After what turned out to be a disappointing World Cup for him and his Croatian side, Mateo Kovacic returned to his club duties with Inter Milan last week.
Manager Walter Mazzarri included him in to the starting XI in the 1-0 win over minnows Prato, in what can be seen as another sign of Inter's determination to reject all the offers and keep Kovacic for the season that approaches.
It is no secret that there is massive interest in a midfielder who turned 20 in May and has been considered one of the brightest prospects of world football. As the Daily Star reports, the Nerazzurri's sporting director Piero Ausilio confirmed that the club had received more than one offer for Kovacic, but he highlighted that the youngster is "absolutely not for sale." Croatian daily Sportske Novosti, referring to the article in Corriere dello Sport (in Croatian) , claimed that Inter refused €30 million offer from Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk.
Back in June, Marca reported that Real Madrid had made a move for Kovacic. The Croat, who won the hearts of Inter fans, was linked with big Premier league rivals Liverpool and Manchester United as well, but it seems that no one in the blue-and-black part of Milan wants to see him leave. The players, the coach Walter Mazzarri and the club owner Erick Thohir have all praised Kovacic and his talent.
"He has the ability to become the best player in the world in his position," said Inter's goalkeeper, and one of their biggest stars, Samir Handanovic, as reported by Sportske Novosti (in Croatian). "He has extreme qualities and he is already mature for his age."
However, just a few months ago things were considerably different. Kovacic—who will travel with the rest of the team to United States to appear in the Guinness International Champions Cup, where they'll play Real Madrid, Manchester United and Roma—was unhappy and, even though he never officially said it, desperately wanted to change club.
It was no wonder, really. Since Mazzarri's arrival at Inter, things have not looked good for Kovacic. After he was one of the regulars under previous manager Andrea Stramaccioni, appearing in 13 matches last season (11 as a starter), Kovacic lost his place. In 32 league matches that he played for Inter, he was in the starting line-up not more than 14 times, having a chance to play the whole 90 minutes on just eight occasions.
This was not a situation that Kovacic was used to and it obviously affected the young man heavily. He looked like he had lost confidence while simultaneously carrying a bigger pressure; he left the impression that he was scared and weighing every one of his moves. Kovacic wanted an escape route from such a situation and leaving Inter seemed like the only option.
Still, the chance to restore confidence arrived through Mazzarri. Kovacic was his first choice in the midfield in the last six matches of the season and the young prodigy shined, using the match against Lazio in May, when he assisted three times and was man of the match, as his pinnacle.
Was this a sign that Walter Mazzarri wants to build the team around him and make Kovacic regular in the first team?
It is still difficult to answer this question, but it is obvious that the Internazionale coach trusts him more than before. Things will be much clearer after the US tour, as well as when the transfer window closes. Mazzarri announced some changes in the system, and the question is how will this affect Kovacic, who is still in the quest for the perfect position.
Being gifted as both a fine technician and brilliant dribbler, Kovacic still has difficulty imposing himself in the midfield, often being outmuscled by more experienced opponents. He is capable of using the open space in a perfect way, but he'll need to learn how to create that space as well.
His 90 percent passing accuracy, per Squawka, sounds almost perfect, but Kovacic often leaves the impression of using the easiest route and not risking enough. The same website provides his attacking stats, which says that he had only 13 goal attempts last season (seven on target); Kovacic still has not scored a goal since he arrived in Inter.
Obviously, Kovacic needs more playing time to show the consistency, but he'll as well have to build on his status and prove his admirers right.
Most importantly, Kovacic will have to find a way to confirm Handanovic's words and show that he has matured enough to take a serious role on the biggest stage. Yes, he is only 20, and he is one of the most talented players in the game, but it is time for him to show that he is capable of making the step forward and becoming more than a prospect, more than someone for the future.
In any case, this season will be a breaking point in his Inter career. If Mazzarri shows faith in him and gives him a chance, like he did at the end of last season, Kovacic will decide his own destiny by rising to the expectations or failing.
However, if we keep seeing No. 10 on the substitutions board as often as the last season, it would not be a surprise if he is among the first to leave next winter.