The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza saw her capacity crowd chant the Champions League anthem out with such ferocity, it reverberated around the city. This was arguably one of Inter’s greatest weapons, the venue one the most impressive in Europe, and they needed that strength on Tuesday night.
Barcelona may have not had Lionel Messi in the starting line-up, but the Milanese were aware of the significant threat they faced. They would be playing with their backs to the wall the entire night and one man in particular would stand out.
Milan Skriniar was about to have a game which would once again exhibit all the poise, calm, strength and talent he possesses. Off the pitch, the 23-year-old is humble and his mannerisms often mask his obsession to improve, his need to master his craft. He spoke in 2017 of how he was at Inter to learn, to listen to Luciano Spalletti and to take advice off his peers. In the same interview he said that he was a big fan of Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, a man who at the same time on Tuesday was having a blistering game against PSG.
Skriniar, who openly admits he wasn’t confident at Sampdoria and made mistakes, seemed so dominant against Barcelona, it is a surprise he has such a placid demeanour, as this doesn’t fit his on-pitch persona.
For the game on Tuesday night, Spalletti picked a physical and yet attacking team for the visit of the Catalans. Skriniar, Ivan Perisic, Kwadwo Asamoah and Radja Nainggolan were just a few who exhibited a plethora of qualities that the Nerazzurri would need to compete against such talented opposition.
From the first minute the Milanese came out of the blocks quickly and pressed high and hard, but no sooner had they shown their hand and they blinked. Misplaced passing allowed Barcelona to force Samir Handanovic into an early save and from there on in, Inter retreated deep and defended, hoping to counter when possible.
Barcelona were consistently attacking throughout a majority of the game and Handanovic was certainly tested on numerous occasions. Spalletti’s men saw little of the ball for long periods and in doing so they failed to take the pace out of the game. The longer the match went on, the more it became like the Alamo and Inter’s defence and Handanovic had to dig deep.
Skriniar with 30 minutes to go had kept Luis Suarez quiet by winning many of their individual battles. Nainggolan was visibly unfit and offered little, so Borja Valero did well when entering the fray, keeping hold of the ball. Handanovic and especially Skriniar were superb, but neither could do anything about Malcom’s goal.
Skriniar’s ability has been evident since his arrival in 2016. Playing alongside Joao Miranda certainly helped him, as in his first season he became less of a reactive defender and more of a proactive one. These attributes were shown against Barcelona to a high level, as wasn’t simply blocking shots and diving in, but instead showed how he was one of the best one-on-one defenders in European football. His style is now to break up the play and distribute the ball quickly. He is a good footballer who wants the ball and is calm under pressure.
His partnership with Stefan de Vrij this season has seen him grow again. No longer leaning on the shoulder of the wily old fox that is Miranda, he is now the conductor at the back and the man taking responsibility. Against Barcelona, he showed he was a leader through his actions. Inter had many heroes against the Catalans, but it was the Slovakian who shone brighter than most.
Inter still have much to do in the group stages now that Tottenham Hotspur have their first win, but even so they dug deep and drew against a dominant Barcelona. They can be proud of their defence and Skriniar in particular. For a man of his age to have such an old head on him is unusual and his calmness means he has all as the intelligence of a veteran and yet all the athleticism of a youngster too. He isn’t perfect and he knows it, but he is hungry to improve and at 23 years of age alongside De Vrij (26) this could be one of the great centre-back pairings for years to come.