Ranieri must make call on Sneijder
The form of both Ricky Álvarez and Inter Milan over the past month is largely and undeniably due to the coaching influence of Claudio Ranieri. But while the displays of the Argentinian starlet must be a fantastic source of pride for the man giving him his chance, they seem set to provide the former Roma and Chelsea boss with his biggest dilemma since arriving at the Giuseppe Meazza back in September.
With Wesley Sneijder fit again and in contention for the starting role his undoubted talent demands, seemingly the most natural decision for Ranieri would be to return Álvarez to the bench and restore the player who has become the teams leader over the past few seasons. While the influence of the ageless and incomparable Javier Zanetti cannot be understated, it has been the talismanic performances of the Dutchman that have provided the catalyst for much of the success enjoyed by the Nerazzurri in recent seasons.
Sneijder is the man whose craft, invention and guile were the spark in the team's unprecedented treble and who, on so many occasions, propelled them past Milan and Roma when they looked set to falter. He has been goalscorer and creator-in-chief at the same time, his time at Inter encapsulated perfectly in the Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona, a goal and an assist from the former Real Madrid man put Inter on their way to the ultimate triumph under Jose Mourinho.
Those victories, which seemed a lifetime ago as the club lurched from one disaster to another under both Rafael Benitez and Gian Piero Gasperini, form a large part of any argument for Sneijder returning immediately to the first-choice XI. Indeed if the question is who is the better player, Álvarez is a distant second in an unfair two-horse race. There are, however, a number of major factors which may just swing the decision in favour of the 23-year-old and send his team-mate heading for the exit which is widely predicted over the summer.
First and foremost is that current form, spanning a streak of six consecutive wins during which Ranieri's side have only conceded a single goal while scoring 14 themselves. The player himself has, over that same period, notched his first Serie A strike and turned provider for three others including a key goal for Yuto Nagatomo away to Genoa in a match which looked to be slipping away from them.
Yet it is not here where he holds the edge over Sniejder who, over the course of his career, has posted similar stats on a consistent basis. The difference comes in the role Álvarez has been asked to play in the tactical framework provided by Ranieri, a move which marks the first successful departure from those employed by Mourinho two years ago. Where Benitez and Gasperini failed to implement change - and Leonardo merely reverted to the Special One's methods - the Italian has switched to a flexible system which allows the Argentinian to play behind the strikers when Inter attack but presses him into service as an auxiliary wide-man when they lose possession.
This was clearly apparent in Sunday's Milan derby where Álvarez - chosen by Ranieri to start while Sneijder sat on the bench - was often involved in his teams forays into Rossoneri territory but was quickly back on defensive duty and nullifying the threat of Ignazio Abate down the right side of the pitch. In providing a screen in front of the left-back he is helping mask the side's greatest weakness over the last two seasons as age took its toll on Cristian Chivu and has been key to the impressive displays seen from Nagatomo in that same role this term.
Not playing his natural trequartista role was a major issue for Sneijder under Gasperini, who did try him in a wider role earlier this season to very little success. It is hard to see him either adapting - or being anyhere near so influential if he did - a fact reinforced by Ranieri this past weekend when he brought on the number 10 not in place of Álvarez but for Diego Milito in a more attacking role. He could in theory start just behind a lone frontman but, with Giampaolo Pazzini, Milito and Diego Forlan all looking to feature it is unlikely, while switching back to a 4-3-1-2 risks unnecessary upheaval just when Ranieri has the team charging up the table.
That without Sneijder Inter have, over a mere 40 days, closed the distance to the league leaders by nine points - the gap is now down to six - and are within three points of a Champions League berth, is testament to just how well the team is playing.
With two weeks of the transfer window remaining it is unlikely a buyer for Sneijder could be found, particularly after the way talks appeared to collapse back in August. Both Manchester United and Chelsea have shown strong interest in the player while Paris St-Germain have joined Manchester City in being linked with anybody even suspected to be on the market and selling the playmaker would also make the touted move for Carlos Tevez much more understandable.
With Philippe Coutinho able to provide a more like-for-like reserve in that new-look role it is not inconceivable that Massimo Moratti could look to cash in on Sneijder as Ranieri continues to back his new style of play and earn positive results. Tough choices lie ahead, not least in another important match this coming weekend against a Lazio side just one point above Inter. Ricky Álvarez has proven to be a superb acquisition but what happens now is very tricky indeed.