Sampdoria have been described as the surprise of the season, but a quick glance at their fixtures shows that their course is less outlandish than most would have it be. 12 points from the first four games were achievable, considering the rather unimpressive adversaries and barring Udinese, who were low in form. When Sampdoria was faced with the first big team of the league, the dream came to an end. The double combo of Fiorentina and Inter means that Sampdoria will now slide back in the tables. Against the Nerazzurri, a draw would suffice. For their own part, Inter expect nothing less than a win, but they will be walking into the game with a couple of worries. To begin with, Sampdoria have been a dark figure for Inter for a couple of years now, earning draws and even victories which no-one would have expected. Also, they are playing at home, which makes them twice as threatening. The game will have to be handled with some care by José Mourinho, but while the man knows that it is not the easiest of fixtures, he also knows that it is far from inaccessible. Luigi Del Neri, for his own part, will be attempting a masterpiece or a miracle.
Our season preview for Sampdoria predicted that the team would start out strongly but eventually cave in to their weaknesses in the defensive department, mainly as a direct consequence of their best central defender, Hugo Armando Campagnaro, leaving over the summer to Napoli. This is exactly what happened against Fiorentina, and the story is bound to repeat itself with Inter. Del Neri has designed a team that is comparatively rigid so far, with all of the players following their roles in a classic 4-4-2 except for Antonio Cassano, who roams freely on the pitch and usually starts out from the flanks. This results in an interesting tactical balance between anarchy and discipline. Sampdoria are a team that can execute when asked to fulfil simple tasks while simultaneously possessing creative alternatives should the adversary prove too compact. If the team (and Cassano) are having a good day, then they may succeed in the Herculean task of breaking through the steel defence of the Nerazzurri, including the beast that is their keeper Julio Cesar. The problem is that the number of goals scored is unlikely to stand up to the goals conceded, meaning that a result against Inter will require not just a strong offence but an absolutely sensational performance by the defenders.
23 Stankevicius – 28 Gastaldello – 13 M. Rossi – 8 Zauri
20 Padalino – 17 Palombo – 12 Tissone – 7 Mannini
99 Cassano – 10 Pazzini
Morale and psychology will be key to the success of the Nerazzurri at the Stadio Marassi, where last year they allowed themselves to slack and lost 3-0 to this same team in the Coppa Italia semi-finals. Inter have been picking up results, but their game still comes a few sparks short of scintillating. Now that Thiago Motta has been lost to injury, their fluidity and dynamism is bound to come into question even more sharply. It is time for Mourinho to start trying out alternatives and testing new combinations – not to defeat Sampdoria specifically, but as a way of preparing himself for the future. His usual formation – the 4-3-1-2 with the magnificent duo of Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o upfront – should be enough to overpower the Blucerchiati, but it could come short against some of the major teams he will face in the future. Time will tell. For the time being, Mourinho can relax in the knowledge that his attack needs no special directives to burn down a Dorian defence whose only strength rests in a surprisingly in-form keeper, Luca Castellazzi. His questions in defence are not quite as clear-cut – Cassano is the main threat, but man-marking him would be self-defeating and destabilising given his tendency to roam in all positions of the pitch. Rather, the best option would be keeping the flanks covered while closing Cassano’s passing outlets by marking Giampaolo Pazzini, his fellow striker. The rest must be left in the hands of Julio Cesar, and very safe hands they are.
12 Julio Cesar
13 Maicon – 6 Lucio – 25 Samuel – 26 Chivu
4 J. Zanetti – 19 Cambiasso – 5 Stankovic
22 Milito – 9 Eto’o
The magnitude of the challenge standing before Sampdoria cannot be overstated. Other than Juventus, there is no team in the league as powerful as Inter at the moment. Still, Sampdoria have proved their worth against the Nerazzurri on multiple occasions in the past few years, and they should go into the match confident in the knowledge that their team is stronger than it has been in years. Del Neri is not a fool, and he will deploy the team in the best way to hurt his rivals. Mourinho can take the game with a little more confidence, but he will have to work on the heads and the hearts of his men to make sure that they play to the best of their ability. Anything short of that could penalise them and give Sampdoria a golden draw (if not more, but that would be audacious). To Inter, this game is a rite of passage – they must use it to evolve as a team while picking up three points on the way. For the Dorians, this represents the toughest moment of their campaign until the fourteenth fixture, which inaugurates a challenging trio in games against Genoa, Milan and Roma. They are bound to put their hearts in it, which is what Mourinho will be asking of his men. Del Neri will have the morale but he will lack the quality. Unfortunately for him, this is not something that can be summoned by means of good management.