Tough stretch for Inter begins at Lazio

Posted by David Wilson

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty ImagesWalter Mazzarri's Inter will face two tough road fixtures in the span of a week.

Serie A action returns from its winter break this weekend and Inter gets right back to work with three games in a week. Inter travel to Rome to play Lazio on Monday, then head to Fiorentina for a Coppa Italia tie on 9 January, before ending the busy week with a home game against Verona on 13 January.

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It is a tough start to 2014 for an Inter side that struggled away from home in the first half of the season. Inter have played eight games away from the friendly confines of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza and have a record of W3 D4, L1.

One loss is really good, but it is the draws which have hurt Inter, dropping points at Cagliari, Torino, Atalanta and Bologna. In those matches there were at least four points that could be the difference between playing Champions League or Europa League football next season.

Inter Team

Games during the transfer window are difficult ones to analyze, as you never know whether transfer speculation around a player will impact his performance.

And for Inter that is a potential issue with a couple of key players. Fredy Guarin has been in talks with Chelsea for a couple of weeks now about a possible move to the Premier League.

Esteban Cambiasso is entering the last six months of his contract and he can now talk to other clubs about next season.

How will either of those situations affect how Guarin and Cambiasso play on Monday?

On the injury front, Inter boss Walter Mazzarri has to make a decision on who he will partner Cambiasso and Ricky Alvarez in midfield as Saphir Taider has been ruled out of action with a thigh injury.

Throughout the season, Mazzarri has continually rotated Taider and Mateo Kovacic, frequently starting Taider and bringing on Kovacic for the young Algerian midfielder around the 60 minute mark.

So the easy move for Mazzarri to make is a like for like swap and start Kovacic. But Mazzarri had a similar decision to make before the Milan derby when Alvarez was suspended, and he started Javier Zanetti over Kovacic to give his back three some protection.

I expect Mazzarri to do something similar here. Away from home, in a hostile environment, I expect Mazzarri to keep the game tight for the opening hour or so. If that is the case, then his decision on who to replace Taider comes down to either Zanetti or Zdravko Kuzmanovic.

Kuzmanovic has been injured almost all season, but he appears to be fit at the moment. The advantage Kuzmanovic has over Zanetti is that he is a little more dynamic than the Inter captain. He can not only sit in front of the Inter back three and protect them, but he is athletic enough to join Cambiasso and Alvarez in attack.

With the three games in seven days, there will be opportunities for Kuzmanovic, Zanetti and Kovacic to play, but against Lazio I expect Kuzmanovic to get the nod.

Defensively, Mazzarri has another decision to make as Hugo Campagnaro is suspended. That means the back three will probably consist of Rolando, Andrea Ranocchia and Juan Jesus, with a healthy Walter Samuel on the bench. I am not a big fan of that defence, but with Samuel expected to start against Fiorentina in the cup next week, I don't expect Mazzarri to play the veteran defender twice in three days.

Up front, Inter fans will be hoping that Guarin and Rodrigo Palacio pick up where they left off before the winter break. Palacio has been one of the surprises of the season and his 10 goals are the third most in Serie A this season.

Without a reliable backup, Mazzarri has been forced to play Palacio in almost every game this season, so the winter break has hopefully allowed Palacio to get some rest and recharge his batteries for the second half of the season.

It is no secret that Inter want to sell Guarin, so every match is an opportunity for him to showcase his talents and show the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United the type of player he is. That can work in Inter's favor, as a motivated and engaged Guarin is one of the best players in Serie A.

Prediction

Lazio is an a mess at the moment with this bizarre coaching standoff between Vladimir Petkovic and Edoardo Reja. Reja has been leading Lazio's training session since December 30, despite having no formal contract, nor mention of him as their coach because there is a legal battle going on with Petkovic. Who knows who will be on the sidelines leading Lazio on Monday.

Hopefully that is a situation that Inter can exploit and start 2014 off with a valuable away win and three points.

Score: Lazio 1 Inter 2.

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