This pairing has become a sneaky rivalry in the last few years, although this chapter isn’t as meaningful as others, given their respective positions on the standings.
Serie A Week 24– Sunday 11 February 2024 – San Siro | Preview by Enrico Passarella
If it weren’t for the stumble against Bologna, although the Felsinei are a fiery opponent, and especially the one against Salernitana in late 2022, their recent track record would have been beyond reproach. There’s still an evident gap between their home and away performances, but at least they have started getting results on the road one way or the other.
They were surely pulling for a draw in the Derby d’Italia, and instead, Inter stomped their authority, leaving them in an odd spot. There’s not much difference between the second and the third position. They are the third wheel in a duel that might be short-lived if the Nerazzurri won in their upcoming make-up game.
Stefano Pioli might have more at stake than the team the rest of the way, at least in Serie A. While he and the squad have been far from perfect in the first half of the campaign, the regrets would be minimal if Inter took home the league breaking away. Their crosstown rivals had an inherent advantage deriving from more roster continuity; plus, more quality and depth overall. Summer overhauls always come with some issues if the upgrades are clear. In addition, their foes didn’t have to go through an injury crisis.
It took four months, but the gaffer seems to have a firm grasp on the team and the tactics and how to adjust them when needed, and that’s no small thing. His subs have won them a pair of matches and, while Luka Jovic has been the main reason for that, the boss doesn’t just make the same anytime. He’s not flashy and probably doesn’t have a great PR team, but a host of teams would be happy to have him on their bench if the Rossoneri decided to move on from him to go after a bigger or more enticing fish.
He’ll face the difficult task of replacing Tijjani Reijnders in this one, who’s unavailable for the first time in the season. Ismael Bennacer should be ready to start after AFCON and a thigh problem, so they could go with him and Yacine Adli together, which would be a first. Or they can field Yunus Musah, probably instead of the Frenchman, who’s more dynamic but also more of a wild card. He has also been good off the bench too. Either way, they’ll lose something. With the two distributors together, it’d look more like a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-3-3 than usual, as they switch between the two depending on the phase of the match.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek has also been going like gangbusters, and that’s another contributor they didn’t always have, and surely not in the present form, in the first part of the season, when the top two teams built some separation. In hindsight, adding another physical box-to-box/no.10 wouldn’t have hurt as his injury problems were well-known, and they have always been good with that solution in previous years too. Perhaps they thought Musah would be that, but it hasn’t really been the case.
The curious thing about their recent glitzy offensive numbers is that Rafael Leao hasn’t been scoring at all, but that hasn’t really affected them a ton. Such a long dry spell would have doomed them in the past, but they ticked off their first order of business of their reinforcement campaign, which was to be less dependent on him. Loftus-Cheek, Christian Pulisic, Olivier Giroud, and Jovic have carried them. Moreover, after a few sluggish displays, the Portuguese has been showing up lately with a few classy plays, mazing runs, and quality assists. Having him engaged and impactful is more important than his scoring, and the attention he draws has rarely waned.
After all the buzz, they ended up standing pat in the back, and that’s a big risk. Simon Kjaer and Matteo Gabbia haven’t had major gaffes, but the rearguard has been collectively leaky since they turned to such a composition, and Mike Maignan has weirdly contributed to that with some poor showings. Malick Thiaw is coming back very soon, so that’s probably the main reason why, but they’ll need him in good form right away since the midweek bouts are coming back. It’s already a miracle the Dane hasn’t gotten hurt due to the wear and tear. They are seemingly always after sexy purchases, but a reliable veteran on loan would have helped too.
Expected XI (4-2-3-1): Maignan; Calabria, Kjaer, Gabbia, Hernandez; Bennacer, Adli; Pulisic, Loftus-Cheek, Leao; Giroud.
Injury Report: Thiaw (thigh injury) – Questionable;
Kalulu, Pogba, Tomori (thigh injuries), Caldara (ankle fracture).
Absences: Chukwueze (AFCON).
