After a controversial weekend at the San Siro against Atalanta, Inter Milan's hopes for a spot in the UEFA Champions League are now on life support. On Sunday they face off against a nomadic Cagliari team.
The isolani have finally abandoned the Is Arenas in Quartu Sant'Elena, and as of this writing no official announcement has been made as to where this Cagliari "home" match will take place.
Cagliari is solidly safe in Serie A at 12th and will be back next year. They are merely playing out the season and maintaining their pride. Inter, however, are now in sixth place in the league, one point behind Lazio. They may have to rely on a comeback in the Coppa Italia final to have any chance at playing European soccer next season.
Let's delve into this game and see how this important match for Inter might turn out.
|12 (39)||Table Position (Points)||6 (50)|
|10-9-12||League Record (W-D-L)||15-5-11|
|1 (1969-70)||Scudetti||18 (last in 2009-10)|
UEFA Cup semifinal
3 UCL (last in 2009-10)
3 UEFA Cups (last in 1997-98)
|Last 5 Matches||
Cagliari's season has been dominated by their stadium saga.
As said in the first slide, they have been forced to abandon their three-year deal to play at the Stadio Is Arenas in Quartu Sant'Elena after safety concerns caused FIGC to force the team to play several games behind closed doors. When Cagliari president Massimo Cellino told season ticket holders to come to a match against Roma in September when authorities had deemed the stadium unsuitable, the game was cancelled and Roma awarded a 3-0 forfeit.
One of Cagliari's home games was subsequently moved to the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Parma. And FIGC attempted to force another game to move to the Stadio Olimpico di Torino, but Cagliari successfully appealed the decision.
Amid all of this, Cellino and four city administrators were arrested in February and charged with embezzlement and document forgery related to the renovation of the Is Arenas to prepare it for Cagliari's arrival. He remains under house arrest.
On the field, the isolani have been led by the goalscoring of Marco Sau and the midfield prowess of Radja Nainggolan. Their big problem has been defense. Their goal differential is currently -12, which is worse than five of the teams that are sitting below them in the table. Still, they are solidly safe and will continue their latest run in Serie A, which started in 2004-05.
Sunday was emotional for Inter. They carried a 3-1 lead into the middle of the second half against Atalanta until referee Andrea Gervasoni called a phantom penalty that triggered a 12-minute hat-trick for German Denis and a 4-3 Inter loss.
Andrea Stramaccioni ripped into the official after the game, saying "I think Gervasoni, acting independently and on his own, influenced the outcome by seeing something that wasn't there." Paolo Bonolis, a television commentator and noted Inter fan who works on Inter's own TV station, insinuated that a fix is in to get AC Milan to the Champions League at the expense of the rest of the league.
Regardless of the controversial nature of Sunday's match, Inter needs to pick themselves up, and fast. They are in sixth place in Serie A and trail 2-1 on aggregate in the Coppa Italia semifinal to Roma, with the second leg to be played a week from Wednesday. They may need a comeback in the latter competition in order to get themselves into European competition.
In terms of the league, Sunday's match is critical. Lazio, one point ahead in the fifth and final European qualification spot, will play host to Juventus on Monday. There is a good chance that the champions will afford the nerazzurri the chance to jump the capitol club and regain a European slot.
The transfer talk never ceases around Radja Nainggolan. The Belgian has been the isolani's talisman in midfield for several years now, and around every transfer window rumors swirl about which of Italy's big clubs will swoop in and buy him.
Andrea Cossu has been the main supply line to the strikers this year with seven assists, but Nainggolan has been a stalwart in defense, leading the team with 3.9 tackles per game while completing 84.7 percent of his passes and setting up Cossu to feed Cagliari's strike force.
Cagliari's leading scorer with 11 goals in 25 matches, Sau is the man who will be tasked with getting though Inter's porous defense. He hasn't scored since February 24, and the team is 1-1-1 in the three games since, being outscored 4-2.
The 25-year-old Italian will need to have a big game to take the Milan giants down.
Another solid midfielder, the Cagliari captain has completed 87.4 of his passes this season from his defensive midfield position and has completed an average of 8.1 long balls per game. He's also turned in 2.8 tackles per match and has made nearly four clearances per game. He's been whoscored.com's man of the match four times this season for the team.
The man who wears the armband is expected to lead by example, and that's definitely what Conti has been doing this year for his club. Having already inspired his club to one big scalp this year—a 2-1 victory over Fiorentina at the end of March—he will have to lift the club to his shoulders again if they are to claim another.
I wouldn't say that Samir Handanovic is the best goalkeeper in Serie A. That honor remains Gianluigi Buffon's and his alone. But no goalkeeper has been more integral to his team's success this season than Inter's stopper.
In his first season since arriving from Udinese and supplanting the decorated Julio Cesar, Handanovic has been simply spectacular. His defense has constantly failed him, but he has put in heroic performances to keep games close and allow Inter to snatch points from games they should have lost by multiple goals.
With Andrea Ranocchia losing some of the luster he had before his December suspension, Walter Samuel aging and Juan Jesus just simply disappearing, Handanovic will likely be called into action often even against a bottom-half team like Cagliari, and Inter needs to have him at the top of his game once more.
