Inter are coming? No, Inter are back thanks to Icardi's magic, Spalletti's wisdom
"I got lucky," Mauro Icardi suggested after scoring yet another decisive, late goal on Tuesday night. Fabio Capello, listening in from the Sky Italia studio, wouldn't hear it. "Mauro," he interjected, "it's not luck if the ball always comes to you. Congratulations." Icardi had just clinched Inter what La Repubblica called "a platinum" draw, principally because a point against Barcelona -- particularly in the context of Spurs' win over PSV Eindhoven at Wembley -- is precious metal.
Also, Icardi had 21 touches all game. For comparison's sake, Inter's goalkeeper Samir Handanovic recorded more than double (48), with many of them restarts as Barcelona laid siege to his penalty area, racking up 26 shots and whipping in 10 corners for the Slovenian to claim.
Eight years ago, Jose Mourinho famously said "we didn't want the ball" in explanation of the tactics his Inter side deployed to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League on their way to winning the treble. Luciano Spalletti didn't seek to copy that approach; quite the opposite. Just like their previous meeting at the Camp Nou, he wanted his Inter side to keep the ball as much as they could in order to take the pressure off the defence.
The strides Inter have made over the past fortnight in this regard, dominating Lazio and Genoa with quick and slick passing, boded well. But once the game started on Tuesday, it was like groundhog day.
"They did a lot better than us," Handanovic admitted. "We didn't get to translate on the pitch everything we'd prepared in training."
Radja Nainggolan, making his first start since suffering a nasty ankle injury in the derby, wasn't able to play at full tilt and deliver the aggression Inter needed to disrupt Barça's rhythm. Chasing shadows is hard at the best of times; try doing it in pain when you're not fully fit.
It didn't help that Matias Vecino kept giving the ball away under pressure. The Uruguayan's pass accuracy, usually around the 82 percent mark in Serie A, plummeted to 70 percent, and while Marcelo Brozovic continues to flourish in the role Spalletti cast Miralem Pjanic and David Pizarro in at Roma, nights such as Tuesday serve to remind us why Inter did everything in the summer to reunite him with his Croatia teammate and lure Luka Modric away from Barça's rivals Real Madrid in the summer.
It was backs-against-the-wall stuff, the sort that connoisseurs of defending can't help but appreciate. Only Manchester City and Liverpool have conceded fewer league goals than Inter this season, and the centre-backs were almost flawless under relentless pressure.
At fault in Catalunya a fortnight ago, Milan Skriniar in particular bounced back, underlining why there is so much hype around him. Asked after the game how much the Slovakian would fetch in the transfer market, Spalletti said: "€120m if I were Barcelona with a €20m tip. I'd make it €140m, if I were Real Madrid, with a €40m tip. That's how much I think of Milan."
The final quarter of an hour symbolised what this team are all about. When Malcolm, who had been in talks with Inter over the summer, replaced Ousmane Dembele and broke the resistance epitomised by Handanovic and Skriniar, their nerve did not fail them. After all, Inter had come back and won against Spurs and did so again in Eindhoven.
Spalletti laughed afterward about the stocks of anti-venom in this Inter team. Bite them, and they don't panic. The sweat doesn't bead on their brow, and where there should be poison, ice instead runs through Inter's veins. Twelve of the Nerazzurri's goals this season have come in the last 15 minutes, five of them in stoppage time, and as Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde would later acknowledge: "This is Inter's DNA. They never surrender."
Switching Nainggolan with a keep-ball specialist in Borja Valero and throwing on Lautaro Martinez to go with two up front signalled Inter's intent. Lautaro, who had been the one disappointing note in the weekend's 5-0 win against Genoa, made amends here, pulling a ball out of the sky and sending it back into the Barcelona penalty area, where Vecino and Icardi, the heroes of the Spurs win, were waiting. The former's shot was blocked, the latter didn't miss, and a phrase of Alessandro Del Piero's came to mind.
"Inzaghi loves goals," someone said to him. "No, goals love him," he replied. It was "Icardissimo," La Gazzetta dello Sport declared.
"After Mauro's equaliser I thought we could win it," said Handanovic, "because this stadium gives you something extra. I like this spirit." For Spalletti, "Icardi picking the ball out of the goal and running back [for the kick-off] sums us up. It was a strong signal."
The 73,428 fans at San Siro went home happy. Interisti haven't been this optimistic about the state of the club since the twilight of the treble-winning team, the 2011 Coppa Italia final under Leonardo and the win at the Allianz Stadium under Andrea Stramaccioni. The convincing displays against Lazio and Genoa, the 93rd minute win in the derby, the highlights of a seven-game win streak in Serie A, and the character shown in the Champions League go a long way to explaining the excitement.
The rest can be put down to what's going on off the pitch. After two years on the ground learning the ropes in Milan, the nomination of 27-year-old Steven Zhang as president, his expression of Suning's vision and ambition for Inter, and the continued speculation about Beppe Marotta arriving as chief executive are all indicative of how things are aligning in a very encouraging manner for the Biscione.
Last year's slogan was "Inter is coming." It now looks like they are arriving back at the standard expected of a club of their history and tradition.