For Inter, the Champions League this season held a special importance. Of course, they have history in the competition and tales of victories against Real Madrid and Benfica in 1964 and 1965 resonate alongside memories of beating Munich in 2010. This season, however, their absence from the tournament had been too long and that is why the excitement was so high. Last night they stood on the verge of qualification from the group stages for the first time since 2011. Then the celebrations were put on ice.
Inter had bounced back after the defeat to Atalanta with a 3-0 demolition of Frosinone. The victory was made more important, as Luciano Spalletti’s rotation paid dividends. In this display, both Lautaro Martinez and Keita Balde, found themselves on the score sheet. This allowed players such as Mauro Icardi, Matias Vecino and Ivan Perisic to be rested. Upon arrival in London, Inter found a scene reminiscent of Milan some years ago, rain and a poor pitch.
There was no surprise, perhaps, that in the early stages that Inter had to weather the storm. It seems to be par for the course for the Milanese in the Champions League this term: the opposition attack and the Nerazzurri react. There was little possession for Spalletti’s men in the Spurs half and, once again, they failed to keep hold of the ball and in turn could not dictate the pace of the game. The Inter coach has made it clear before that, in these situations against high pressing teams, they need to take the sting out of the match by creating longer spells of possession.
Radja Nainggolan was certainly the biggest culprit for this in the first half, as he struggled to get into the game. This created a gap between Vecino, Marcelo Brozovic and Icardi and forced Inter to play the ball long, down the wings in desperate hope they would find their target. Even when the away side did manage to maintain a good period off possession, Nainggolan misplaced passes that invited pressure when it was not necessary. He alone was not guilty of inviting the Spurs onslaught, but the midfield was certainly key in making Inter look like a disconnected team. The question had to be raised about Nainggolan’s fitness and soon this was addressed. On 43 minutes by the Beneamata Coach took the Belgian off and replaced him with Borja Valero.
The introduction of the Spaniard did have its advantages. While Valero certainly could not last 90 minutes, his stamina certainly proved good enough for 45 minutes in this game. His ability to keep possession should have been key, as his calmness on the ball could take pressure of Vecino and allow Brozovic to be freed up in the final third. The 33-year-old’s influence was immediate and his tricky play started to bring Icardi into more dangerous positions. Soon, the Milanese were able to put together some fine flowing moves and Brozovic and Vecino were more involved offensively and defensively, but it wasn’t enough.
Despite Valero improving the Spalletti’s men, Inter still looked out thought and out fought in the middle of the pitch, and the introduction of Cristian Eriksen unlocked them further, especially when he got on the score sheet. Even when the Nerazzurri rallied, Brozovic and Vecino seemed ineffective and there was little supply for Icardi, while the wide men were also isolated and forced to try to create individual moments. Perhaps the best way to assess Inter’s performance, was to look at the amount of chances Icardi managed on that rainy night.
Even if Inter can progress from the group, it will be an area that Spalletti needs to address, as without Nainggolan, the Milanese have no plan B. There is still much to be positive about, however. Valero showed he still has a large part to play in this season and this midfield is easily good enough to deal with most teams in Serie A. The issue comes in games where teams with high tempo and high-speed pressure Inter or they take on superior opposition. For the Nerazzurri these are not monumental issues, these are simply one of the many that Spalletti will looking at to help get his team some marginal games and take a step to the next level. Now the focus turns to Rome.