With Diego Milito out for the season and Antonio Cassano leaving the field injured Sunday against Atalanta, Palacio is now Inter's top attacking threat. He'll need to find his way past Cagliari central defenders Davide Astori and Luca Rossettini and give the nerazzurri the goals they need in this critical match.
The Argentine is the team's leading scorer with 18 goals in all competitions, but with no backup Cagliari will likely try to collapse the defense around Palacio and force the rest of the team to beat them.
Despite a dip in form since the turn of the calendar, Ranocchia is still Inter's most important defender, and he's averaging 4.9 tackles per match to go along with 2.8 interceptions and 7.6 clearances. His passing from the back is also important for Inter's game. He has completed 87 percent of his passes and nearly four long balls per game.
For Inter to be able to finish strong, Ranocchia will have to be on the top of his game and give Handanovic some degree of protection. If he gets strung out, as he was on German Denis' second goal on Sunday, Handanovic will only be able to play Superman for so long.
A former Cagliari player who was capped 174 times from 1985 to 1991, Ivo Pulga eventually was named captain and led the team from the former Serie C1 to a pair of berths in the top flight under Ciro Ferrara.
Pulga was named coach on October 2 after Massimo Ficcadenti's horrific start to the season. Since then he has guided the team up out of a potential relegation situation and solidly into mid-table, ready for yet another year in the Serie A.
Tactically, he has favored a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, although a 4-3-3 has also been employed, albeit to less success.
Stramaccioni may not even get to coach this game, as his comments over the Atalanta game are definitely cause for a suspension.
That said, the young coach—once lionized as one of the next greats after leading Inter on an impressive close to last season and a roaring start to this season—is fighting for his job and scrapping to get the team back into Europe next year.
Stramaccioni has been one of the key factors in the team's decline as the year has gone on. He has used nine different formations in Serie A this season and six different ones in the Europa League, and that constant formational shifting has led to a lack of identity and continuity in the team. If you doubt how much such a thing means to a team, look no further than the top of the table.
Juventus have deviated from their 3-5-2 formation only once this season. They have a nine-point lead in Serie A. Second place Napoli has used four different formations, but all of them are variants of the same three-man defensive scheme that has made Walter Mazzari's name in coaching.
Stramaccioni has used four three-man defensive formations and five four-man defenses this season. The mechanics of those systems are drastically different, and if Stramaccioni is ever going to succeed, he has to stop tinkering and forge an identity for his team.
The last meeting between those two clubs, on November 18 at the San Siro, was a close call for Inter. A pair of goals from Sau on either end of halftime saw the isolani reverse an early deficit and come close to claiming a big victory.
It wasn't to be, unfortunately, as Davide Astori turned a ball into his own net in the 82nd minute, ending the game in a 2-2 draw.
Davide Astori v. Rodrigo Palacio
With Milito out for the year and Antonio Cassano questionable after leaving Sunday's game with an injury, Palacio is now Inter's best hope up front. Tommaso Rocchi, a mystifying signing in the January transfer window, has been ineffective since arriving at the San Siro, and there are no other true strikers on the roster.
That will allow Astori, one of the better center-backs in the league, to collapse on Palacio and try to remove him from the game. Palacio will need a top-level effort to get through a defense that will concentrate on him. Without his goals, Inter can't count on three points on Sunday.
Radja Nainggolan v. Inter's Midfield
It's not entirely clear who will be manning Inter's midfield Sunday. Stramaccioni has been shifting players around and rotating them in all year long, not to mention changing how many midfielders actually play in a given formation.
That makes it difficult to predict who will play and who will sit. Serbian import Mateo Kovacic is the future of the team in midfield, but the youngster still has a long time before he'll live up to the No. 10 shirt he was issued when he arrived at the San Siro in January.
Esteban Cambiasso has finished the one-game suspension he was issued after his horror tackle on Sebastian Giovinco two weeks ago, and the Argentine will likely be in the center of the field for the nerazzurri this Sunday. He will likely be joined by Uruguayan Walter Gargano, making a formidable pair of central midfielders who play tough defense.
It will be Nainggolan's job to get through that pair and pick the passes that will pull at the seams of a fragile Inter defense that has only put up two clean sheets since play resumed after the winter break.
Marco Sau v. Andrea Ranocchia
Sau scored twice in the 2-2 draw the two teams played at San Siro in November, and the young Italian will be looking for more blood Sunday.
Ranocchia is the team's best defender, and keeping the defense together will be his responsibility. He showed wonderful chemistry with young Brazilian Juan Jesus in the early going of the season, but Jesus' form has nosedived as the season has gone on, leaving Ranocchia with his fingers in the dyke.
The result of this game will be largely dependent on whether Ranocchia can keep the water at bay for another 90 minutes or whether or not the wall will crumble, leaving Handanovic standing alone in his goal.
This is a tough game to call. Inter has spun out of control since their 10-match winning streak ended in November, while Cagliari is a solidly mid-table club that on paper should not have much in this match.
The mental aspect of the game is key here. Inter has been in a protracted hissy-fit since Sunday's match ended, and they might not have Stramaccioni if he is suspended for his comments about the officials. On the other hand, all Cagliari has to think about is playing good soccer. At the end of the day, I think Inter is a team in a tailspin and ripe for the isolani to take them out.
My prediction: 3-1 Cagliari, with the third coming late while Inter presses to get an equalizer.