x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Problems for Inter Milan keep mounting up

The word from the dressing room is that Claudio Ranieri is losing his grip, writes Ian Hawkey.

Juventus' forward Mirko Vucinic, right, celebrates after scoring against Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium in Milan earlier this season on October 29, 2011.
Juventus' forward Mirko Vucinic, right, celebrates after scoring against Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium in Milan earlier this season on October 29, 2011.

With just one win from their past nine Serie A outings, Inter Milan are in a desperate search for inspiration. The ability of their coach, Claudio Ranieri, to summon it is each week cast into greater doubt, and word from the dressing room is that the senior players have lost some faith in him.

The loudest voice there is no longer always his. When Inter beat Chievo, their one highlight in the oast two months, credit was given to the passionate words uttered by the goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, at the interval rather than anything said or done by Ranieri.

Julio Cesar, a pillar of the Inter who won the Champions League, the scudetto and the Coppa Italia two seasons ago, has had to deliver a few apologies lately, too.

He looked at fault when Inter crashed out of Europe to Marseille earlier this month and the Brazilian keeper, brilliant some days, has not been immune to the symptoms of decline that afflict many of the Inter veterans.

Talk of his credentials as one of the best custodians in the world is heard less often; Inter have been leaking goals at nearly two a game since the middle of January.

Goalkeepers, like strikers, can have bad runs; they just feel lonelier during them. But form can return, as Julio Cesar's opposite number in tomorrow's Derby d'Italia could assure him.

Gianluigi Buffon is among the main reasons why Juventus, second in the league table, host Inter - seventh - tomorrow with by far the strongest defensive record in Serie A.

Juve have conceded a mere 17 goals in the league this term, Inter more than twice as many. Juve have lately drawn too many games they might have won, letting AC Milan take over the top spot, but they are formidably hard to score against. In the last 15 Serie A matches, only seven goals have been conceded.

Or rather eight have, but only seven were given. The image of Buffon scooping out a shot by Milan's Sulley Muntari from well behind the goal-line in last month's summit contest is still being replayed regularly on Italian television.

The referee's assistant failed to spot the goal, and Buffon candidly said that announcing when he was aware a ball had crossed the line was not something he, as an ambitious professional, was ready to do.

Buffon heard some criticism for those comments.

He will live with it. Far more hurtful, he recently admitted, were the criticisms around this time last year, the suggestions that after a lengthy injury and entering his mid-30s, his powers were in decline.

"Some of the things people said were not very respectful," he said.

"They said I was finished."

The coach of Juventus last season, Gigi Del Neri, did not go that far, but he tended to be taciturn when invited to praise Italy's No 1 goalkeeper. The arrival of Antonio Conte as Del Neri's successor meant an ex-teammate in charge. Buffon and Conte were in the same Juventus sides between 2001 and 2004.

That sort of situation can pose challenges for a young coach, but the rapport between the two seems strong.

Conte certainly can take much credit for the tightening up of Juve's defence. Stephan Lichtsteiner, signed last summer, has been an asset at right-back, and Andrea Barzagli has produced several dominant performances in the centre of the back line.

Buffon has kept 14 clean sheets in his 26 Serie A games this season.

Against Inter, Buffon will lack some of his customary protection. Lichtsteiner is suspended, which should mean Martin Caceres deputises. Barzagli may be ruled out by injury.

Some shreds of hope for Inter? Perhaps, although the consensus is that Julio Cesar should expect to be the busier of the two distinguished goalkeepers.