So Roberto Donadoni still has trouble winning, which is not good news for the Neapolitans. Who knows how many of them have personal memories of the times when Diego Maradona made them the best team in the world. It must be like remembering Napoleon. The golden age has shifted and now it is Inter that seemingly reap the benefits, at least judging by their recent streak of domestic titles. José Mourinho comes into this contest with the one quality that Donadoni truly lacks – the ability to instil courage into his men. The amusing thing about this match is that, were the Coaches of the two teams exchanged, the predictions for victory would go the other way round. Napoli have enough talent to take down Inter, and Inter have enough holes to lose against a weaker rival. But the psychological chasm between the winning mentality of the Nerazzurri and the anxious atmosphere at the house of the Partenopei is enough to gift us with a script, and the script has Inter as the winners. Nothing remains to be seen but whether the game will follow that script.
Inter have been struggling for a while with the relationship between their offence and their midfield. Wesley Sneijder has been used in alternation with Dekan Stankovic to link the two departments, and while they are both strong players in many ways, they are hardly the best trequartisti in Serie A. The offence of the Nerazzurri includes a road runner like Samuel Eto’o, used to being served by a dynamic midfield capable of exploiting his speed – and the only outlet for creativity in the middle is Thiago Motta, who is now injured. The result of these discrepancies means that the chemistry of the team is very inconsistent, sputtering out into predictability for one game and turning into a devastating goal-scoring machine for the next (witness the polar opposition between their first and second game of the season, an insipid draw against Bari and an unprecedented triumph against Milan). Against Napoli, Mourinho is unlikely to experiment with solutions to this problem, preferring instead to rely on the experience and class of his players as he fields them in the usual 4-3-1-2. It just might be the right choice. Inter have given signs of suffering against physical rather than technical teams, and Napoli, with a midfield composed of flimsy youngsters such as Marek Hamsik and Luca Cigarini, have little in the way of physicality. Considering Inter are also playing at home, the old recipe should be enough to pick up a win. Other questions will have to be asked in the long run, but this approach will suffice for the immediate present.
12 Júlio César
13 Maicon – 6 Lúcio – 25 Samuel – 26 Chivu
4 J. Zanetti – 19 Cambiasso – 5 Stankovic
22 Milito – 9 Eto’o
In order to sink or at least dent the battleship that is Inter, Napoli will require multiple options coming forwards. They must be capable of attacking from the centre and the wings alike, finding spaces both outside and inside the box. On paper, the Partenopei have a team that is multi-talented enough to do this, but executing it in practice – especially at the San Siro – will require lots of courage, strength and confidence. This is especially true with respect to the wings. While Napoli should have no problem channelling their offensive runs through the middle, with Hamsik orchestrating things and the duo of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Fabio Quagliarella coming back to link up with him, wingers such as Christian Maggio have no fullbacks to support them and will therefore meet with exhausting demands on the run. It is doubtful, if not straight-out unlikely, that they will be able to offer support in both assault and containment – if the formation changes from the 3-5-2 to Donadoni’s beloved 4-3-3, as in the game against Udinese, then the same holds true for the fullbacks. As for the defence, Inter rely on the talent of their individuals more than they do on collective team-play, so it should be enough to stick Leandro Rinaudo or Matteo Contini onto Diego Milito and the other two defenders onto Eto’o – Fabiano Santacroce may be a little too young to deal with the ex-Barcelona forward on his own, so the support of Paolo Cannavaro may be required. The absence of Motta from the ranks of Inter is a true blessing and it suggests that one of the midfielders should be placed on the heels of Sneijder. Manuele Blasi comes to mind as a good man to do this.
26 De Sanctis
13 Santacroce – 28 P. Cannavaro – 96 Contini
11 Maggio – 23 Gargano – 21 Cigarini – 17 Hamsik – 15 Dátolo
27 Quagliarella – 7 Lavezzi
‘Look unto my works and despair.’ It might as well be the slogan of Mourinho. Any team daring to enter the inferno of the San Siro will feel immediately intimidated, and this is all the more true for Napoli, who are led by a man so placid that he would fight for a draw in a match against eleven scarecrows. In theory, Napoli have a lot of firepower, to the extent that they could even compete with Roma and Fiorentina for that coveted fourth place. The reality of their team has a core of talented players who cannot coalesce into a homogeneous group, mainly due to a Coach who proves deficient as far as psychological management goes. Before them stands one of the most solid and professional teams in Europe. Inter do suffer from some tactical shortcomings, but Napoli do not have the steady head to exploit them. The only hope for the Partenopei is in the absence of Thiago Motta, who is key to the creativity of the Nerazzurri, and the possibility that said absence may make Mourinho’s team stagnate. Even then, it would be ambitious to aim for anything more than a draw, but those who take no risks reap no rewards.