Inter Milan have a point to prove in Serie A and UCL after Luka Modric disappointment
Inter Milan are back in the Champions League after six long years in the wilderness, but Thursday's draw only confirmed that this season is off to a difficult start already.
According to the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday, Juventus and Roma are "in heaven," while Inter are "in hell" after AC Milan legend Riccardo Kaka and former Inter flop Diego Forlan placed them in a group with Barcelona, Tottenham and a PSV side that has won every game in the Eredivisie this season.
"We have to think positive," Inter's vice-president Javier Zanetti said, while also defending his club from Real Madrid president Florentino Perez's latest attack for daring to try and sign Luka Modric.
Watching Modric beat Cristiano Ronaldo to the UEFA Player of the Year award must have led many Interisti to ponder what might have been: principally because the need for an imaginative playmaker to make their team's play less predictable is so great.
Inter may have a few regrets, but the big picture is, as the club's chief executive Alessandro Antonelli wished to make clear, that "we are back where we belong." Memories of Jose Mourinho running under the sprinklers, arm out-stretched, his finger pointing to the jubilant away fans at Camp Nou is enough to crack a smile on every Inter supporter's face.
Their return to the Champions League eclipses, in emotional terms, the trepidation caused by the daunting prospect of facing Lionel Messi and Harry Kane. It is a source of considerable pride for the club and fanbase. While much of the international focus was of course centred on Juventus and their chances of winning the Champions League this year, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo's reunion with Manchester United, Antonelli couldn't resist reminding everyone: "We are the last Italian side to win it..."
Zanetti struck a slightly different tone. Rather than hark back to the past, he stayed firmly rooted in the present, acknowledging that "we have been drawn in a very difficult group." The Argentine just hopes the level of competition will provide the necessary inspiration for Inter to raise their game and smash through another ceiling in the team's development. "When you face sides like Barça and Spurs you have the chance to improve," he added. "And that could be important for us."
If there's one major takeaway from the opening fortnight in Serie A it's that Inter need to be better. A lot was expected of Inter after a summer transfer campaign rated 9/10 by Gazzetta and encouraging preseason in which they went to places like Atleti and Lyon and won against full strength sides.
Nominated the anti-Juve by the papers, coach Luciano Spalletti has been honest enough to say that if Inter keep playing the way they are at the moment they are the "anti-nobody."
Keen to downplay the 1-0 defeat to Sassuolo on opening night, Spalletti called for some perspective. Thirty seven games still remained, the pitch at the Mapei Stadium was awful and ultimately all that separated the two teams was a soft penalty. Pundits were encouraged not to rush to judgement. But Inter were out-played, the decision to play Dalbert was a mistake, new arrival Lautaro Martinez disappointed, and the team created little -- which made the chance Mauro Icardi missed from point-blank range all the more galling.
Last week, it looked like Inter's season had finally started. They didn't give Torino a kick in the first half at San Siro as the Nerazzurri, lined up in a new look 3-4-2-1 formation and went in at the interval 2-0 up.
But a howler by goalkeeper Samir Handanovic allowed Torino back into the game and panic set in. Stunned and seemingly unable to react, their vulnerability was pounced on by an opponent who made the right adjustments and decidedly grew in confidence as Inter went through the motions, sapped of their own belief.
The colossal Soualiho Meite equalised with a deft touch followed by a deflected finish, which Handanovic probably should pushed round the post, and Torino earned their point in a classic game of two halves. Inter fans were forced to contemplate the two faces of a team still unable to shake the psychological baggage of the past.
In mitigation, Inter perhaps allowed the enthusiasm around the team to get the better of them on their home debut. They ran like madmen in the first half and were running on empty after an hour. The Croatian trio of Sime Vrsaljko, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic, who could be forgiven for thinking he had won the game at the end only for Salvatore Sirigu to produce a world-class save, soon faded and understandably so after playing extra-time on three occasions en route to the World Cup final in Russia this summer.
Marquee signing Radja Nainggolan is still to play after the injury he picked up in preseason and Keita Balde Diao only arrived at the end of the Italian window. It's early days and there is still an awful long way to go. Yet it burns to already be five points adrift of Juventus, Napoli (and SPAL!)
But how surprised should we be by Inter's travails? Remember how they qualified for the Champions League ... Unlike 2015-16 when Roberto Mancini led the Nerazzurri to fourth place and was only rewarded with a spot in the Europa League, last season it meant a place at the top table.
Qualification went down to the final day when it should no longer have been in Inter's hands, but they came from behind twice to beat Lazio 3-2 at the Olimpico to pip their rivals at the post. It was hoped that game would represent something of a turning point for Inter, not just in restoring the club to its former glory but in ridding the team of the mental block that time and again has got in the way of them seriously competing again.
Spalletti has done a lot to affect a change for the better in Inter's mentality and deserves credit for shaking them out of the tailspin they found themselves in over the winter to meet their objectives. Evidently though there is still work to do.
The decision to cancel Monday's day-off is indicative of a desire to nip this in the bud as quickly as possible. The Champions League draw should focus the minds and provide ulterior motivation not only to put things right but to be the best Inter they can be. Starting in Bologna this Saturday.