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Ten days is a long time in the world of calcium.
On Wednesday, November 25, Inter’s season appeared to be in shambles. Poor results in the league had seen the Nerazzurri fall five points behind the leader and bitter rival Milan, while Antonio Conte’s hate-hate relationship with the Champions League reached new heights.
The Italian has always struggled to repeat his domestic exploits in Europe, and with just two match days to go in the current edition, Inter were looking down the barrel of another humiliating exit from the group stage.
A loose 2-0 loss to Real Madrid left Inter with two points from four games and five points adrift from Los Blancos in second place. For all concerned, that meant curtains. For Conte, it was another disaster that he couldn’t afford to fight with his club.
Off the field it wasn’t much better either. All the talk revolved around the future of failure Christian Eriksen, who hasn’t left a mark on the San Siro since arriving from Tottenham last January, while forward Lautaro Martinez hired superagent Jorge Mendes to engineer a move out of Italy.
Everything seemed as if we were approaching the end of the day for the passionate Italian coach. Excuses to the maximum, results to the minimum. Everything was very Chelsea 2018.
And yet here we are, ten days later, and the world is a much more optimistic place in Milan.
An important factor in the I Nerazzurri improvements is the return of key faces at the back. Conte’s reluctance to switch from a defensive three (despite possessing only one fit central defender) left the coach plugging many square pegs with round holes.
Aleksandar Kolarov is no longer good enough to play center-back, forget it. Fortunately, Alessandro Bastoni and Milan Skriniar have recovered from their injury and the problems of the coronavirus, lining up alongside Stefan de Vrij in a much more comfortable and solid rearguard.
This whole renaissance began with a true spectacle of fighting and spirit of Conte against the high-flying Sassuolo. I Neroverdi hoped to take advantage of the weakest part of Inter, but I was not so lucky. Instead, the visitors flew to Sassuolo, scoring two early goals and then killing the game on the hour. They earned three huge points and a reminder of what this site can do when they are fit.
Next, a trip to Germany. Traveling to the leaders of the Borussia Monchengladbach group, it was truly life or death for the visitors. I Nerazzurri stood up to be counted, in large part thanks to superstar forward Romelu Lukaku and his excellent double.
That 3-2 win, combined with Madrid’s shocking loss to Shakhtar Donetsk, has left Inter slightly ajar to mount the most unlikely comeback and escape this unexpected group of deaths.
So there was a rebound both in the league and in Europe. But that ray of hope needed to be transformed into something more concrete. And on Saturday, the confident and title-defying Inter returned.
If his encounter with Bologna were in a Rocky movie, we would have simply seen the inspiring montage and realized that our leads had recaptured the eye of the tiger. The fire and intensity that had been lacking for the previous month roared back and everything finally fell into place.
Alexis Sánchez was a man who certainly looked like he had been stepping into that franchise for inspo, pairing brilliantly with Lukaku in the final third, and the former Manchester United duo executed some blindingly fast counterattacks to devastating effect.
Lukaku was on hand to lead Inter to the lead against Bologna, displaying the strength and instinctive finishing that has reaffirmed his place among soccer’s offensive elite. He should have increased his account soon after, when Sánchez placed him behind the Bologna defense, but Lukasz Skorupski was up to the task.
However, the Polish goalkeeper had no answer for Achraf Hakimi. Conte has challenged the full-back to offer more in recent weeks, having started out strong but faded as the team slumped. He lived up to his coach’s accusations, producing the kind of display that left the whole of Europe purring during his two years at Borussia Dortmund.
The Moroccan first benefited from an impressive pass that divided Marcelo Brozovic’s defense, and after having tipped his career down the middle of the field, the full-back applied the perfect shot to double his team’s lead.
Even when Bologna found a way back to the match via a touch from Emanuel Vignato, Inter did not lose their minds and surrendered as in previous disasters. Instead, they continued to play their game and reaped the rewards.
Hakimi was at the center of it all again, shooting down the right flank to cut and deliver a super shot in the far corner. And that was the game. No heart in the mouth. No classic Inter crumble. About three old-fashioned points, something Nerazzurri fans have been yearning for for a long time.
Ten days after the brink of disaster, Inter are in second place in Serie A and with their Champions League ambitions still alive. What was all the fuss about?