Just when we were all wondering if there was any side in Italy that could possibily halt the Juventus juggernaut, up stepped Inter last night to spring the first real surprise of the new season, deservedly beating the champions 2-1 at the San Siro. Just think, too, on Friday morning Inter were being crucified by the sports media in the wake of a humiliating 2-0 home defeat to Israeli side Hapoel Beer’Sheva in the Europa League.
Friday morning’s Gazzetta Dello Sport headline of “Inter, Are You Not Ashamed?” quickly metamorphised into a Monday morning headline of “Mad, Mad Inter”. In truth, it is hard to know which came as the bigger shock – the excellent Inter showing or the disasterous Juventus performance.
When Swiss defender Stephan Lichtsteiner put the champions in front in the 66th minute, we all nodded sagely, saying to ourselves that we have seen this script before. After all, a surprisingly aggressive, hungry looking Inter had until that moment had distinctly the better of exchanges.
Yet, here were the champions, as so often in the past, riding out the storm of a tough away fixture, only to strike a killer blow just when their opponents were beginning to think that they might get something out of the game. That will be it for the night, we thought, the Juventus juggernaut rolls on.
Not so. Inter continued on exactly as they had been doing before the goal and within two minutes, via their best man on the night, Argentine striker Mauro Icardi, they had equalised. Even better, within another ten minutes, they had won the game with a well worked goal created by the irrespressible Icardi and scored by the talented Croat Ivan Perisic.
For Inter’s Dutch coach, Frank de Boer, hired late at the beginning of the season following the club’s parting of the ways with Roberto Mancini, this was mannah from heaven. In his first three games in Serie A, he had lost, drawn and then won (against Pescara in distinctly fortunate circumstances). After that came the miserable defeat by Hapoel Beer’Sheva:
“After that defeat, we stuck together, the club stood by me, I felt the lads’ desire to react. We deserved to win and, I can tell you, we needed a night like this”, commented a relieved De Boer afterwards.
The intriguing thought now is that this Inter could become a major player in this season’s title race. With Slovene Handanovic in goal, Brazilian Miranda and Colombian Murillo in defence, Chilean Medel and Brazilian Melo in midfield, not to mention Perisic, Icardi and Candreva up front, this is an ominously strong squad. Worth reflecting that the last time Inter beat Juventus at the San Siro came in 2010 at the height of the Mourinho treble era (scudetto, Italian Cup and Champions League), just one month before the side beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
What about the champions? Coach Massimiliano Allegri inevitably came in for truckloads of criticism for having opted to leave his €90 million euro man, Argentine Gonzalo Higuain, on the bench until the 75th minute. Even then, in his quarter hour showing, Higuain came close to an equaliser from a cleverly angled header.
Allegri defended his decision to rest Higuain in favour of Croat Mario Mandzukic, as he also defended his decision to lay the playmaking onus on Bosnian Mirajlem Pjanic. He argued rather that the defeat might serve as a useful lesson to his team, saying:
“Maybe this defeat will do us some good because it hurts. Above all, we will all come back down to earth with a bump after this…”
Team captain, goalkeeper Gigi Buffon argued that the Lichtsteiner goal had given Juventus the illusion that they would go on to win the game, adding:
“Up to that moment, Inter had really worried us and, accordingly, we were being very careful. When we took the lead like that, we thought to ourselves, ah well, we’re going to win this one, without really deserving to…Mind you, a defeat like this can only do us good”
In the meantime, down at Napoli, they are not complaining. Top of the table this week, Napoli can now say that there is “life after Higuain” after all, especially since their replacement striker, the ex-Ajax and Poland star, Arkadiusz Milik, scored his second double this season in Saturday night’s 3-1 defeat of Bologna.
In the Eternal City of Rome, however, they are rather less happy after losing 1-0 to Fiorentina thanks to a clearly offside 82nd minute goal, scored by Croat Milan Badelj. Even the now customary final quarter hour from super-sub Francesco Totti could not work its usual magic.
One final thought this week. Chievo striker Riccardo Meggiorini earned himself a more than honourable mention in dispatches last weekend for his role in defending a young woman who, late at night in central Verona, was being physically abused by her male “partner”.
The incident happened under Meggiorini’s window at three in the morning. Hearing the shouting, he went down and rugby tackled the man to the ground, restraining him until such time as the carabinieri arrived. He has since rejected the “hero” label widely applied to him by the media, saying that he had only done “what anybody else would have done”. His modesty does him further honour as does the gesture in a world where people often mind their own business and look the other way. For once, a totally positive late night footballer story.