An Inter Milan win over leaders Napoli might be a step too far
Inter fans have been in heaven since Sunday. As if defeating bitter rivals Milan with a last-minute penalty wasn't good enough, Lazio's unexpected win over Juventus saw Luciano Spalletti's men leapfrog the Old Lady to grab second place.
Now a trip to leaders Napoli beckons, and some in the press are positive that Inter can get a result and defy all the odds -- something borne out by a number of Beneamata veterans interviewed by the Corriere dello Sport.
Yet, this frankly feels like a bridge too far for this Inter side, and a poor game with which to measure their quality. A good performance would, admittedly, be further proof that Spalletti is taking his men down the right path, but we've already seen plenty of positive signs. It would be unnecessary for Nerazzurri fans to pump themselves up and then claim all is lost when the game ends badly -- as encounters at the San Paolo often do.
The truth is that Napoli are the obvious favourites for Saturday's game: they have gone from strength to strength under Maurizio Sarri, either conquering their opponents with their swashbuckling football or eking out wins from tough situations, the mark of a true champion. They even played a very good hour's worth of football against what is widely considered to be a top-four Champions League favourite in Man City midweek. This is light years ahead of Inter right now.
The gap in quality is astounding: the likes of Danilo D'Ambrosio or Yuto Nagatomo would be nowhere near Napoli's squad, let alone their starting lineup.
The truth is that Inter have been sharp enough to make the most of some luck (their woodwork has been hit eight times, a joint record with Saint-Etienne among the top five) and done the best they can with what is still a limited squad. They're a work in progress: Dalbert Henrique and Joao Cancelo still have to prove they belong, and Joao Miranda may need a replacement sooner rather than later.
One could, in fact, argue that Napoli would still obviously be favourites to finish ahead of Inter even if the Nerazzurri won Saturday. It would be better if Spalletti's men learned how to handle the Bolognas and Crotones of this world without major hiccups.
This is not to say the game is a lost cause: Marek Hamsik hasn't looked great, while another Pepe Reina blunder could very well gift Inter a win they might not deserve. Lorenzo Insigne is injured, and may be replaced by Piotr Zielinski. The Pole is a superb player -- remember the stunning effort he sent past Samir Handanovic in this fixture last season? -- but still a step down from Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Trouble is, the balance of probabilities simply isn't on Inter's side. Why would beating a Milan side that has lost half their games be proof the Nerazzurri are ready to go to Naples and get a result, or indeed compete for the highest honours? Beyond that, it only takes one Nagatomo mistake to completely compromise everything, which is not-so-coincidentally what happened when Inter tried to park the bus against Napoli at home last season.
To be perfectly brutal, Inter have shown grit, determination, the ability to change tactics during a game and to make the most of what they have -- but their most (or rather their best) probably won't be enough here. This blog would sign on the dotted line for a strong performance, even if it resulted in a loss -- as Roberto Mancini's Inter did in the 2015-2016 season. Speaking of that Mancini team, Napoli could well line up 10 of the 11 players who started that day. Inter could, at best, manage six.
And there's the point: The Azzurri have been building for this. It would be wonderful if Inter could achieve the same kind of consistency. They've had positive runs over a dozen or so games under Claudio Ranieri, Mancini and Stefano Pioli. Napoli's 168 points over two seasons is just in another league.
Is focusing on the future an easy cop-out? Perhaps, especially when one considers that Inter haven't competed in ages, and that this is their best start since the days of Hector Cuper -- who, ironically, never won a Scudetto here.
Then again, what else could be expected after an underwhelming summer and last season's seventh place?
Edoardo Dalmonte covers Inter Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @EdoDalmonte.