Inter Milan is in a tricky part of the Serie A season. With the winter break fast approaching, Inter has now dropped two of their last four games in Serie A, leaving them seven points adrift of first-place Juventus.
While a loss like Saturday's—a close one against fourth-placed Lazio—is unfortunate, it's not necessarily cause for alarm. The Nerazzurri's November 26 loss to Parma (then seventh, now 10th) is something that shouldn't have happened to a team that expects to seriously contend for the scudetto.
As the league prepares to adjourn for Christmas and front offices gear up for the January transfer window, no one name will be more important to Inter's stretch run than Antonio Cassano.
With the team's relationship with Wesley Sneijder likely irreparably broken, the midfield maestro will likely be leaving the San Siro before the transfer window comes to a close. Indeed, it feels like he's already gone—he hasn't figured on the field for Inter since September due to a combination of injury and his feud with Inter's front office.
Into the creative void that the Dutchman's exclusion created stepped Cassano. A summer arrival from crosstown rivals AC Milan, Cassano leads the team in assists (5 in Serie A) and, once you exclude Sneijder, key passes per game (2.7). He's added to his creative bent with five goals of his own, good for a second-place tie on the team with Rodrigo Palacio.
Cassano gives Inter a double threat at the top, equally able to score and set up a teammate with an accurate cross or through ball—two other categories in which Cassano leads the team in per-game average.
Cassano's importance to the Inter attack was underlined in November when the Nerazzurri went down to a shock 1-0 loss to Parma.
Cassano didn't play in the defeat, in which Inter squandered the chance to gain ground on the leaders after Juve had been beaten by Milan the day before. The task of feeding Palacio and Diego Milito fell to the combination of Fredy Guarin, Esteban Cambiasso, and Ricardo Alvarez.
While Cambiasso was his typical excellent self in the center of Andrea Stramaccioni's new 3-4-3 formation, there was very little in the way of creativity. The Nerazzurri only attempted a solitary through ball, which didn't connect. Guarin whipped cross after cross into the box (11 in total) but only connected on three of them. Inter ended up being outshot by the Crusaders and were beaten by Nicola Sansone for a goal in the 75th minute.
With Cassano in the lineup against Lazio, Inter was much more competitive. After a bland first half, Inter struck the woodwork twice—once through Cassano—but Diego Milito was unable to put the rebound home. Inter was punished for their profligacy when Miroslav Klose netted in the 82nd minute.
The fact remains that Inter is far more dangerous with Cassano in the lineup than when he was out of the lineup. Now almost completely recovered from the heart condition that cost him most of last season—he played all 90 minutes against Lazio, something that was impossible over the summer at Euro 2012—Serie A will have to brace themselves for the full brunt of Cassano's impressive skill set as both a finisher and provider at the front.
How far Inter goes this season in the Serie A is dependent on how much of an impact Cassano will have as the ritorna begins. He is the linchpin for their chances to regain the scudetto and will easily be the most important player in black and blue come 2013.