Inter Milan: Should qualifying for the Champions League be considered a successful season?
Despite Inter’s spirited comeback in Rome on Sunday, there still remains a sense of regret about what might have been for the Nerazzurri this season.
On Sunday night, Matias Vecino raced towards the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Sud in jubilation having secured Inter a Champions League place for the first time in eight years.
An incredible late comeback saw the Nerazzurri climb above Lazio and into a top-four finish which would automatically secure their place amongst Europe’s elite for next season.
There were scenes of absolute ecstasy amongst the 12,000 travelling Milanese having completed the unlikeliest of fightbacks in a game they simply had to win.
Despite the sheer pandemonium at the final whistle, you couldn’t help feeling that this could have been a celebration of much greater proportions.
A promising season
It was widely predicted at the start of the campaign that Inter could well be amongst the clubs who could put it up to Juventus in the quest for the Scudetto as the whole of Italy looked for someone or anyone to step up and challenge the dominant force from Turin.
Both Milan clubs were now well backed by foreign investment and seemed to have made some eye-catching signings ahead of the start of the season.
Despite A.C. Milan’s huge outlay of expenditure which trumped their city rivals by some distance, there were many pundits quietly confident of Inter being the club who would push Juventus the furthest.
While both clubs had fresh faces, it seemed Inter had the right manager in place to conduct a title challenge. Having announced Luciano Spalletti in the offseason, they now had someone off the pitch with the experience of being in a title race.
Unbeaten start to the season
Inter began the season in spectacular fashion by handing out a thrashing to Fiorentina in their opening game followed up by an excellent victory away to Roma.
Whether Inter could keep up this form throughout a season would be the question on everyone’s lips.
It wasn’t until a 3-2 win over Milan in the Derby della Madonnina, thanks to a Mauro Icardi hat-trick, that they would be considered as real title challengers.
This win came between a run of eight games without a defeat and spurred Spalletti’s men onto a further eight unbeaten.
Inter went into the game against Juventus last December unbeaten, a visit to Turin was being billed as the real acid test as they looked to make a statement at the home of the Old Lady.
While they didn’t manage to nick all three points at Juventus Stadium, Inter would come away with their heads held high and more importantly, a two-point advantage over second placed Napoli still intact.
Crashing back to reality
As the dust settled on Inters credible and spirited showing in Turin, people began to talk of them as genuine title challengers to Juventus and the much fancied Napoli. It may not have been pretty but Inter were finding results when they needed them.
It didn’t take long for those non believers to have something to latch onto though when they welcomed the visit of Udinese to San Siro in their next fixture.
Inter were atrocious and their unbeaten run of sixteen was over just like that. They were humbled at the hands of relegation candidates in what would be the start of a disastrous run of form.
They lost their next outing away at Sassuolo before their title challenge and even top four hopes looked to have been derailed. Five consecutive draws would all but end the slight hope of winning their first title since 2010 and the now familiar sight of modern Inter had come to the fore.
Faced with this run of poor results, Spalletti kept fighting and kept the belief that his team had the ability to claw their way back. While the Scudetto was now out of their reach, Champions League hopes where still alive and there for the taking.
Despite the disappointment that must have flooded the dressing room upon the realisation they had all but “Inter-ed” it up yet again, it was time for leaders on the pitch. Milan Skriniar, Marcelo Brozovic and club captain Mauro Icardi duly took charge.
The trio’s performances this season have been nothing short of exceptional and will no doubt shape the spine of this team for many years to come.
All three have been ever-present and it was their hunger and ability that got Inter back into contention for the last automatic Champions League spot, which was added due to a change in UEFA coefficients.
Final day showdown with Lazio
The recently-ended campaign was a season of chopping and changing within the top four until Lazio staked their claim.
Simone Inzaghi’s side finished as the league’s top scorers with 89 goals and seemed to be hitting form just as it mattered.
From March until Sunday evening Lazio remained unbeaten and deservedly held the fourth and final position in the table.
The penultimate round of fixtures saw yet another twist in the Serie A season as Lazio failed to win at Crotone while Inter lost at home to Sassuolo. This meant Lazio held a three-point advantage going into Sunday’s final game of the season.
For Inter, the task was straightforward in its concept, win and your back in the Champions League, although the reality was a little less predictable than this.
An end-to-end game at the Stadio Olimpico saw Lazio twice go in front before a frantic final 12 minutes.
All the talk pre-game would be of Stefan de Vrij’s final game for Lazio as he looks set on a move to Inter in the close season and whether it would be the right call to play him or not against his new club with so much on the line.
Inzaghi stuck with the Dutchman and, even he couldn’t have imagined what followed: De Vrij fouled Icardi in the box which led to Inter equalising penalty before a red card which turned the game in favour of the visitors.
With 6 minutes left on the clock, it was Matias Vecino who rose highest in the box to guide the ball into the far corner and send the fans behind the goal into raptures. Inter had done it against all the odds.
Where does this leave Inter?
There is no doubt this is a step in the right direction for this giant of a club and the finances received will undoubtedly go back into the budget for improving the squad during the summer break.
It will be needed in order for them to strengthen their chances for next season as they look to maintain a league and European challenge.
With the owner’s ambition and the squad Spalletti has assembled, it would be foolish to suggest Inter will be there to make up the numbers next season.
It is pivotal they keep hold of Icardi throughout the summer and qualifying for the Champions League has definitely bolstered their chances of doing just that.
While celebrations would have gone on long into the early hours of Sunday night in the surrounding streets of the eternal city as the club finally got the hoodoo of Champions League qualification off their back, Spalletti and the board may be left wondering what could have been had they not let their foot off the gas midway through the season.
In a season where Juventus were finally pushed all the way, it may well have been a Scudetto they were celebrating instead of a historically meagre top-four finish.
What do you think? Is Champions League qualification enough? Let us know by commenting below.