You could hardly blame Stefano Pioli for rolling his eyes at the question. Can Inter qualify for next season’s Champions League? Fielding that inquiry – or subtle variations upon it – has become as much a part of the manager’s daily routine as brushing his teeth in the morning.
The answer never really changes. Pioli is always focused on the next game, controlling what he can control. On Thursday, he cited an article published in that morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport to illustrate the futility of any other approach.
“You’re the ones who pointed this out to me,” he told reporters at his press conference. “Over the past 10 matches, we’ve been the best team in the league. Despite that, we have gained only a single point on the teams in the Champions League positions.”
Those numbers were accurate. In the three months since Frank De Boer’s sacking, Internazionale had won eight and drawn another one of their 10 league fixtures. Pioli missed the first game in that sequence - a 3-0 rout of Crotone overseen by the youth team coach, Stefano Vecchi – but could not have done a whole lot more in his time at the helm thereafter.
Inter had climbed seven places in the table, from 12th all the way up to fifth. Yet in real terms they were barely any closer to the top three than they had been at the outset. Where Pioli’s team had taken 25 points from 10 matches, Roma and Napoli had secured 24. The league leaders, Juventus, were effectively on the same pace, too, with 21 from nine games and one to make up at home to Crotone.
Defined by the national media as a “normaliser”, Pioli was perceived at the time of his appointment as a safe pair of hands – someone who knew Serie A well enough to integrate quickly and steady the ship. Inter had been taking water ever since Roberto Mancini walked out in mid-August, with his successor, De Boer, too naïve and too stubborn to thrive under challenging circumstances in an unfamiliar league.
Not everyone at Inter was immediately convinced that Pioli should replace him. There were those within the club’s new Suning ownership group who pushed the candidacy of Marcelino – fresh from a Europa League semi-final with Villarreal. Inter had invested more than €140m in new players over the summer and desired not safety but glamour and ambition.
That Pioli won out was a testament to Suning’s willingness to listen to their own staff, with the sporting director, Piero Ausilio, speaking decisively in support of the former Lazio manager. His neck was on the line with this appointment but the owners recognised the need to start showing their own faces more often as well. Steven Zhang, the son of the Suning president, Zhang Jindong, has been a regular attendee at training in the months since.
The impact of such actions is difficult to quantify. Less ambiguous is the work Pioli has done. The manager has spoken often about the importance of working on his players’ mindsets and getting their heads straight. However, he also took the simple step of reintegrating talented individuals that De Boer had cast aside too easily, players such as Marcelo Brozovic and Geoffrey Kondogbia.
And where the Dutchman stood accused of excessive tactical tinkering, Pioli settled quickly on a simple 4-2-3-1. Perhaps these indeed were the actions of a “normaliser” – but then perhaps that is precisely what Inter needed because the talent in this squad is extraordinary all on its own.
No team outside of the top three in Italy can come close to matching Inter’s depth. Following the January addition of Roberto Gagliardini from Atalanta, Pioli boasts quality alternatives at almost every position on the pitch.
At centre-back he can pick two from three out of Miranda, Jeison Murillo and Gary Medel. In central midfield, Gagliardini looks like a star in the making but Brozovic and Kondogbia have shone since the new manager’s arrival as well.
On the wings, Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic have each recaptured the form that made them stars of last summer’s European Championshio, with Éder a hard-grafting and selfless substitute. João Mário, meanwhile, has thrived in a central position behind the attack but can also be swapped out for Éver Banega when less aggression but more subtlety is required.
Only in goal and upfront do you find a glaring drop-off between Inter’s first- and second-choice options. And even that says more about the brilliance of Samir Handanovic and Mauro Icardi than anything else.
Performances have not always been sparkling. To watch Inter’s home match against Pescara on Saturday was to witness a microcosm of the Pioli era. His team was sloppy at times and fortunate not to fall behind when Handanovic spilled a Grigoris Kastanos shot into the path of Valerio Verre, who slotted the rebound home only to see the flag (rightly) raised for offside.
Inter were also resolute, however. Rather than allow that moment to unsettle them, they took the lead moments later – Danilo D’Ambrosio volleying home a Brozovic cross from a short corner. João Mário made it 2-0 shortly before half-time with another close-range effort to cap a slick three-way interchange between himself, Icardi and Perisic. Éder came off the bench late on to add a third. Once the lead had been established, the result was never in doubt.
In a sense that is no great achievement. Pescara are bottom of Serie A and yet to win a match all season. The one victory they do have was awarded to them after Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player.
Yet, one day later, Napoli drew 1-1 at home to 19th-placed Palermo. This after Roma had lost 3-2 away to Sampdoria – who had themselves begun the weekend in joint 14th. It is easy to take success over struggling teams for granted but that does not make it guaranteed.
Inter finished the weekend in fourth place – only three points off third place and five points off second. Only through remarkable consistency could such gains be achieved. They have now won seven league matches in a row and nine in all competitions – in both cases their best such runs since 2012.
Pioli has rendered them a more balanced team, less dependent on any individual. Ten of Inter’s 17 Serie A goals before his appointment belonged to Icardi. Only five of the 21 since have come from the same source. The Argentinian remains a marauding menace but he is sharing the burden and chipping in with more assists. Seven different players have scored for Inter in the last seven league games.
The next week will test the Nerazzurri to the fullest as they host Lazio in the Coppa Italia on Tuesday and travel to Turin for an appointment with Juventus on Sunday night. Inter beat the champions at San Siro last September, back when De Boer was still in charge, but no visiting team has earned so much as a point at J-Stadium in 16 months.
What is certain is that Juventus will not take them lightly. After the Bianconeri beat Sassuolo on Sunday, Gigi Buffon commented to Sky Sport: “Inter are in better shape than Real Madrid and Barcelona.” That might be overselling things just a touch – but Inter are Serie A’s form team right now and finally starting to see some rewards for their work.
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