With two wins in the space of a week, things appear to be looking up for Inter Milan.
The Nerazzurri ended what has been an abysmal Europa League campaign with a 2-1 win over Sparta Prague on Thursday, then went on to record their seventh Serie A victory of the campaign in convincing fashion by beating Genoa 2-0 at the San Siro.
Inter fans may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief after seeing their club record back-to-back wins for only the second time this season. But are Stefano Pioli’s side finally showing signs of progress, or is this just another in what is becoming an alarmingly long line of false dawns?
After all, Inter have put in some stellar displays this term. In the 2-1 win over Juventus in September, they were deserving victors having thoroughly outplayed the reigning champions. Captain Mauro Icardi was particularly impressive in that game, scoring and registering an assist. The Argentinian striker appeared to be demonstrating several new stings to his bow after having previously been pigeonholed as the purest of pure poachers – excellent within sight of goal, but able to contribute little else.
Inter even went unbeaten in their next two matches after vanquishing the Bianconeri, beating Empoli 2-0 away from home and recording a mildly disappointing, yet far from disastrous, 1-1 draw with Bologna on home soil. But then came the collapse: a 3-1 Europa League defeat was followed up with three successive Serie A losses – their second, third and fourth reverses of the campaign – to Roma, Cagliari and Atalanta.
A 3-0 win over Crotone and an impressive display in the 2-2 Derby della Madonnina draw against rivals AC Milan again brought fresh hope, but an embarrassing Europa League defeat at the hands of Hapoel Be’er Sheva – for the second time this season – heaped further misery on the Nerazzurri’s followers.
Although, that loss was soon forgotten when Inter bounced back to hammer Fiorentina 4-2 in their very next fixture. Surely now, with two wins and a very credible draw from their last four fixtures, they were heading in the right direction? Apparently not, as four days after thumping La Viola, Pioli’s men found themselves on the wrong end of a 3-0 trouncing when they travelled to the San Paolo to take on Napoli.
So there are plenty of reasons for caution when analysing Inter’s apparent uptick in form. Recent history suggests we will need to see more evidence of progression before drawing any conclusions about the club’s long-term term trajectory.
After the injection of cash brought about by the Suning Group’s takeover in the summer, Inter invested heavily in trying to build the kind of squad capable of challenging for Champions League qualification.
Ever Banega was snapped up on a Bosman free transfer from Europa League champions Sevilla; Joao Mario, fresh of winning the European Championships with Portugal, was acquired from Sporting Clube de Portugal for €35 million; having fended off interest from Juventus and Leicester City, highly-rated Brazilian youngster Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa was bought from Santos for 30 million; and talented winger Antonio Candreva came in from Lazio.
In addition to the overhaul of the playing squad, Inter also made a change of manager, with Roberto Mancini invited to leave after an alleged disagreement with the new owners over transfer targets. Former Ajax boss Frank de Boer was hastily appointed to replace the ex-Manchester City manager less than three weeks before the season was due to start.
But de Boer’s inability to get a cohesive tune out of Inter’s expensively compiled, yet obviously flawed, squad saw him relieved of his duties on 1 November. Former Lazio coach Pioli was installed as his replacement.
Since coming in, Pioli appears to be getting a greater degree of work-rate from the Inter players, although results are yet to improve markedly.
One thing that the change of manager does not appear to have resolved is he bizarre situation of Gabriel Barbosa. The 20-year-old striker has featured in just 16 minutes of action since his move to Italy and Corriere della Seri is reporting that the youngster is keen to return to his homeland, while the Inter board are said to hold the belief that “Gabigol” is not a Serie A-level player.
Banega is yet to truly settle at the San Siro as well. The Argentinian playmaker is a wonderfully gifted passer, capable of dictating play and unlocking defences when at the top of his game. But the former Valencia and Boca Juniors player has been largely unconvincing for the Nerazzurri and his inclusion within the side appears to upset the general balance of the team. Rumours are beginning to circulate that he too could soon be shown the exit door if a suitable bid for his services is received.
So despite the recent positive results, there remains a disturbing amount of turmoil at Inter. The January transfer window will likely see them seek reinforcements in the full-back positions, but their issues run deeper than anything that can be repaired by simply buying more players.
For Pioli’s part, he can only concern himself with on-field matters. And, while he has already overseen a minor improvement, having flitted between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 formations in recent weeks, he must find and settle upon a system which maximises the talents of his best players.
As it stands, Inter remain a frustrating enigma seeking a level of consistency that has thus far proven elusive in an up and down season.