Barcelona block Inter's path to the Round of 16
Background image: Oscar Federico Bodini, CC BY-SA 2.0
Inter unexpectedly held onto first place in Serie A over the weekend. After a goalless draw against visiting Roma at the Giuseppe Meazza on Friday evening, the table was set for Scudetto holders Juventus to retake the initiative in this season’s title race.
Cristiano Ronaldo answered doubters [who apparently include manager Maurizio Sarri] by opening the scoring for the Bianconeri against Lazio on 25 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico. It was the Ballon d’Or third wheel’s seventh league goal and the first time he scored in consecutive Serie A matches this campaign although he struck in back-to-back games against SPAL and Bayer Leverkusen as the calendar turned from September to October.
Defender Luiz Felipe levelled for Le Aquile in first-half stoppage time and it all fell apart for the Old Lady in the second half. Juan Cuadrado saw red on 69 minutes and Simone Inzaghi’s side capitalised. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic gave the Biancocelesti the lead six minutes later and Felipe Caicedo put the match to bed in the 96th minute.
Consequently, the Nerazzurri remain atop the table on 38 points, two better than the champions. Antonio Conte’s side can’t rely on help in the Champions League, however.
The Beneamata do hold the tiebreaker over Borussia Dortmund in Group F based on goal difference in their head-to-head encounters. They won 2-0 when BVB visited the Meazza but lost 3-2 at the Westfalenstadion. Unfortunately, that advantage matters about as much as Jeremy Corbyn boasting a more competent barber than Boris Johnson.
With the two teams deadlocked on seven points, the Bundesliga side host Czech champions Slavia Praha while Inter deal with a visit from Lionel Messi and Barcelona. The Prague outfit managed two draws in their first five group matches and that’s all. Expecting them to take three points from Marco Reus and co is like expecting Boris to appear on roadside hoardings and bus ads pimping Harry’s Sculpting Gel.
While other major players are yet to progress heading into the group stage’s final round [Liverpool, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid among the procrastinators], none face as daunting a challenge to their Champions League ambitions. This is a heavyweight match with everything on the line for the Milanese side. How can they come away with the result they need? Here are three things Inter must do.
Pray Barcelona fields a weak squad
The Blaugrana remain locked in a battle with Real Madrid for supremacy in La Primera Division. Both sides are on 34 points. Each won their last four. On the other hand, Barca already claim Group F honours.
This coming weekend, the Cules must travel to the Anoeta Stadium to face La Liga’s surprise contenders, Real Sociedad. The Basques occupy fourth place. Four days later, the Merengues invade the Nou Camp to finally contest the postponed Clasico. With those two critical matches looming and nothing on the line in Milan, Ernesto Valverde may hold his most important players in reserve. An XI without Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong would certainly give the Nerazzurri hope.
Defend their arses off
Protecting their goal is a quality for which Antonio Conte squads are renowned. It’s fair to say Jeff Bezos isn’t a fan. To the Amazon founder’s dismay, the Nerazzurri only shipped 13 goals in their 15 Serie A matches to date. That’s two fewer than Juve, Lazio and Roma who rank joint-second.
Conte must be concerned that vigilance doesn’t translate to European competition. The Beneamata surrendered seven goals in the group. Still, five came away to Barca and Dortmund. They only yielded one at the Meazza, in the opening match while still finding their feet against Slavia Praha.
Clean sheets against the Catalans don’t occur often but it’s a necessity in this encounter.
Prove Romelu Lukaku isn’t a flat-track bully
The former Premier Leaguer can’t shake a longstanding reputation for doing a David Copperfield in big matches. If the Nerazzurri are to reach the Round of 16, this is the night on which he must reveal the lie by standing front and centre for his side.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much evidence that his notoriety is misplaced. The Belgian’s only goal against a top-six Serie A club came against Cagliari. The Rossoblu’s presence in the Italian Champions League places is as startling as Real Sociedad’s in Spain. Worse, Big Rom’s goal and two assists in the group matches all came against Slavia Praha. Any prop bet on a Lukaku goal in this tilt will either be regrettable or pay handsomely.
Inter have it all to do against Barcelona and, like Boris Johnson's hair or Parliament all pulling in the same direction anytime soon, the odds are long.