“It will be Tottenham-Inter and not just [Gareth] Bale against Inter,” asserted Internazionale manager Andrea Stramaccioni ahead of his side’s last 16 Europa League tie tonight.
The Italian tactician was keen to stress that the Welshman will not be given special attention despite his recent form. “We do not need to fear anything,” seconded defender Juan Jesus in their joint pre-match press conference.
The debate surrounding how to deal with the 23-year-old has dominated the Italian press, particularly referencing his storied hattrick against the Serie A side in 2010. However, the team has dramatically changed in the last two years. Full-back Maicon, who simply could not handle the winger on the night, has since departed leaving only four of the eleven that started that particular outing against Spurs.
The Nerazzurri’s bold approach will ultimately figure a plan to halt Bale despite their claims, but resolving their own issues on and off the pitch are far more important that preoccupying their time with the opposition at the moment. Lacklustre performances against weaker opposition, severe injuries to key players and tensions rising in the dressing room have escalated in recent weeks with tempers flaring and with results taking a serious slide in the meantime.
Inter have won only three of their last ten games domestically, and picked up their first away victory since 3 November in a spirited comeback with Catania at the weekend. That famous previous win was at the hands of Juventus, when the confidently dispatched the Bianconeri and ended their 49-game unbeaten run in the league. Since then they have slowly begun to lose sight of the Champions League places.
Rubin Kazan piped the San Siro residents to top spot in Group H, as they stumbled through to the next round conceding nine goals in the process. In the last 32 they overpowered an unbalanced Cluj by 5-0 over the two legs with elegant ease, but they never truly provided a threat at any stage.
To put their recent downfall into context, Inter were 13 points ahead of city rivals AC Milan after ten league matches earlier this season and now find themselves one point behind the Rossoneri. Massimiliano Allegri’s men dominated the latest Derby della Madonnina, but Samir Handanovič spared a defeat with several heroic saves. The shift in momentum has been down to several underperforming individuals.
The defence was been a sticking point for several weeks, with the use of a back-three dividing opinion. Walter Samuel’s prolonged absence through injury has affected younger centre-backs Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus. In midfield, they lack a distinct creative spark since the sales of Wesley Sneijder and Philippe Coutinho. Leading assist provider in Europe and general driving force Fredy Guarin is not expected to start tonight, as the management has insisted they will not risk any players carrying injuries.
The main problem has been in the striking department. Diego Milito’s season ended when he was stretchered off in the first leg against the Romanians. Without him they lack a forward to lead the line, and even resorted to offering a trial to an ageing John Carew, which he subsequently failed. Rodrigo Palacio can hold his own upfront, but is not as significant a threat as the Argentine. The decision to loan out youngsters Marko Livaja and Samuele Longo is now proving decisive.
Speculation surrounding the future of Stramaccioni has also intensified, with calls for a more experienced tactician to replace the 37-year-old. “[André] Villas-Boas had the opportunity to develop under one of the world’s best managers in José Mourinho,” commented the Italian tactician on his opposite number. He has previously revealed his admiration for the Real Madrid boss, but in an obscure turn of events the Portuguese man has become a minor facet in the intense controversy surrounding his former club.
Aside from mentoring Villas-Boas during his days at Porto, Mourinho has become the centre of an altercation between Stramaccioni and Antonio Cassano last week. Tension has been building around the former Milan man for several weeks according to Gazzetta dello Sport, but the pair had to be forcefully separated after the striker’s statement during training ahead of the trip to Sicily. “That is it guys, the final whistle from Mourinho!” reportedly shouted Cassano as a joke at the end of a regular training match.
Cassano has been included in the squad to face Tottenham, after being left out of the Catania comeback. His return is vital if Inter intend to strike a blow away from home. The tie is in the balance, but the question is not how much damage Bale and his colleagues inflict on the visitors, but how they limit the barrage of attacks and rally together for the victory.