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By ESPN Staff

Balotelli aiding Inter's title push

Is it possible to break ranks and claim that Inter are a more impressive - not better, mind you - side now than they were back in November, when they were winning everything and establishing a stronghold on the Serie A?

What may look like heresy, once you remember Roma were as little as three points behind the Nerazzurri on Saturday evening and the relatively easy way Liverpool progressed in the Champions League, winning home and away, can be explained with a couple of examples.

Furthermore it can be corroborated by the words of Dejan Stankovic, sweating and exuding ruggedness, which he let out on Sunday evening while being interviewed live by Sky Sport Italy, moments after the final whistle of Inter's 1-0 win at Torino.

'With this kind of attitude, we won't lose any more ground. We didn't play well tonight, but we can't always put on a show,' he said. First of all, in the last four weeks, Inter have played four times after Roma's result was known, and each time it meant Roma had gained one or three points on them.

This meant pressure, but Inter didn't flinch: they may have struggled at Genoa and Lazio, but they have now picked up three consecutive wins, stretching their lead to six points after their latest one, while those at Atalanta and against Fiorentina in previous weeks all meant they extended their advantage to four points after Roma had reduced it to one earlier in the day.

Rallying from behind, it can be argued, is easier than holding on to a lead when form starts to falter and everyone, for the sake of more interest in the quest for the title, seems to be gunning for the underdogs. After losing 4-1 at home to Inter earlier in the season, Roma appeared to be out of contention, and the Nerazzurri were thought to be on a roll, perhaps looking forward to another unopposed run like the one they had in cruising to the title last year.

This time, of course, validation would come from overcoming stronger opponents, what with Juventus back in the top flight and Milan starting on level points, unlike last year. It seemed to be another boring season at the top, with interest sparked perhaps by the race for a Champions League place and the struggle against relegation, which is growing mightier by the season but, as it involved unfashionable names such as Reggina and Cagliari, does not seem to be able to catch the public's imagination outside of the relevant cities.

Once the season progressed and Inter lost ground, things grew more interesting but there was always a speck of wishful thinking in the analysis, especially on those endless, boring, predictable and trashy tv talk shows which journalists are forced to watch for information's sake - or to acquire, absorb and reproduce as if their own - an opinion, but any person with a bit of sanity should avoid like hell.

Perhaps because they have less political clout than other clubs - Juve are always given the benefit of doubt because of the millions of fans they have, Milan are, well, Milan, and Roma are given preferential treatment by Rome-centric public television - Inter are sometimes seen as fair game by many, and fair game they were especially after they were knocked out by the Champions League by Liverpool.

A few minutes after the final whistle of the return leg, as readers will remember, manager Roberto Mancini announced he'd step down at the end of the season, for reasons he failed to explain. A few days and a couple of meetings with Moratti later, he backtracked, but this has not been seen by many as conclusive evidence Mancini's future lies with Inter, hence the rumours about José Mourinho, the latest one emanating from England and pounced upon by the Italian media.

Inter entered the final stretch of the season with a lot of injuries: two central defenders (Ivan Cordoba, Walter Samuel) were lost for the year, and it must not be forgotten that until Marco Materazzi - himself sidelined with a deep hamstring bruise from mid-August to December - enjoyed a revival at the 2006 World Cup the two South Americans were Inter's central defensive partnership of choice.

Olivier Dacourt has been a season-long casualty and Luis Figo was hindered by injuries when he was not bickering over his playing time and broke his leg against Juventus in November; while now Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so long the Nerazzurri's lone inspiration in the last third of the pitch, has gone on the injured list.

If one considers that valuable reserve striker Julio Cruz had not scored since December 23 before finding the net in Turin on Sunday, it all adds up to the fact that Inter have been more impressive in the rough times, keeping up their end of the business whenever Roma, who have nothing to lose, won.

Inter have been helped by the emergence of 17-year-old striker Mario Balotelli who was born in Palermo and, after being given up for adoption by his Ghanaian parents, grew up in Brescia, Northern Italy.

A stalwart of Inter's Primavera team (which means the highest possible level of youth football) he had been known for a while for his peculiar character: a supremely confident individual, who thought nothing of saying he was better at 17-years-old than Inter's senior strikers. He would then back up his self-belief by refusing to celebrate, because, as he'd put it, 'I expected to score, so what's the point of behaving like a wild man when I do?'

Inter's respected Primavera coach, Vincenzo Esposito, told an interviewer a few months ago how hard he and his staff would work trying to keep Balotelli's mind on the job, helping him cut out the showboating and focus on the task at hand. Yet some Inter officials privately worried whether in three years time, Balotelli would be a Champions League star or playing semi-professional football.

Called up by Mancini when his squad began thinning, he scored twice in an Italian Cup third round tie at Reggina and then in a tense quarter-final return leg at Juventus, propelling Inter to the semis. He then marked his second career start in Serie A by scoring the second half goals that sealed both the win at Atalanta and at home to Fiorentina seven days later.

As if to remind him never to let his mind wander, he was sensationally taken off before the end of the first half on Sunday. Mancini had warned him in vain about letting Torino gain ground on Inter's left flank in the 4-4-2 formation the Nerazzurri had started in, and when the youngster appeared to be getting nervous, his coach replaced him with left-sided midfielder Cesar, though it did not stop Torino creating chance after chance on the right.

That not one of them came to something is a tribute to Inter's fighting spirit, as Stankovic remarked. They may have provided little in terms of entertainment and pumped too many long passes from the back on Sunday, but they got the job done and did not slip up, something other Inter versions in the past would have done without even pretending to fight.


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