Antonio Conte is a demanding kind of guy. Even after a three-star Michelin meal, you get the feeling, he would complain if one of the waiter’s ties was a little askew. So, despite his team sitting top of Serie A, it will have caused him major discomfort to go tumbling out of the Champions League. On a night when the Nerazzurri had to be perfect, they were far from it.
It was always likely to be a curious evening at San Siro against Barcelona B who were playing with no pressure at all. Inter, for their part, did not lack for motivation but that sometimes brought an anxiety which saw them spurn some chances they could have taken. In the end, desire and determination were no match for class, quality and one of the game’s most exciting young talents in the shape of Ansu Fati.
In Italy, perhaps, a team with nothing to play for would gift you a result, but at Europe’s top table the attitude is a little different and even an apparent second string can cause you a lot of pain. Barca were able - for much of the match - to hold their opponents at bay like Anthony Joshua dancing around Andy Ruiz Jr. The knockout blow, when it came, felt both painful and merciful in equal measure.
It is only fair to note the absences which punched holes in the line-up their coach would have wished to select - particularly in midfield. Nicolò Barella and Stefano Sensi could have been key contributors on a night where everyone needed to bring their A game if they hoped to progress. Instead, the trundling trams heading back into Milan were left full of fans wondering what might have been.
But this qualification failure was not truly about losing to one of the world’s elite in the final round of matches. Inter compromised their chances earlier when they slipped up at home to Slavia Prague and surrendered leads away to both Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. A lack of savvy and experience cost them dearly and put them into a win-at-all-costs closing fixture that might well have been avoided.
The clash was not without its bright spots - in particular Lautaro Martinez - but it lacked the clinical element Conte would love to have seen. Romelu Lukaku struck once - with a deflection - but he had other chances which might have given the home side the win they craved. He was not alone in failing to take his opportunities, as Norberto Neto enjoyed his time back in Italy immensely with some good saves. The Champions League demands greater sharpness and a cooler head than most domestic encounters.
These lessons will all assuredly be hammered home by a boss who is about as relentless as a pneumatic drill. He will no doubt try to use this defeat and dropping down into the Europa League as motivation for his troops to push themselves harder and perform better in the weeks to come. If it pays off, it might yet deliver a Scudetto, and that would surely ease the pain for most supporters. For their coach, however, it will no doubt forever feel like a bum note in the symphony he is currently trying to compose.