavia Prague showed exactly what the Czech side were about. They frustrated Inter and made them pay.
If Inter had won this game, a draw against Barcelona would have been enough to go through. The dynamic of the game would have changed, in my view to suit Inter. By the time Ansu Fati scored his late winner, Inter surely would have tightened up by this point had they only needed a point.
Again, it’s all hypothetical. But the approach in the first match of the campaign made Inter’s group stage an uphill struggle right from the start. It brought up the same old questions about Conte’s Champions League record, and it mirrored the final game of last year’s group against PSV. The effect of this draw on Inter’s fortunes cannot be underestimated.
...but not too much respect - 5/10
In fairness to Inter, they learnt their lessons from this first game. While it wasn’t exactly reassuring to see Inter have to see off Slavia so late in the second leg, it showed progress from having to scrape a draw. Scoring early in this game was a big improvement as well, and it is in this game that the Lautaro-Lukaku partnership perhaps shone at its brightest. I still smile to myself when I think of that outside-of-the-foot through pass and Lautaro’s volley.
But this win had to be a given. No ifs, no buts. I cannot heap praise on this Inter side for the away win at Slavia when the home fixture was such a different story. Inter simply didn’t learn their lesson here quick enough. And in a six-game contest, time is of the essence.
Life goes on for Inter Milan. Our league position remains strong, injured players will start returning to the squad, and the January transfer window gives a second chance to get the squad depth sorted. Inter failed this class, but let’s hope they can pass their final examination in the league come May.