Inter Milan and Roberto Mancini need win vs. old rival Luciano Spalletti
Between 2005 and 2009, Roberto Mancini faced Luciano Spalletti on many a memorable occasion. Both in their first appointments with Internazionale and Roma respectively, they dominated Serie A as Juventus spiralled into crisis. Now as the two look two face off again in their second tenures with the clubs, the magnitude of the tie still carries great weight and the Nerazzurri coach will be relishing the reunion. This does not mean he will be without caution however, as the game with Champions League implications offers up some intriguing problems.
"I said from the beginning. There are three or four teams stronger than us and now they are back to form," Mancini said. Truth or mind games? Either way, Roma were included in that group and it is his old rival who he has to get the better over on Saturday night. Spalletti and the Nerazzurri tussled over a number of years as the Romans and Milanese fought it out to be Italy's premier club in the wake of the Juventus scandal.
The Giallorossi coach won two Coppa Italias and one Super Coppa Italiana, while the Nerazzurri boss amassed three Scudetti, two Coppa Italias and two Super Coppa Italianas. Inter have not beaten Roma at the Stadio Olimpico since 2008 when these two were still slugging it out and the Milanese 'mister' will be hoping for the same result on Saturday night.
This will be no mean feat as Roma are rejuvenated by the return of their former head coach. They are on a winning run of eight straight and will be eight points clear of Inter with eight games to play if they beat their rivals on Saturday. A loss will effectively end Inter's chances at a UCL spot. Spalletti is aware of this and stated that despite the nostalgia of returning to the Stadio Olimpico he has only one focus: beating Inter.
Inter will be hoping that they can weather the storm they are bound to face when they travel to meet Spalletti's well-drilled and fast-moving collective. Mancini's men will have to be defensively strong to deal with Edin Dzeko, Mohamed Salah, Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy and they have the men to do this. Samir Handanovic continues to play well and Danilo D'Ambrosio produced a man of the match display against Bologna. Joao Miranda was also exemplary and keeps Jeison Murillo in check. Yuto Nagatomo maybe the only concern for the Milanese but his pace should at least work to his advantage in this game.
In midfield it is likely that Gary Medel, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Marcelo Brozovic will start. This has provided the most balance for the Mancini so far as it allows the Chilean to hold, the Croatian to play higher and offer creativity and lets the Frenchman play with less fear, which in turn has seen him produce some of his better displays.
The problems for Inter will come up front, as if Mancini combats Spalletti's 4-2-3-1 by playing the same himself he indeed has few options in the attack. Mirroring the opposition's tactics has worked especially against Genoa and Torino, however it is the lack of firepower on show that will be of concern.
While Adem Ljajic can operate best behind the striker in the Trequartista role and Ivan Perisic has scored in his last three games they are missing Mauro Icardi. The Argentine limped off with a knee injury against Bologna and was expected to be out for a month but then it seemed he was in contention to play. Counter-intuitively, Mancini has now confirmed that he would be unlikely to risk Icardi in a game of this magnitude.
This leaves the job of finding the net to Eder who still is waiting to open his account for the Nerazzurri and despite some superb display,s for the team, he is badly in need of a goal. Rodrigo Palacio's suspension also heaps the pressure on him and fans who frequent San Siro will be hoping that their January signing can do the job away in Rome this weekend.
On Sunday, these best of enemies will renew their old battle with vigour and will likely pick up where they left off. Spalletti has the advantage and it will certainly be no surprise if the Nerazzurri coach sits back and absorbs the pressure hoping to hit on the counter-attack. He will no doubt be quietly confident however, the last time Roma broke their record for most wins was under 'Luciano' and it was brought to a halt by none other than Mancini himself.
Richard Hall is an Italian football writer contributing to ESPN, The Guardian, Daily Mail, IBWM and Football Italia. Follow him on Twitter @Gentleman_Ultra.