The headline on Monday morning across all papers in the peninsula were about how Juventus were back to their best following their sixth successive League win – this one the most impressive of the lot against bitter rivals Fiorentina. Inter Coach Roberto Mancini will have had a wry smile to himself upon reading it.
The results from the weekend meant that his Inter side had quietly claimed the winter title a round earlier than expected with a four-point cushion over the chasing pack. This is the first time since the treble winning 2009-10 season under Jose Mourinho that the Nerazzurri will go into the New Year top of the Serie A table.
Victory at Stadio Friuli was one of the team’s more impressive performances of the season, but they still allowed a few too many chances to the hosts in the first-half. Once more it was the efficiency that saw the team through as twice Mauro Icardi and Stevan Jovetic pounced on defensive errors by Maurizio Domizzi to give the Serpenti a two-goal lead going into the break.
The second half saw a characteristic Mancini performance as Inter effectively smothered out any chances of a fightback with the defensive partnership of Joao Miranda and Jeison Murillo keeping shots at Samir Handanovic’s goal to a minimum. Icardi capitalised on another error, before substitute Marcelo Brozovic rounded off the rout late on.
It was the first time this season that both Jovetic and Icardi were on the scoresheet in the same game, and the Argentine will have been particularly pleased with his double seeing as it came on the back of being dropped against Genoa. It was also Inter’s 11th clean-sheet of the season, a record in top five European leagues. All in all a very satisfying evening out.
However, despite the result, Mancini was reluctant to think about competing for the title. He again reiterated that the team’s main objective for this season was to qualify for the Champions League. This could very well be mind games and a way of keeping his squad grounded, given their points tally at this stage of the season is much higher than many would’ve predicted.
When the Nerazzurri were at or around the top of the table in November, critics repeatedly wrote them off as the team seemed to lack style and wasn’t imposing itself on opposition. At the time, Inter had scored just 11 times in 11 games and the win over Roma was seen as somewhat of a lucky result earned thanks to Handanovic’s heroics than a coherent game-plan.
Five weeks later Inter have now found the net a further 11 times and moved up to being the fourth most prolific team in the League. But, it isn’t just the goals that have now started flowing, the team is looking more and more at ease going forward. This was pretty evident against Genoa last week, and then again at Udinese too where after five minutes Ivan Perisic carved out a fantastic opportunity for Jovetic to open the scoring.
We have talked about here previously how this Inter side is far from being a finished product, but the last few weeks have shown that they are now inching closer to a state where they are equally comfortable attacking they are as defending. The increasing use of the 4-2-3-1 formation by Mancini, also shows his growing faith in the ability of the players to successfully execute and counter transitions.
Some have written about Inter’s lack of depth as compared to the likes of Napoli and Juventus, but given that Mancini has successfully fielded 16 different starting XIs in 16 games whilst using almost his entire squad goes to show that such arguments might in fact be baseless. With the transfer window coming up, it gives the Nerazzurri a chance to further bolster their ranks and potentially get rid of the lesser used players.
One word of caution for fans though, the last time Inter were four points clear at the Christmas break was back in 2001-02. Juventus at the time trailed them by six points going into the New Year. Not many will need be reminded of the ill-fated end to that campaign. Will history repeat itself or will Mancini write a new chapter in Inter’s history?