Forget Mauro Icardi and forget Ciro Immobile, it was the weather that posed the main threat in the tie between Lazio and Inter at the Stadio Olimpico. Strong winds, thunderstorms and hailstones punished the Eternal City, making the backdrop one of biblical proportions. So much so in fact, that it had threatened to see the game cancelled.
The epic-build up however, was not enough to raise eyebrows amongst Inter’s travelling support. Instead this honour went to misfit and want-away Portuguese attacking midfielder Joao Mario, who found himself unexpectedly starting, as Luciano Spalletti struggled to fill the trequartista void he has found himself with recently.
Inter have struggled to find a replacement for Radja Nainggolan, who was unfortunately injured in the Derby Della Madonnina. Borja Valero had been found wanting in that very game after coming on as a substitute and then found himself even more exposed against Barcelona at Camp Nou in an attacking position.
It is perhaps somewhat astonishing that other alternatives had not been used in Spain but this was rectified against Lazio, as Joao Mario lined up. He had not endeared himself to the fans, after making it clear that he disliked Italian football, but following his tepid spell at West Ham, he found himself back at Inter looking for redemption.
The Nerazzurri entered the game with the best defensive record in the division and yet also left out ex-Lazio defender Stefan de Vrij. He had given away a penalty (when he was part of the Aquile set-up) in the titanic showdown that decided the Champions League places in May. Joao Miranda would start instead, and it was also notable that Keita Balde Diao and Antonio Candreva (all ex-Lazio) didn’t start.
The stage was set for Inter to continue the good luck they have had in the Stadio Olimpico over the past two seasons, but they needed to connect with Icardi and that responsibility was partly down to Joao Mario.
Marcelo Brozovic and Matias Vecino have become stalwarts of Inter’s midfield and both exhibited accelerated progression over the last season. This was true again in Rome, but interestingly Joao Mario also looked effective. This was not however, in the typical Number 10 role. Instead, he drifted often to the left and in doing so allowed Ivan Perisic inside and for Brozovic to push forward. At times, Inter were playing a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. The Portuguese midfielder hadn’t set the world on fire, but his movement was excellent and offered up a new solution.
Even before Spalletti and possibly since Roberto Mancini’s second stint at the club, Inter have been transfixed on a creative player who can unlock Icardi. Take Ever Banega as the most recent case in point. Considering none of these options have worked out, perhaps it isn’t necessary? There has even been a clamour for Lautaro Martinez to play there, despite the fact that at Racing Club he was the archetypal Number 9, so it is an obsession to supply Icardi from a role that arguably doesn’t exist anymore. Yes, players can fit in behind the striker, but the pressure on them to be this roaming creator doesn’t fit. Even Mesut Ozil can’t do this at Arsenal and is rediscovering himself.
The usual suspects, Icardi and Brozovic, stole the show with three stereotypical goals that they are now accustomed to scoring. Joao Mario was perhaps not a huge influencer, but it showed that Spalletti had a viable Plan B. Perhaps in Radja Nainggolan’s absence he can move to a 4-3-3, perhaps this will help Valero if he has to feature? Perhaps this would allow the Coach to even explore a 4-2-2-2 with Icardi and Martinez leading the line in front of two wide men and two deep-lying midfielders? The point is that Inter are adapting and perhaps what the game against Lazio showed was that there doesn’t need to be an obsession with a creative man behind their Argentine hitman.
There is no doubt that the night belonged to Mauro Icardi and it is hard not to salute him for his predatory ability. The interesting learning curve for Spalletti and his men is that they didn’t need a trequartista to manufacture their hitman’s performance. The 4-3-3 worked well and a player in Joao Mario may not be the future of Inter, but it proved a talented outcast in a deeper position only adds to the Brozovic/Vecino combination. Even Valero played better deeper when he came on.
Inter were superlative and certainly not under the weather. Even Joao Mario proved that every cloud has a silver lining.