In front of a loud and passionate crowd at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Saturday night, Inter fans waved goodbye to one of the true legends in world football, on a night when the Nerazzurri locked up Europa League football for next season with a 4-1 win vs. Lazio.
After a brilliant first half performance, which saw Inter jump out to a 3-1 lead through two goals from Rodrigo Palacio and one from Mauro Icardi, the hosts withstood a lot of pressure from Lazio and wrapped up the all-important three points when Hernanes scored with a shot from outside the penalty box in the 79th minute.
The win, and first half performance especially, was the icing on the cake for 70,000 fans who had shown up to salute the legend that is Javier Zanetti.
With the game firmly in control, Walter Mazzarri made the move that everyone wanted to see, bringing the 40-year-old on for Jonathan in the 52nd minute. The Inter captain’s armband had the name of every player who has ever had the privilege of playing with him, and the Meazza rose as one every time he touched the ball.
In his final appearance in the stadium, Zanetti turned back the clock with some great runs down the right flank, showing that even at his age, he can still compete at the highest level.
Credit to Mazzarri for also getting Diego Milito onto the pitch early in the second half also, when he replaced Palacio after 62 minutes. This was Zanetti’s night, but the Inter fans will never forget Milito delivering the Champions League trophy on that summer’s night in 2010 at the Bernabeu and the stadium was bouncing at his introduction.
As the Nerazzurri faithful waved goodbye to the Zanetti, Milito and Walter Samuel (Esteban Cambiasso was suspended and missed the game), the mantle was being passed to the future stars of the club, Mateo Kovacic and Mauro Icardi.
Kovacic was absolutely superb. According to whoscored.com, he had 90 touches, a 90 percent passing accuracy and made five defence-splitting passes. His pass for Palacio's goal was world class, and was only bettered by his pass to Icardi that gave Inter the lead. He completed a hat trick of assists by setting up Hernanes.
Inter fans clamored for Mazzarri to play Kovacic for months before he finally changed formations to get him and Icardi into the team. As he regained his confidence by playing every week, he started to show his brilliance. Except for the derby loss vs. Milan, Kovacic has been terrific the last month of so, and with him and Hernanes in the middle of the park, Inter have a midfield duo that can compete with the best in Serie A next season.
Icardi continued his streak of never being on the losing side at Inter when he scores. While the media may focus on his off-field issues, there is no mistaking his immense talent. Saturday’s goal was his ninth of the season; not a bad return for a 21-year-old striker who has only made 12 starts this season. Like Kovacic, Icardi has got better as the season ended, scoring six goals in Inter’s last nine games, and five in the last six matches. Inter have one of the best young strikers in Europe, and if he stays healthy next season, with Hernanes and Kovacic pulling the strings in midfield, Icardi should get 20 goals.
Saturday’s first half was a good a 45 minutes as Inter have played in months. The players were up for the game and the big crowd was right behind the team as they witnessed their team playing at a high tempo, and pressuring Lazio all over the pitch.
But it would not be an Inter win without a grumble at Mazzarri’s second half tactics. Once again Inter stopped the high pressure, preferring to play deeper and invite traffic. As a result of the tactical change, there was a 20-minute period before Hernanes’ goal during which Inter could not get out of their own half and if it was not for some outstanding goalkeeping from Samir Handanovic, Lazio would have scored at least one, if not more.
We have seen this time and time again this season, when Mazzarri tries to protect what lead Inter has, and it has rarely worked. This team is not set up to defend, and 15 draws this season reflect that. It is one of my biggest pet peeves about Mazzarri and I hope it is a tactical approach that he changes over the summer.
But this was a night that belonged to Javier Zanetti and the Inter fans stayed long into the night to salute their captain, their legend. The win, the three points and European qualification was a fitting end on what was a memorable occasion at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.