The Parc des Princes will, for many Milanese, remind them of the epic UEFA Cup victory against Lazio. This tournament is heavily embedded in the blue and black heart of the club. Remember Casino Salzburg 1993-94? Remember Roma in 90-91? These are victories that fans still see as history, as part of the DNA of the club. When Antonio Conte picked a solid and capable squad ahead of the game against Ludogorets, it made sense. This was not going to be easy, and he was proved right.
It is fine to remember Paris, Javier Zanetti and Ronaldo’s goals being the lasting memories. It is fine remembering Nicola Berti in Vienna. It is even acceptable, for the older of us, to wax lyrical about the German influence in 1991. Remember Klinsmann? In all of these campaigns and that includes many of the Nerazzurri’s Champions League outings, there have been troublesome ties in mid-season. There is no doubt that the Milanese want to be a big club, no, not just a big club, one of Europe’s elite. It is for this reason that that the squad depth needed to be proven in Bulgaria.
Play the kids, it’s only Ludogorets. This is a negative mind set. It’s an arrogance that disrespects your opponents. Teams that win, respect themselves and the opposition. As we saw with Manchester United and Liverpool in the past decade, there is criticism when they don’t. Regularity, consistency and togetherness, this is the bedrock of teams that win. When Conte played a serious team, it was justified. What he found was a Ludogorets side who were no pushovers.
Admittedly, the Bulgarians did qualify with the fewest points of any teams from the group stage and while conceding the most goals, largely due to a 6-0 defeat at Espanyol. They had changed coach in January and their winter break only just concluded earlier this month, so scouting them was a difficult task for Inter.
So what did Antonio Conte learn? Firstly, his fringe players have character. The much-judged Daniele Padelli got his clean sheet. He had little to do, but it’s important anyway. This was a goalkeeper, superb at Torino, an Inter fan, a man happy to play understudy, whose mistakes are simply a factor of his lack of game time.
The bench was strong, Romelu Lukaku would be influential later on, the great Dane would start, this was the incredible, no, sensible mix that makes Inter look like a credible and elite team. More than that, Christian Eriksen played and scored, he is the new hope, the angel of San Siro that will give creativity to the Milanese, that edge in the final throes of the Scudetto challenge. They want to break him in slowly, and against the Bulgarians he looked like he was ready for more.
It is easy to ignore far-flung Europa League fixtures, but every game tells a story. It is simply ignorant to think that any match is boring, irrelevant or non-descript, despite how poor it is. This was a game that showed that Inter have depth, character and an ability to get the job done. This was a game everyone will forget, because it was terribly dull. The Nerazzurri learned that they had enough quality to win when they were tired and tested in Eastern Europe.
Will you forget this game? Yes? On that note, do you remember, Inter’s draw with Atalanta in 1991 in the UEFA Cup? I bet few of you remember Dennis Bergkamp’s hat-trick against Rapid Bucharest? Can you actually off the top of your head remember the goals? This simple point is, these games fall into insignificance, however, never disrespect the importance of taking the competition seriously. Squad depth, game time, positivity, there is so much to enjoy. The game was poor, the longevity of the confidence is extreme. Dig in and get the job done. It’s a positive environment.