And we’re back. Following Inter’s first Champions League appearance for seven years last season, the Nerazzurri once again take to European club football’s biggest stage. Last season’s campaign ended agonisingly; knocked out of the group stage by margins as fine as they come. Typical.
But this wasn’t simply bad luck. There’s serious lessons that need to be learnt from last year, both from Inter’s own performances and those of our upcoming opponents. Here’s the five big ones.
Barca are stronger, but not unstoppable
This is the second year in a row that Inter face Lionel Messi and Co in their group. Luck clearly isn’t on Inter’s side. Except last year, Messi didn’t play in the 2-0 at Camp Nou or the following draw in Milan. This time, barring an escalation of his current injury problems, he’ll be in the side. A scary prospect indeed.
From a pessimistic but realistic perspective, another single point against Barca wouldn’t be a disastrous outcome. With Messi back, the arrival of Antoine Griezmann, and another one of those he’s-scoring-for-Barcelona-at-16-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life prospects named Ansu Fati, this is an uphill struggle to say the least.
But let’s indulge ourselves for a moment. Inter were by no means embarrassed by Barcelona last year. More importantly, Antonio Conte now has a squad filled with players who’ve been there and done that when it comes to facing Barca. Throw in Diego Godin’s vast experience against the Catalan giants and star-studded striking options in Lukaku and Sanchez, and the pessimism starts to fade.
Ruthlessness is the most important quality in these games. When Liverpool handed out one of Barca’s most humbling moments in European history in the semi-finals, it wasn’t because they dominated the ball. It’s because they picked their moments and took their chances with quick-thinking and no mercy. Inter, having seen less than 40% possession in both fixtures last year, should take some inspiration. Yes, Liverpool are a level above, but this team assembled by Conte are no whipping boys.
The lesson here for the Nerazzurri; prepare for a better Barcelona, but have faith in a better Inter.
Enough of the late show
Here’s three facts about Inter’s goals in the 2018/19 Champions League:
- Out of the six goals scored by Inter in the previous group stage, only one came in the first hour of a match.
- Half of them came in the last ten minutes, including both goals in the 2-1 turnaround against Tottenham.
- Inter did not score first in a SINGLE game.
Playing in the Champions League obviously comes with added pressure, which might entail some caution in the early stages of these games. And yes, everyone loves a dramatic comeback. For a team of Inter’s calibre, however, this is appalling reading. Conte surely knows this, and one would expect a faster start this time round. But it deserves saying again. No slow starts, no late shows, no excuses.
Go for the kill
Spurs beat Inter to second place in last year’s group by a single head-to-head away goal. It might be a touch pedantic to slate Inter for missing out by such narrow margins, but it brings us to a larger issue.
Inter need to be more brutal this time round. We know that Borussia Dortmund, who with all due respect to Slavia Prague are probably Inter’s primary competition for second place, have this attribute. In half of Dortmund’s group games last time round they won by a margin of two or more goals, including a 4-0 demolition of Atletico Madrid. Inter, on the other hand, didn’t achieve this feat once.
When on top in games, Inter have to get goals. Otherwise, a close-run group will again result in elimination. It’s that simple.
Give the underdog some respect…
One advantage Inter have in this year’s competition is seeding. The club were bumped up from fourth to third pot, resulting in the final group spot going to a side of a lower UEFA Club Coefficient. Slavia Prague were selected to fill this spot, sending the Czech champions’ delegation at the draw into fits of laughter. It’s an understandable reaction; if any group fits the overused ‘group of death’ cliche, it’s this one.
Don’t be fooled, however. Slavia Prague are coming off the back of one of their greatest seasons in recent history. League and cup double aside, they famously knocked out Sevilla in last year’s Europa League before losing to eventual winners Chelsea. And even Chelsea were pushed to their limits. Slavia have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain from this competition. It’s a deadly combination.
Slavia were one of the most exciting under-the-radar teams to watch in Europe last year. They feared no one and often scored for fun. Make no mistake, they are one of the hardest fourth seed teams in the competition. In particular, keep an eye out for the colossal Tomáš Souček; a goalscoring lynchpin in the Slavia midfield who is bound to disrupt Inter’s stride at some point. This isn’t going to be easy.
...but not too much respect
Last year, Inter blew their chances at finishing second in the group by drawing to PSV at home in the final game while Spurs snatched a late equaliser away at Barcelona. A similar bear trap awaits against Slavia Prague, who want nothing more than a nervy Inter side to take advantage of. If Slavia get a sniff of blood, they’ll pounce.
On the other hand, a sophisticated start from Inter will change the tune. If the likes of Lukaku and Stefano Sensi can impose themselves on the game for the duration, as they have so far in the league, Inter’s greater quality will start to show. It’s about bridging the gap between arrogance and humility. Wary that Slavia are good, but confident that Inter are better.
If Inter are serious about the Champions League, the aim must be to beat Slavia Prague twice. At the very least we have to win at the San Siro and take a point in Prague to have a good chance at reaching the round of 16. Anything less would take qualification out of our own hands, unless Dortmund (or even Barcelona) suffer similar setbacks. This first game is therefore, dare I say it, a must-win.