Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: D-Day For Inter And Napoli Looms

This could be a long, long night. For two Italian clubs, Inter and Napoli, the final Champions League group ties clearly have a “Do or Die” look about them.
After a decade of indifferent “European” results, a decade which came after a period in the ’90s when the world’s then most famous referee, Italian Pierluigi Collina, could never get to ref the Champions Cup/League final because it always featured at least one if not two Italian clubs, Italian football this week could stage an unexpected comeback.   
With Juventus and AS Roma already qualified, it is still possible that both Inter and Napoli could join them in the next round. The last time that four Italian clubs made the second round came 16 years ago in the 2002-2003 season when AC Milan, Roma, Inter and Juventus (surprise, surprise) all qualified. That, of course, was the year when three out of the four semi-finallists were Italian and when the final itself was an all Italian affair with Milan beating Juventus in a penalty shoot out at Old Trafford.
Since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge. That era of dominance is long since gone. However, the impoverished Italian football world, an Italy which has just failed to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years, could well do with the boost to morale. The clubs, too, no doubt will not turn up their noses at the estimated €9.5 million euros (approx.) which they can expect from getting through to the second round.
Before all that happens, however, two Premiership giants, Liverpool and Tottenham stand in their way. In theory, but only in theory, Inter have the easier task of the two. They come into their final game at the San Siro, knowing that a home win against already eliminated PSV Eindhoven will see them through unless Spurs pull off a sensational away win against Barcelona no less at the Camp Nou.
Now, you all know that Barcelona have lost only three Champions League ties at the Camp Nou in the last ten years. Yet, Inter fans, not surprisingly, wonder if a fourth such loss could be on the way. In the meantime, too, they need to be sure that Inter will do their part of the business and dispose of PSV.
For the record, Inter’s most recent competitive game, a 1-0 defeat in Turin on Friday night by champions Juventus, augurs well as far as current form is concerned. In what is always a tougher than tough game, Inter gave Juventus a fair old run for their money.
Taking the game to Juventus, Inter had much the better of the first half exchanges and were worthy of a goal by half time, having created at least three good chances, the most obvious of which saw midfielder Roberto Gagliardini hit the post. Inter’s tactics, their aggressive chasing game and their defence as “high up” as they dared were always going to prove impossible to sustain.
Inevitably, the Old Lady reclaimed territory and authority and in the end, the champions deserved to win (via a 66th minute header from Croat Mario Mandzukic).   However, for at least 40 minutes of this game, Inter had shown that their most recent results, namely defeats by Spurs and Juventus and a league draw with Roma in their last three outings, do not tell the whole story.
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In the meantime, in a not unprecedented manner, (some) Inter fans have been upping the pre-PSV temperature. Some of them have expressed their concern that club captain and star striker, Mauro Icardi, has been a little “distracted” over the weekend.  Not only did Icardi find time to celebrate his wife’s birthday at a Saturday night Milan party attended by more than 100 people but he also followed that up with travelling to Madrid on Sunday to watch River Plate beat Boca Juniors in the all-Argentine Liberatadores Final at the Bernabeu in Madrid.    
Is this the ideal preparation for a potentially decisive Champions League tie, the fans ask? One suspects that the peerless Icardi will furnish his own answer to that particular question on the pitch tonight.
If Inter’s chances of making the second round still hang in the balance, Napoli’s prospects are much more intimidating. All they have to do is win or draw against the in form English Premiership leaders and last year’s finallists, Liverpool, at Anfield.   
Napoli go into this game concerned by the “effetto Anfield”, by their negative tradition in England and by the potency of a Liverpool attack in which, not surprisingly, they identify Mohamed Salah as Problem No. 1. Against that, though, there are two considerations which may provide some comfort to the Neapolitans.   
Firstly, the team’s form this year has been exemplary. Currently top of their Champions League group, they are the only team in Italy to still have sight of the fast-disappearing Juventus coat tails, having won 11, drawn 2 and lost 2 in 15 Serie A outings.
Secondly, and arguably even more important, there is the consideration that, in the person of the bucolic Carlo Ancelotti, they have one of the most skilful and experienced coaches on the world stage. If our Carlo cannot calm the Napoli nerves, then no one can.
His handling of Napoli thus far has been masterly. Having taken over a side that had been fine tuned and hard-wired by Maurizio Sarri, he was slow to make changes. However, bit by bit, the rhythm has changed, Lorenzo Insigne has been partly shifted from the wing into a more central role whilst his strike partner Belgian Dris Mertens has been encouraged to drift wide.   
Furthermore, he has patiently and gradually found a space for Napoli’s own super-sub, Polish striker Arkadi Milik. Much is expected from all of the above whilst Sengalese central defender Kalidou Koulibaly will be required to confirm Ancelotti’s belief that he is “one of the four best defenders in the world.” (By the way, Ramos, Bonucci and Chiellini are the other three). Stand by for a long, long night.
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