Now that Juventus has their first dalliance in the Coppa Italia out of the way, we can put our attention back to the ongoing Scudetto race that is quite crowded these days.
Unless you’ve been living in a world without an internet connection lately — and, if you have, please invite to that safe space — then you know that Juventus has quite a big game this weekend. And for the second time in less than two weeks it will be against one of the teams that calls Milan home. After the win over league leaders AC Milan, it’s now time to play the team that is right behind Milan in the Serie A standings, Antonio Conte and Inter Milan.
Yes, the first Derby d’Italia is almost upon us.
And that means Andrea Pirlo and Juventus, entering the weekend in fourth place and seven points off the lead, have another massive January test less than two weeks after their last big January test. (This schedule is one hell of a thing to happen during this pandemic-shortened season, isn’t it? Good god, man.)
Because of that and the importance on this game, we decided to call in somebody who doesn’t actually get entertainment out of watching Inter drop points. Say hello to David McFarland, a contributor to SB Nation’s Inter blog Serpents of Madonnina and young fella who didn’t totally fill up the BWRAO Twitter mentions with his own laughter when Juve were going through October, November and December with results that frustrated most of us.
So, enough of me and this intro. Let’s ask David some questions about his favorite team.
BWRAO: Hello, David. Let’s dive right into this thing: Inter went from having a pretty solid winning streak to now dropping points in two straight games and not looking all that great in the process. What the heck has happened over the last week and a half?
SOM: It definitely hasn’t been a smooth start to 2021 for the Nerazzurri. Inter’s main concern is the six goals conceded so far, two in each game. While leaking goals to Roma isn’t surprising, allowing both Crotone and Sampdoria to get on the scoresheet is worrying. Still, it’s not crisis mode yet in Milan.The loss to Sampdoria could be put down as the type of fluke performance that every team has to deal with at one point or another. As for Roma, beating the Giallorossi in the Olimpico was always a hard task and overall Inter played fairly well. Ultra-defensive tactics after taking the lead were the Nerazzurri’s downfall, but at least there’s an identifiable problem. There’s still half the season to go, and though the prospect of needing another lengthy winning run to reach first is daunting, Inter can still control its own destiny regardless of this past week.
BWRAO: One of the calling cards of many Antonio Conte teams — especially ones during his time at Juventus — have been built on the strength of the defense. And, like you said, Inter’s defense has been leaking plenty of goals to begin 2021. Inter enters Sunday’s game allowing over a goal a game and just blew a 2-1 lead against Roma over the weekend. As much as folks harp on Juve’s lack of defensive stability this season, what’s up with Inter’s defense?
SOM: Inter’s back-three of Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan de Vrij, and Milan Skriniar is perhaps the best in the league. With those three starting, Inter conceded a mere two goals combined against Atalanta, Lazio, Sassuolo, and Napoli. The Nerazzurri didn’t have the luxury of a fully-fit center back trio for the opening month of the season and conceded 11 goals in the first 7 games, picking up just 11 points in the process. But with all three healthy, Inter went 7 wins out of 7 in the next period of games, this time letting in just 6 goals. Since the winter restart, though, they haven’t rediscovered top form and individual mistakes across the defensive unit are all too frequent. Furthermore, 36-year-old keeper Samir Handanovic has shown his age this season, and has the 12th-lowest save percentage in the league, despite the quality of the defense in front of him.
BWRAO: Conte has been very vocal about his squad’s depth because that’s what he’s always going to do whether it’s right or wrong. But how has our old buddy Beppe Marotta done in terms of building a team that is obviously now challenging for a title?
SOM: It’s been a … mixed bag. Agreeing to Conte’s Romelu Lukaku demands in the summer of 2019 has clearly been worth it, as well as the additions of Nicolo Barella, Achraf Hakimi, and Stefano Sensi over the past year and a half. But Marotta (and Conte to some extent) have some glaring misses. It was Beppe who signed Christian Eriksen from Tottenham for €20 million (plus €7 million in wages) on his own initiative, and, well, you all know how that’s turned out. That move continues to hamstring Inter thanks to the Dane’s wages and inability to find anyone willing to take them off Inter’s hands. Marotta also turned down a Mateo Politano-Leonardo Spinazzola swap, which is a massive regret. The left wingback role is still a weakness one year on. Conte is also due some blame for pushing for the signings of veterans Arturo Vidal and Aleksandar Kolarov, both of whom have proven to be liabilities despite their substantial experience.
BWRAO: Inter signed a player in Hakimi that was linked with Juve on and off over the summer transfer window. Does he look like one of the best signings of the season as his goal tally continues to go up and up and up?
SOM: Need I say more?
What a finish from Inter full back Achraf Hakimi pic.twitter.com/6V0ENhizWD— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 10, 2021
I will anyways. Hakimi has been worth every penny of the €40 million paid for him, and then some. Though he initially had a few mediocre matches as he transitioned to Serie A from the much less tactical Bundesliga, he’s been lights out in recent weeks. He’s gotten three goals and one assist in the last five, providing an alternate offensive threat from Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez. At just 22 years of age, I hope to see him in Nerazzurri for many years to come.
BWRAO: You asked me for my prediction in the other half of this Q&A for your site, so what’s your prediction?
SOM: I’ll go with a 3-3 draw. The substantial attacking firepower on both teams will be on display in an end-to-end affair. Neither side will be able to get a firm grip on the game and take control, so I expect a wild 90 minutes.