Earlier this week, our own David McFarland highlighted what to look out for in terms of the Scudetto, qualification and relegation as Serie A gets back underway in its final stretch.
Inter, of course, are still hopeful of a late push for their first Serie A title in a decade. In contrast, it would take a fairly disastrous climax to the season for the Nerazzurri to miss out on a Champions League spot.
Look a little deeper, however, and you’ll find many more questions yet to be answered for Inter. Here’s a few of the big ones to watch out for ahead of the restart.
What is Lautaro worth?
This has been the big speculative story during the coronavirus-enforced break. With Barcelona’s interest seemingly concrete, the eyes of the world will be firmly fixed on Lautaro Martinez in what could well be his swansong at San Siro.
But here’s where it gets complicated. With a reported €111 million release clause set to expire after the first week of July and the Catalan club apparently unwilling to meet this figure, the ball lies in Inter’s court to decide whether a discount or even an exchange of multiple Barca players is acceptable to them.
Martinez’s performance against Napoli in the Coppa Italia is hopefully not a sign of things to come in the remaining fixtures. If lacklustre displays continue, Barcelona could become more and more adamant on a lower fee, whilst Inter may be more willing to compromise should the player seem to be going through the motions.
But don’t expect this to happen. We all know what Lautaro is capable of and we also know that Barcelona are infatuated with him for good reason. Whether he hits the ground running against Sampdoria or takes a bit more time to get into the rhythm, anticipate the Argentine to show his qualities once again; perhaps enough to justify meeting his release clause.
Does Sanchez have a future in Milan?
Alexis Sanchez’s decline has been staggering. Only a couple of seasons ago Sanchez was one of the Premier League’s most feared marksmen, earning himself a move to Manchester United along with an estimated £350,000-a-week deal. Since then, he’s only scored four league goals.
The arrival of Sanchez on loan was always going to be a gamble for Conte. There’s undoubtedly a very talented player in there, but exorcising his Manchester demons was always going to be an uphill struggle for an unsettled player in his early thirties.
We’ve seen some signs of promise; perhaps one of the few positives to come from Inter’s aggregate defeat to Napoli last weekend was Sanchez’s performance when he replaced Lautaro Martinez, including a smart backheel that Christian Eriksen nearly converted into the winner.
With a question mark hovering over Martinez’s Inter future and Sanchez desperate to prove his worth, keep an eye on how he performs when given the chance to impress.
What happens to the midfield three?
Antonio Conte has vocally expressed his concerns over Inter’s lack of depth this season, especially when the side has been juggling midweek European trips with big domestic fixtures. Christian Eriksen was brought in over January partly as a first-team star but also to give Conte more freedom for rotation. For example, Stefano Sensi’s absence from the upcoming Sampdoria game through a thigh injury would no longer leave Inter relying on Matias Vecino or Borja Valero, two midfielders clearly viewed as squad players by Conte, to plug the gaps. For this game, however, Brozovic now is also out, so expect Valero to drop in. Barella, Brozovic and Eriksen do seem the likeliest trio to play when Sensi is the only absentee, however, as was the case against Napoli.
So what happens when everyone is fit? Aside from occasional experimentation midway through games before the league stopped with Eriksen supporting a lone striker, Conte’s system is rigid and isn’t likely to change any time soon. If Lukaku and Lautaro both start, one of Inter’s regular midfielders cannot.
There has been some speculation over whether Inter will activate their permanent signing option for Sensi. Nearer the start of the season, this wouldn’t have been a question at all as Sensi provided three goals and four assists in his first six league games with the Nerazzurri. Yet injuries have limited the midfielder to only six more appearances and, with another injury ruling him out of at least the first fixture back, doubt has been cast over whether Inter will actually want to sign an injury-prone player permanently.
It still seems likely, however, that Inter will take up their option with Sassuolo and extend Sensi’s stay at the Meazza. Sassuolo in particular expect that this will be the case. But with Inter also reportedly in pole position to sign another young deep-lying playmaker in Sandro Tonali from Brescia, watch out for how Inter’s starting midfield takes shape over the remaining 13 games.
How many defenders are needed?
On the surface of things, this might seem like a strange question. Inter have only conceded 24 goals so far this season; less than a goal a game and the same amount as league leaders Juventus. In fact it is Inter’s attacking prowess that has often let them down this season, having scored less than any team in the top five and with no one except Lukaku and Martinez contributing more than three goals.
But Conte’s system relies heavily on its centre backs and wing backs for transition. The defence is expected to play out from the back no matter what whilst the wing backs bear the load of covering extensive distances and supplying pinpoint crosses.
Some of these positions seem fairly set. Stefan De Vrij has proven this season that he belongs to the upper echelons of European defenders, whilst Milan Skriniar continues to impress despite his best years surely still ahead of him having only just turned 25.
On the other hand, the last spot in the back three has changed hands over the course of the campaign. Conte once remarked that Diego Godin was the only player in the squad he could rely on for title-winning experience, yet rumours persist that Godin could leave Inter after only one season. Alessandro Bastoni seems to now be the favoured choice for the third spot, and is the only left-footed centre back at Conte’s disposal, yet Inter should be careful not to pile the pressure on the 21-year-old by leaving him without adequate cover.
Marash Kumbulla looks to be the likeliest first defensive signing this summer, but if he joins as a replacement for Godin then Conte may still look to add a left-sided defender. With Inter looking more likely to miss out on the Scudetto than reclaim it, it’s possible that Ranocchia and D’Ambrosio won’t be seen as providing enough depth for a squad fighting an uphill battle in both the Champions League and Serie A, especially as Bastoni would remain the only naturally left-footed option.
Wing back is another position full of questions to be answered. Valentino Lazaro’s loan at Newcastle has been extended to the end of the season, so he remains out of the picture. Ashley Young and Victor Moses both arrived in January, but Conte most likely sees both as short-term options rather than first-team stalwarts for next season. Young is, ironically, nearly 35 years old, while Moses is only on loan from Chelsea. Cristiano Biraghi showed glimpses of quality against Napoli when he came on, the likes of which we haven’t seen enough of so far this season. Candreva has had his moments this season but surely isn’t Conte’s preferred right wing back for the future, and Kwando Asamoah looks increasingly likely to leave this summer.
The stage is therefore set for someone to prove their doubters wrong and step up in the wing back role; if not, Conte’s case for much more investment in squad depth is further strengthened, although the pandemic may have limited Inter’s summer spending power.
Keep your eyes peeled through this cramped run of fixtures. Scudetto or not, there’s plenty to watch out for in the Inter camp.