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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 March 2019

Brittle Inter in need of Europa League pick-me-up ahead of Milan derby

Loss of form, injuries, suspensions and a public falling out with the team's star player do not bode well ahead of last-16 visit of Eintracht Frankfurt

Inter Milan's Matteo Politano, centre, could be pressed into a striker's role against Eintract Frankfurt owing to Inter's problems. AFP
Inter Milan's Matteo Politano, centre, could be pressed into a striker's role against Eintract Frankfurt owing to Inter's problems. AFP

The Europa League’s most potent attacking ensemble comes to San Siro this evening, and the players of Eintracht Frankfurt, top scorers in the competition, have grounds for optimism ahead of the second leg of their last-16 tie with Inter Milan.

They scored the last of their 23 European goals three weeks ago, closing out a 4-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk so, after a 0-0 draw at home to Inter, they feel they are due a goal or three. They will encounter an Inter severely depleted, too, with as many as 10 senior players ruled out by injury, suspension, or ineligibility, the club being restricted on the numbers they can register because of a Uefa Financial Fair Play sanction.

And it would surprising if Inter were not a little distracted as well, given the fixture that follows: it is the Milan derby on Sunday, and the city rivalry has been sharpened by AC Milan’s leapfrogging Inter in the Serie A table at the beginning of March.

This is the time of the year when supporters of of Italy’s most notoriously brittle club neurotically diagnose signs of impending collapse. They can detect a few. First, there is the ongoing soap opera around leading goalscorer and now former captain, Mauro Icardi, who is currently recuperating from a knee problem - he will miss Thursday’s game but has an outside chance of making the derby - and certainly not doing so quietly.

Mauro Icardi alongside wife Wanda Nara. The Inter Milan striker is currently recuperating from a knee problem, but was stripped of the captaincy by manager Luciano Spalletti. Reuters
Mauro Icardi alongside wife Wanda Nara. The Inter Milan striker is currently recuperating from a knee problem, but was stripped of the captaincy by manager Luciano Spalletti. Reuters

Thanks in part to his wife and representative, Wanda Nara’s chatterbox, talk-show-friendly style, the issue of Icardi’s future at Inter is a constant on the news agenda and it is disruptive. The Argentina striker was last month stripped of the captain’s armband amid reports of a difficult relationship with some teammates and with manager Luciano Spalletti. Samir Handanovic, the long-serving goalkeeper who should make his 50th appearance in European club competition, is the new captain.

Then there is the jittery league form. Having gone into the winter recess third in Serie A, eight points clear of fifth, Inter had hoped to roar into the new year. But their last eight league games have yielded just 11 points. The cushion above fifth place is down to three points; Serie A’s top four qualify for the Champions League, and that represents a minimum target for Spalletti’s employers.

They are out of the Coppa Italia, too, thanks to defeat via penalty shoot-out in their quarter-final, at San Siro against Lazio at the end of January, and the European adventure this season has been something of an emotional roller-coaster so far. All the more so when you recall how it began, amid high drama on the final day of the 2018/19 league season: until nine minutes from the end of the 38th match of the Serie A calendar, Inter were fifth in the table. Two goals in three minutes carried them from 2-1 behind against Lazio, in Rome, and into their first Champions League season since 2012 at Lazio’s expense.

The campaign had a promising start, when in a steely display, they came back from a goal down against Tottenham Hotspur in the first game of a difficult group to win 2-1. After two matches they had maximum points and on Matchday 4 they held Barcelona to a draw to set up likely progress to the knockouts. Then came the collapse: defeat at Wembley to Spurs and a failure to beat PSV Eindhoven in their last game consigned Inter to the Europa League, where although Rapid Vienna were dispatched comfortably in the first knockout round, the step towards quarter-finals has already proved taxing.

“We missed an real opportunity in Germany,” Spalletti said of the first leg against Eintracht, in which Marcelo Brozovic had a penalty saved by Kevin Trapp. No away goal, then, and now a scramble to find enough fit strikers for the home leg. Lautaro Martinez is suspended, Icardi unfit, so it will be a makeshift arrangement up front, with Ivan Perisic, who usually mans the left flank, or Matteo Politano, most useful operating on the right, likely to be pressed into greater penalty box duty.

They will not be served by Kwadwo Asamoah’s crosses, either, the Ghanaian suspended, while midfield dynamo Radja Nainggolan and centre-back Miranda, both important leaders of the team, are on the long injury list, a list Spalletti dreads seeing extend on Tsday, with AC Milan up next.

Updated: March 14, 2019 10:51 AM

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