Inter may have had a goal and man advantage, but if ever they needed goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to shine, it was in the first half at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris on Sunday. Following Eder’s dismissal, Sampdoria pressed hard for an equaliser. Three times they looked certain to bulge the net. Three times they were left stunned, as all watching were.
Earlier, Handanovic confirmed his reputation as a penalty expert to deny man-of-the-moment Maxi Lopez. Following Mauro Icardi’s early goal Lopez was determined to respond. The penalty was his moment, only for the Slovenia international to save low to his right.
Lopez was again denied, before an incredible save from Gianluca Sansone’s free-kick. Handanovic repeated the trick before the break, stopping Roberto Soriano. Inter would go on to win 4-0.
Monday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport handed out a rare honour – a rating of 9 for the goalkeeper. “An extraordinary performance,” the pink paper called it, “a mega-response to the critics.” President Erick Thohir reserved special praise for Handanovic, noting he saved Inter in the opening 45 minutes. It’s not the first time. After the 2-2 draw with Bologna, the Indonesian exclaimed: “Handanovic saved the point, as we risked defeat.”
Now in his second season at Appiano Gentile, the Slovenian is one of Serie A’s best shot-stoppers. Following five successful seasons at Udinese, he joined an Inter side in transition. They finished ninth with a negative goal difference last term, but more often than not Handanovic was their star performer. Sandanovic became his nickname – San meaning Saint. He certainly was their saviour.
He was tracked by European giants in Udine and continues to be. Arsenal showed interest. So too Barcelona, for which Handanovic said he was honoured. “Do I find the interest flattering? I think any player would be honoured, but in any case it’s in the past and I’m happy here.” Any potential move was scuppered by the recent transfer ban imposed on the Catalan club. In any event Handanovic was quick to dismiss the rumours. “I only see myself at Inter. Nowhere but Inter.”
While he excels in Milan, there’s another goalkeeper proving his worth to the Inter upper brass and coaching staff. On loan at Livorno, Francesco Bardi is enjoying a positive first season of top-flight football. A mistake here and there aside, it has been a good learning experience. Only four goalkeepers have made more saves than the Amaranto custodian.
He remains in contention for a World Cup spot, having been called to Coverciano for the fitness tests this week. The undisputed Azzurrini No 1, Bardi would fit perfectly with Inter’s desired youth policy, one led by their new owner. “Inter have one of the best academies in Italy, even in Europe,” Thohir said last November. “I want it to be one of the best in the world.” Agent Vincenzo Rispoli says Bardi is ready, but does not know what will happen next season.
A Gazzetta report last week suggested the Nerazzurri may cash in on Handanovic to aid summer funding. Manchester City are the latest club linked to the 29-year-old. His future could be caught up in the Thohir overhaul.
Handanovic may be prone to the occasional error, but overall the positive traits far outweigh the negatives – “You have to keep in mind that a goalkeeper usually makes two or three mistakes, this goes for all goalkeepers,” he said after the Samp game.
With Inter currently fifth, a return to Europe is on the cards. His greater experience compared to Bardi may prove vital on the European stage. Especially also as Inter will next term be targeting a return to the Champions League.
It’s all about timing. Bardi would be the perfect poster boy for the Thohir project, while Handanovic may command a high fee this summer. Would such a switch improve Inter in the short term, as they seek a top three finish? There’s no reason to suggest the Slovenian has reached his peak, or that Bardi’s long-term future lies away from his parent club.
It’s not a bad conundrum to have - stick with a proven and exceptional goalkeeper, or put stock in one of Italy’s brightest young talents. It may come down to how married Thohir is to the project.