Inter's brilliant form, Champions League push must continue vs. Roma
When Helenio Herrera was manager of Inter in the 1960s, one of his famous innovations was to put messages up in the dressing room to motivate his players and focus their minds. The most famous of these was his winning formula: "Class + Preparation + Fitness + Intelligence = THE TITLE." Last week, pictures emerged from inside Inter's gym at Appiano Gentile, showing that Stefano Pioli has maybe taken some inspiration from il Mago.
Sheets of paper are tacked to the wall. Printed on them is a problem, posing a challenge to the players. There is also the solution and a statement of encouragement, underlining Pioli's belief in this team. "Champions League?" it asks. "15 games. 13 wins. For us nothing is impossible."
Looking at the calendar, Pioli must have put this up after the narrow defeat to Juventus in Turin three weeks ago, a game that Max Allegri compared (on account of the performance of both teams) to a "Champions League semifinal."
Impressively, Inter have bounced straight back from that disappointment, claiming back-to-back wins against Empoli and Bologna. These are games you'd expect a team of Inter's standing and ambition to win, but they were without suspended captain and top scorer Mauro Icardi for both and fellow match-winner Ivan Perisic for one as both served bans picked up in the Derby d'Italia. That Inter didn't let those absences check their stride is another glowing endorsement of the job Pioli is doing.
One of the many compliments he has attracted from within at Inter is how, unlike under Frank de Boer, everybody now feels involved and willing to contribute, even fringe players whose game-time has been limited until now. For instance, Eder opened the scoring against Empoli and big summer signing Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa came off the bench and grabbed the winner against Bologna, his first goal for the club.
It hints at a depth Inter didn't know they had under de Boer and it will be tested again on Sunday night when they play Roma.
Miranda, Inter's star centre-back, won't be available. He picked up a yellow card too many at the Dall'Ara last weekend and will be suspended. It's a blow for Inter as one of the reasons people are taking them so seriously is that in addition to winning nine of their last 10 games, they've kept seven clean sheets over the course of that run as well.
For now, it looks like Gary Medel will fill in for Miranda. Bought as a midfielder and deployed in that role by both Roberto Mancini and de Boer, Pioli clearly shares the same opinion as Chile's coaches in recent years, seeing Medel as a centre-back in the Javier Mascherano mould. He likes how his passing ability and vision helps Inter's build from the back. But the fact remains Medel is 5-foot-8 and at the Olimpico, he'll be going up against the 6-foot-4 Serie A top scorer Edin Dzeko.
"The problem isn't so much his height," Medel told Il Corriere dello Sport. "It's the fact Dzeko is a great player and he's scoring loads of goals. You can't make any mistakes against him. It'll take total concentration."
If you can excuse the pun, Sunday will be a tall order even for this Inter side, which is enjoying its best season since the club won the treble under Jose Mourinho despite a calamitous start. Roma are Serie A's top scorers and, frighteningly for their opponents, their attack has been turbo-charged since Mohamed Salah's return from the African Cup of Nations. Roma have scored four goals in back-to-back games. That's now the 10th time they've done that this season; it goes without saying Inter will have to pay attention to Dzeko's hold-up play and Salah's speed on the counter.
Worryingly for them, Roma didn't lose any of the solidity in the Egyptian's absence. Only Chelsea have kept more clean sheets in Europe's top five leagues than the Giallorossi. Wojciech Szczesny is having the best season of his career and merits consideration as Serie A's Goalkeeper of the Year. Fazio has been a big surprise and will probably be voted signing of the season by Roma fans. Kostas Manolas and Antonio Rudiger need no introduction. Emerson Palmieri, meanwhile, has come on leaps and bounds under Spalletti.
They'll all have to be on their toes at San Siro, particularly with Icardi back. You need eyes in the back of your head to defend him and Perisic.
Personally, I wouldn't read too much into Roma's 1-0 defeat to Villarreal on Thursday. After winning the first leg in Spain 4-0, the tie was over. Getting motivated for the second leg was always going to be hard. Yes, the fans whistled the players but the club honestly has bigger concerns at the moment. Like making Rome's mayor and city council see sense and give Roma the green-light for their new stadium. As owner Jim Pallotta said on Wednesday, "the would be catastrophic for the future of Roma, Italian football, the city of Roma and future business in Italy."
Also rumbling in the background is Spalletti's future and his decision to tie it to that of captain Francesco Totti. He won't sign an extension unless Totti gets one too; there is a real fear that he might "do a Fabio Capello" and move to Juventus if Allegri walks at the end of the season. But for now, let's concentrate on the present and leave the future for another time as Sunday's game is very delicately poised.
Ex-Roma and Inter defender Cristian Chivu summed it up rather nicely in Friday's edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I'm curious," he said, "because Pioli and Spalletti have turned utopia into reality: they have found balance with teams this attacking." The bigger picture is Roma have to keep on winning just in case the friction at Juventus blows up and consumes them. A defeat to a rival for a Champions League place would be hard to swallow, particularly going into the week building up to the derby against Lazio.
For Inter, you might say their situation is comparable to Manchester United's in the Premier League. They've hardly stopped winning since Pioli took charge and while they have climbed the table, they remain frustratingly outside the Champions League places. Inter, Napoli and, incredibly, Atalanta can't stop winning; it makes halting them in games like these all the more important.
Inter face each of them at San Siro between now and the end of the season and how they do in these encounters will have a huge bearing on whether they return to the Champions League for the first time since Claudio Ranieri was Inter manager. They have to believe. As those sheets of paper in the gym say: "Nothing is impossible."
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.