Napoli have gotten a couple of wins lately, mainly thanks to the low caliber of the opponents and the sheer quality of their attackers, but don’t seem like a team that has healed from all the brouhaha and problems, some self-inflicted, that have hit them this campaign. They are starting to reap the benefits from a busy but not very coherent January window, but they are still far from being convincing.
They re-found some certainties and solidity in the back with a three-man line, but it looks like they flip-flop rather than stick to it all the time. The match against Lazio, which constituted in 90 minutes of backward passes and pointless possession, was an abomination compared to how they played last season. Aurelio De Laurentiis has finally realized that they can’t just replicate Luciano Spalletti’s strategy without its creator, but there must be a limit to going in the opposite direction too.
There’s a fine line between the ability to switch tactics to surprise the opponents and utter confusion, and we’ll see whether they are mature enough to thread the needle. With Mario Rui suspended, they only have the more defensive-minded version at their disposal, the one with three pure center-backs and Giovanni Di Lorenzo wide. The idea of a 3-5-1-1 with a very muscular midfield has also been floated around while Matteo Politano was in doubt for a minute. They are good on counters, but it’d be a pretty defeatist choice.
They signed some solid players in January, primarily Cyril Ngonge, the only one they truly spent for since Pasquale Mazzocchi was cheap and others arrived on loan with options to buy. But they didn’t really address their present and future needs. A defensive-minded defender like Leander Dendoncker would have been more useful at the beginning of January, instead, he came in as Frank Anguissa was returning from AFCON. They loaded up on attackers when they already had some, Jesper Lindstrom and Giacomo Raspadori, who were under-utilized.
They knew where things were headed with Piotr Zielinski, but they didn’t bring in an heir apparent nor somebody who could take his place pronto. Even though he’s having a poor season, his technique and playmaking prowess are still handy. They’ll miss that if the go-to trio will be Anguissa, Stanislav Lobotka, and Jens Cajuste.
At some point, somebody will explain what’s going on with Lazar Samardzic and his camp, but he would have been perfect and reasonably priced. Hamed Traoré was a fine player at Sassuolo, but he struggled to recapture his form after a foot fracture, and he’s been out for a while due to malaria lately. More importantly, he’ll need a lot of work to become a midfielder, which he did only at the beginning of his career before his coaches realized he was more non-entity defensively and instead devastating as a no.10 or a left winger. Considering his predictably lacking conditioning and the competition, one has to wonder if he’ll even get a chance to prove worthy of being bought out. Moreover, another defender was a must considering their tactical evolution. They have some versatile pieces, but using the more crowded rearguard with continuity will be a stretch.
The roster is actually more built for a 4-2-3-1 than their standard scheme, and they have gone there with sound results in must-score situations. Ngonge, Traoré, and Lindstrom can easily play as a no.10, and Walter Mazzarri correctly stated that Khvicha Kvaratskhelia looks pretty good centrally. The risk of getting bottled up is more tangible there, but he’s closer to the goal, and he’s become a little predictable on the wing, especially since their frontline isn’t as free-flowing as in the past.
If the Georgian star finally gets going and Victor Osimhen can perform at an adequate level, not necessarily the super-human one of the past, but at least enough to push away the questions about his commitment level since he pretty much announced he would depart, a spot in the top four will become a real possibility, even though other sides, especially Atalanta and Roma, are accelerating.
It’s quite the fall from grace after a Scudetto, but it is what it is. They’ll need to confirm their apparent improvements against a quality side, and this game offers them such an opportunity, but at times they still seem all over the place, with the solo plays of their top players providing the lone saving grace.
Expected XI (3-4-2-1): Gollini; Ostigard, Rrhamani, Jesus; Di Lorenzo, Anguissa, Lobotka, Mazzocchi; Politano, Kvaratskhelia; Simeone.
Doubts: Gollini/Meret, Politano/Cajuste, Simeone/Raspadori.
Injury Report: Meret (thigh strain), Natan (shoulder sprain), Olivera (knee sprain) – Probable.
Absences: Osimhen (AFCON).
Milan Win – Under 2.5