Inter Milan face Lazio at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Saturday night in what must be classified as a must-win match as the club prepares to say farewell to a legend.
Nerazzurri fans are used to these critical final matches but they usually involve Inter chasing the title or a Champions League place -- not fighting over the scraps of qualifying for the Europa League. That, however, is where Inter are at the moment. The good news is that with two matches left in the season, Walter Mazzarri's side are in control of their own destiny. Beat Lazio at home this week and win at Chievo on the final weekend and they are assured of playing in Europe next season.
Lose to Lazio, which would move them to within a point for Inter, and it will be an extremely long week until Chievo. With Chievo battling for survival in Serie A, the Inter game could well determine whether they stay up or get relegated. That is not an atmosphere that Inter want to go into, needing three points for Europe. It is therefore imperative to beat Lazio at home and ease the pressure on the club.
Recent history is on Lazio's side as they have won the past four meetings between the teams, including a 3-1 victory in the corresponding fixture almost exactly a year ago. The Stadio Giuseppe Meazza has not been its usual fortress this season, as the home side have won only twice there in 2014, picking up 12 points from a possible 27.
That disappointing home form has contributed to their struggles to wrap up a Europa League place. Just seven wins and 23 goals all season at home is not what the Nerazzurri fans are used to seeing.
Saturday night’s game will be the final home appearance for Inter stars Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel, Diego Milito and Esteban Cambiasso. It will be an emotional night for Zanetti, who will go down as one of the all-time Inter greats, but the contributions of Milito, Samuel and Cambiasso to the club’s success should not be overlooked. The four stars have picked up over 50 winners medals combined, including the Champions League and FIFA World Club Cup. Those will be big shoes for the board to fill this summer.
Another big player, Rodrigo Palacio, put Inter on his shoulders and carried the team to victory in the early stages of the season. He led the line alone and was the only consistent scoring threat the team had.
I am not sure whether it is fatigue from playing virtually 90 minutes up front by himself for so many games or adjusting to the presence of Mauro Icardi but Palacio has struggled recently. We see flashes of his brilliance as we did against Sampdoria away last month, but that was followed up with three very average performances against Parma, Napoli and AC Milan. Last weekend, Palacio blasted a great chance well over the bar in the derby, an opportunity that he would have buried earlier in the season.
With only two games left, Inter need Palacio to find his early-season form if they are to wrap up a Europa League place. Anything other than a win at home on Saturday night is unthinkable. Supporters will hope that on an emotional night, when the San Siro waves goodbye to Zanetti, the emotion of the crowd carries the team to victory.
Will Mazzarri be brave? Will he be proactive and take the game to Lazio and try and win with style? Or will he be cautious and afraid to lose, playing the game in a conservative manner, looking for a 1-0 victory? While home supporters want the former, the fear is Mazzarri's pragmatism stifling expressiveness in attack, rendering the match a nervy one for the Nerazzurri and their fans.