Arriving into the weekend, Internazionale were perfectly poised to implode as only they can. One of Italy’s most consistently self-defeating clubs, the Nerazzurrri had spent mid-week losing (at home) to the third-best team from Israel. Far from being a freak result, the Milanese club had been thoroughly outplayed.
Thanks to a flagrant disregard for Financial Fair Play rulings, their biggest transfers of the summer — Joao Mario and Gabriel Barbosa — were not available for European competition. They were not alone. Another player, Caner Erkin, had been signed by Roberto Mancini and then unceremoniously dispatched back to Turkey when Mancini was replaced by Frank de Boer barely a week before the season started.
After losing to Chievo, drawing with Palermo, and snatching victory in the last seconds against the recently-promoted Pescara, Inter’s campaign was off to an inauspicious start. The fingers of blame were beginning to point. And — as Sunday arrived — the reigning champions awaited.
The Derby d’Italia against Juventus is one of the biggest matches in the Internazionale calendar. This is especially true as AC Milan continue their descent into irrelevancy amid a convoluted takeover process. Right now, Juventus are undoubtedly the best team in Italy. For all of Inter’s trials and tribulations over the summer, the Turin side seemed to act under the constant guise of professionalism.
Having won the last five titles, Juve sold their second-best midfielder for a world record fee. They promptly reinvested this money in the league’s best striker and the best Serie A midfielder they didn’t already own. In doing so, they hamstrung their two closest rivals and seemed to cement their place at the top of the league. Serie A, it appeared, was already a foregone conclusion. Even as the teams were announced, Juve seemed to be resting players.
It was an almost arrogant dismissal of the threat Inter posed and everything was set up to be another embarrassing night at San Siro for the home side.
But things don’t always go to plan. Straight away, Inter were keen to wrestle control of the game away from the reigning champions. Ever Banega, astutely signed on a free this summer, brought a balance to the midfield and dictated the flow of the game. The shuffled Juventus side, perhaps tired after a Champions League midweek, seemed short of technical skill.
Max Allegri’s decision to drop Higuain, the fourth-most expensive player of all time, seemed to be a major error. For the first time this season, Frank de Boer’s side were giving a good account of themselves.
Of course, this was right up until the 66th minute. Against the run of play, Swiss fullback Stephan Lichtsteiner poked the visitors ahead. At once, the crushing inevitability of the universe was made apparent. Again, even after this good start, Inter were had failed to capitalise on their chances. Once more, the Juventus juggernaut would rumble on in defiance to any bumps in the road. What had been a fairly raucous derby crowd fell silent. Realisation hit. Inter will, despite appearances, always be Inter.
It only lasted for two minutes. An Inter side, which would probably have crumbled under Mancini, struck back. Club captain Mauro Icardi leapt above the imperious Juventus defence to head the hosts level. Icardi recently signed a new contract, dispelling summer long rumours linking him with a move away and fortifying his bond with the Interisti. For his next trick, Icardi completed the comeback ten minutes later, teeing up Ivan Perisic to knock past Buffon.
Even as Higuain was introduced, Juventus were unable to get back into the game. Inter were able to carefully control and contain their opponents, securing the points with a professional display. Perhaps in one final reversion to the norm, Banega managed to get himself sent off in the dying minutes for a silly second yellow card. The final seconds of the game almost promised one ultimate, incredible demonstration of Inter shooting themselves in the foot. But it never came.
After 90 minutes, all three points stayed in Milan. For the first time this season, the hosts had a goal scorer who wasn’t named Icardi. For the first time this season, all of Inter’s new signings played and played well. For the first time this season, Juventus dropped points. Even though it’s only been four games, whispers started to creep around the stadium.
Could this be the Inter side to finally challenge Juventus’s position at the top of the table? Could they finally reclaim the title after a period of utter dominance by the team from Turin?
It remains unlikely. Taken in isolation, Frank de Boer’s side were by far the better team on Sunday evening. But in the days before the match, there were already rumours circulating that the Dutchman was in danger of losing his job. Such is the calamity behind the scenes at Inter, that the club’s peculiarly eccentricity pervades everything. Unable to function as a sensible club under any of their recent owners, there seems something quintessentially ‘Inter’ about this particular brand of self-destruction.
For every positive, there is a negative. Unquestionably excellent players were signed over the summer. But they contravened UEFA rules and will be unable to play in Europe. Roberto Mancini’s lukewarm rule came to an end, but it was done 13 days before the league started. Icardi was tied down to a new contract. But the club failed to offload fringe players on high wages and is left with a paucity of options in key positions, most notably fullback.
Inter put on a fine display and tormented the five time champions with relative ease. But such a match arrives on the back of a string of poor results. For every positive, there is a negative.
The question of whether Internationale can challenge for the title depends on how they react to this result. Right now, there is a joy around the club, a satisfaction. But it seems to be blinkered. Having succeeded in capturing lightning in a bottle, Inter are in danger of losing sight of their myriad failings. The match against Juventus needs to function as a foundation rather than a trophy in and of itself. In essence, the club needs stability and sagacity.
This week, De Boer has already come out and called for calm. Noting how close the press were pushing him towards the sack, the manager claimed that it was impossible to discuss potential title wins until five games from the end of the season. Having won (and lost) titles in his previous stint at Ajax, De Boer is all too aware of how the huff and the puff of an annual campaign can take its toll.
Consistency is the key to winning the league. As high flying as Inter might be on the morning after, they can come crashing down as quickly as the mid-week round of fixtures. Lose to Empoli, for example, and all their good work is undone.
Can Inter win the title? Right now, it remains a remote possibility. But going into the season, a top three finish was more than most at the club could have hoped for. To re-calibrate after just one result would be foolish. Just as a loss to Chievo doesn’t enter a side into a relegation scrap, taking points from Juventus isn’t enough to start etching a name on a trophy.