For many sides across Europe, the three-month hiatus as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was a more than welcome break. Inter were certainly one of those outfits.
Despite holding the outright lead in the race for the Scudetto as recent as matchday 23, back-to-back defeats at title rivals Lazio and Juventus threatened an anti-climatic end to what’s been a roller coaster of a debut campaign at the helm for Antonio Conte.
And in all honesty, it wasn’t at all surprising to see the Nerazzurri slump into Scudetto obscurity by mid-March.
Following a first half of the season which saw Conte’s direct, vertical and aggressive 3-5-2 blow most sides away, the turn of 2020 coincided with a slump in form. The Italian boss’ patterns started to get a little predictable, deeper blocks began to blunt them in attack, while the intensity out of possession which laid the foundations for their early success started to wane, as they picked up the unwanted habit of surrendering leads.
In three consecutive January fixtures, Inter were pegged back by Atalanta, Lecce and Cagliari after taking the lead, being forced to settle for 1-1 draws.
Overall, Conte had become overreliant on the brilliant Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez tandem to win games on their own.
Nevertheless, as they now sit nine points adrift of Juve at the Serie A summit – albeit with a game in-hand – you just can’t write Conte and this Inter side off.
From dealing with the injuries of dynamic midfield duo Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi at the end of 2019, to the majestic comeback victory in February’s Derby della Madonnina, the Nerazzurri have already shown this term they’re more than capable of overcoming adversity.
There’s been too much talk of a two-horse title race in the build-up to Serie A’s return next week. Providing Inter beat a struggling Sampdoria side on June 21, the difference will be a measly six points.
And with Juve continuing to prove they’re a mere shadow of their imperious best in their return to action on Friday night, that difference is easily surmountable. Lazio, meanwhile, and the momentum they gathered amid a 21-game unbeaten run in the league, will have to recharge and regroup for their title bid.
This scenario is built for Conte and his notorious grinta to thrive. The harder the situation, the better he does. It’s time for ‘The Godfather’ to galvanise a unit which have already been written off by so many.
As James Horncastle noted in a recent article for The Athletic, Conte-coached Juventus sides finished seasons remarkably strong, dropping only 15 of 117 points in the final 13 games of three history-making campaigns in Turin, while he also proved at Chelsea his fetish for win-streaks. Once a Conte-led outfit get going, they’re bloody tough to slow down.
Before they make their Serie A return, however, Inter make the trip to Naples to take on a resolute Napoli side in the second leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final.
Fabian Ruiz’s curling effort amid Inter’s demise before the break mean the Nerazzurri have it all to do at the San Paolo. But a statement victory and progression through to the final against the Bianconeri could set the precedent for a late season Scudetto surge.
Inter were hugely impressive in their most recent trip to Naples as a tactically naive Gattuso played right into Conte’s hands; committing way to many bodies forward in attack which allowed the ‘Lula’ partnership to ruthlessly expose them in transition. It was an emphatic 3-1 victory and the sort of performance that if it was to come on Saturday night, would likely lead to the term ‘three-horse race’ being used a little more frequently in regards to the Scudetto race.
The key for Conte is reinstalling the mental toughness and aforementioned grinta which was on display during their pomp this term, while the potential return of a fully fit Sensi is a serious boost. While the likes of Matias Vecino and Roberto Gagliardini performed admirably in functional roles amid the Sassuolo loanee’s absence, they just don’t provide the X factor talent of the Italian.
Sensi’s knack of gaining positional superiority between the lines was mightily impressive early on this season, as Inter were able to play vertically at will due to the midfielder’s tremendous ability to recognise and exploit space. His low centre of gravity also means he’s incredibly tough to dispossess and during his spellbinding start to the season, he developed a great understanding with the front two.
Sensi’s struggles for form following his initial return was a major factor in Inter’s 2020 demise after they’d coped so well in his absence.
Nevertheless, alongside Sensi, Conte will also be trying to get the best out of Christian Eriksen for the remainder of the campaign, while Alexis Sanchez’s return from injury also provides depth in attacking areas and more scope for the Inter boss to be a little more tactically flexible.
If Inter are to mount a serious title charge, though, the form of the magnificent strike duo will be paramount. Lukaku and Lautaro have combined for 39 goals in all competitions this season, but as their potency started to fade just before the break, the effect this had on Inter as a unit was laid bare for all to see.
But following a three-month hiatus, you’d expect Lula to return refreshed and recharged for potentially one ‘last dance’ – would recommend, by the way – amid El Toro’s persistent links with a switch to Barcelona.
One thing’s for sure though, they undoubtedly have the right man pulling the strings for a late season resurgence. It’s Antonio Conte’s time to shine.
With potentially just a six point deficit to make up in 12 games, you can’t rule this Inter side out of the Scudetto race just yet.