It’s a bit sad that Inter-Roma, a match which for the past two years has represented the best of what Italian football can offer, should now present itself in such grey garbs. The team from the capital has been powerfully impoverished this year and is languishing seventeen points behind the Nerazzurri rivals, who in turn enjoy a nine-point lead over second-placed Juventus and seem all set to swoop up another Scudetto. There no longer are the same odds at stake. Furthermore the confrontation takes place in the break between two immensely interesting Champions League ties involving the two teams. It seems only too logical that interest should have waned.
It is then to an atypical iteration of this duel that we turn our attention this weekend, one where the tactical blueprints put out by the Coaches (simple or complex as they may be) will struggle to hold tight before an awkward and unpredictable psychological condition. Players will be tired – mentally even more so than physically – from last Tuesday, and while Inter is the obvious favourite, a lot will turn on which team truly finds the will to fight and bite.
In recent history, Inter-Roma was a clash between power and speed. Today, with the tactical disbandment of Roma (and the subsequent dissolution of their fast-paced passing), both teams will sport a very muscular midfield. Esteban Cambiasso and Daniele De Rossi will mirror each other in their roles, each asked to orchestrate the defensive tactics of the midfield while occasionally contributing to the forward momentum. But the rest of the Nerazzurri midfield is more flexible than that of their adversaries, and depending on the form of the individual players, they will have the possibility of carrying forward their offences from just about every side.
The same privilege is not afforded to Roma, despite the fact that the two teams play with the same formation and a correspondingly similar tactical disposition. A lot will depend on which player Coach Luciano Spalletti decides to field as the offensive midfielder playing behind the forwards. The usual pick for that role is Julio Baptista, who provides the power to drive the team upwards while adding a substantial contribution of his own to the finalising stages of the attack. But the poor form of striker Mirko Vucinic (still recuperating from injury) suggests Baptista may be used as a pure forward in place of the Montenegrin. In that case, the trequartista role would fall on one of two players – David Pizarro, who had a very encouraging game against Arsenal and deserves a starting spot, or Simone Perrotta, who provides – well, nothing. With pretty ghastly skills in defence as well as offence, Perrotta has to be one of the most overrated players in Serie A, and Spalletti’s fixation with the man is starting to resemble an Aristotelian anagnorisis – one of those fatal flaws you find in Greek tragedy which the hero keeps banging his or head against until his situation stops being bad and becomes catastrophic.
A positive thing to keep an eye on during the match will be the action on the flanks. The tie will put Roma’s Marco Motta and Inter’s Davide Santon, respectively the right-back and the left-back of the two teams, face to face with each other. Santon has been very solid so far with Inter and Motta was the only starter against Arsenal who provided mobility on the pitch. Both are very young and bear great promise for a future in the Azzurri (along with Juventus’ Paolo De Ceglie, they may mark a very welcome end to the current drought of Italian lateral players). It will be interesting to see them confront each other.
Another confrontation which is bound to be interesting, though for completely different reasons, will be that between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the current version of the Roman defence. Given the injury of Juan, Roma were forced to go into the tie against Arsenal with Simone Loria as a starter, a man who gives the impression of being someone who has chosen the wrong career every time he steps on a football pitch. Against Inter the Giallorossi should hopefully be able to field Christian Panucci, a far more solid option, but the disparity between Spalletti and Jose Mourinho remains manifest – Mourinho can select from a variety of options in his offensive game to suit the situation as it develops (Adriano and Mario Balotelli being the obvious – and fearsome – names), while Spalletti’s choices are limited in defence as well as in offence. The fact that he is forced to field Francesco Totti even when the latter plays like a Vietnam veteran on a wheelchair is an utterly preoccupying sign. It is also a measure of how static Roma’s tactics are, incapable of adapting themselves to absences, lows in form and injuries. Inter, by contrast, are winning because they are flexible. They can find solutions to a closed-up Siena as much as they can to an all-powerful Manchester United. Given that flexible always beats static when it comes to strategy, it will take a real psychological carnival for Inter to lose this. Given the current circumstances, that possibility should hardly be considered a remote one.