Inter travel to the cauldron that is the San Paolo to face Napoli in one of the biggest games in the season so far. If the Nerazzurri are serious about making a title challenge, then they need to win in Naples. If the Partenopei want to get a jump on Juventus, then they must sweep the Milanese to one side.
Napoli may have lost against Manchester City in the Champions League, but there was no shame in it. Arguably two of the most entertaining teams in Europe went head-to-head and whilst Maurizio Sarri’s men did switch off for 30 minutes, had the Dries Mertens penalty gone in, then the whole game could have been different. In the end they were given much acclaim, especially by Pep Guardiola, but ironically it was the Italian team that bathed in glorious failure for once and not the English.
Perhaps they could also not be blamed, as it Sarri had one eye on the game with Inter on the weekend. This looks justified as, after all, the Scudetto is Napoli’s number one ambition, the Champions League is simply a side issue. Juventus, on the other hand, have this burning desire for the European crown and in recent seasons The Old Lady has been able to secure Serie A in second gear before concentrating on their Holy Grail.
Not this year, as Napoli have won eight out of eight and smell blood after seeing their rivals lose at Lazio. The game against Inter is a test for them to show they are serious about the Scudetto and handling two major tournaments.
The timing of the clash has been criticised, as while Sarri had three days to recover from a high-tempo trip to Manchester City, where Lorenzo Insigne picked up an injury, Inter spent all week training and focusing on this lone objective. It’s an undeniable advantage Luciano Spalletti won’t want to waste.
In the Dictionary of Inter, the phrase ‘false dawn’ comes just after ‘confusion’ and ‘crazy’ and when Spalletti took this post, many wondered if there would be any change. Could any Coach fix the broken road to success? The work would need a pneumatic drill, but the road was seemingly made from glass.
Despite this, Spalletti has managed to turn Inter in to a strong, resilient and mentally tough team. This is something that has been lacking arguably since Jose Mourinho left (although Roberto Mancini saw glimpses of it). Now, this outfit resembles the Giovanni Trapattoni side of the early 1990s, solid at the back and relying on the work of two or three individuals to get the goals, a collective making the best use of its assets, at least for now. The true test of Inter’s mettle tends to be after a defeat.
With seven victories and a draw against Bologna, the season has gone well. Fiorentina, Roma and Bologna have all been despatched, but they have not played particularly well. Does this even matter? Perhaps not, as they have Mauro Icardi whose nine goals came from only 20 shots (17 of those on target) an 85% conversion rate.
They are also coping with the lack of a true trequartista, as Marcelo Brozovic and Joao Mario are out, but even when fully fit weren’t exactly perfect. Inter are showing strength in depth and overcoming problems on the pitch tactically and with flexible personnel. They are looking like they may just be able to compete for this Scudetto, but getting past Napoli is a huge test for them to show how far they have come.
The San Paolo will be a cauldron of noise and bellowing smoke from the flares as this nostalgic fixture will have people talking of the title races involving Diego Maradona and Lothar Matthaus. In some ways back in the late 80s and early 90s, neither Inter nor Napoli were perfect, but they used their assets well and fought hard to the end, proving their ambition. Now it is time for Spalletti and Sarri to do the same.