As referee Nicola Rizzoli blew the full time whistle at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Sunday evening, he did so signalling not only the end of the match but also a significant shift in the season for the home side. Having struggled in recent weeks, Inter lifted themselves to the challenge of visitors Napoli, defeating the southern side 2-1 and overtaking them in the process, sliding into second place in the Serie A table.
Indeed, ever since they ended the incredible forty-nine game unbeaten run of the current leaders Juventus, Andrea Stramaccioni and his players have struggled to match the intensity they displayed in becoming the first side to defeat the Bianconeri in their new home. In the seven matches since that superb display, Inter had only recorded wins over Partizan Belgrade and Palermo, with both Cagliari and Uzbeki side Neftchi able to snatch draws while Parma, Atalanta and Rubin Kazan all defeated the previously impressive Nerazzurri.
Their form ahead of the Turin clash had been superb, shaking off a poor start to the campaign to reel off ten straight victories and climb the table at an impressive rate whilst securing qualification to the next round of the Europa League with consummate ease. Now they will hope to recapture that form and, as he left the field – having scored yet another vital goal for the Milanese club – Diego Milito was asked the inevitable question; are Inter the closest to being able to match the dominance of Juventus?
“Are Inter now the anti-Juve? It’s not easy but these games give us the belief to fight all the way,” he told Sky Italia. “We know that we can fight for the Scudetto. We are happy to have beaten a great Napoli side, we will battle with them to the end of the season and are pleased with an excellent performance.”
That concept of an ‘anti’ – used to denote a clear rival in the title race, almost always described in that manner on the peninsula – appears, for this campaign at least, to be reduced to the two teams on show in that closely fought battle on Sunday. With Milan best described as patchy and Roma still yet to acclimatise on their return to Zemanlandia, it seems to have fallen upon the shoulders of Napoli and Inter to provide a serious challenge to the reigning champions.
The three have some interesting numbers when brought under closer analysis and, where better to start than with goals. The Bianconeri, for all the criticisms of their sub-par strike force, possess the second most prolific attack in the league as their 33 goals scored trail only Roma (38), with the two challengers level on 29 goals each. They also feature more scorers with no fewer than twelve players who have found themselves on the scoresheet already while Inter have ten and Napoli – for whom Edinson Cavani’s eleven goals represent 38% of their overall total – have only seven others with strikes to their name.
If defence truly does win titles, then here too the Turin side are in the best position, having conceded just ten times, a figure giving them the tightest rear guard in Serie A. Napoli however rank second with 14, while Inter themselves are third, with 17 goals finding their way past Samir Handanovic. Greatly helping Juve to achieve this is the fact they simply do not allow opponents the opportunity to shoot, restricting them to 9.8 shots per game, the second fewest in the league. While Fiorentina (9.4) lead the way here, it is still a significant advantage over Napoli (12.8) and Inter (13.4).
Two statistics in which the Nerazzurri do lead the way – at least among this trio – is in terms of tackling and interceptions, recording 27.6 (a league high) and 16.1 respectively. Napoli, meanwhile, average 23.5 and 13.9 in those same categories, while the reigning champions have registered slightly more with 24.7 and 15.3 to their name. Juventus also trail when looking at aerial duels, winning just 13.7 per game – only Roma and Pescara have won fewer – compared with Napoli’s 14.4 and the 16.1 challenges won by Inter.
One reason for this, however, is their differing playing styles. Napoli are by now renowned across Europe for the counter attacking style instilled by Walter Mazzarri and there are fewer better sights in world football than Cavani – ‘el Matador’ himself – streaking away on another raid at breakneck speed. This is reflected in terms of possession where they boast an average share of just 53.1%, some way short of Juve’s 56.6%, as they adhere to Antonio Conte’s philosophy of retaining the ball to lead the league in this area. Their pass completion rates also mirror those contrasting styles, Napoli’s pacey, direct approach resulting in more misplaced efforts and it is no surprise to see them trail here with 82.5% compared to 85.8% for the more measured and calculating Bianconeri.
While Mazzarri may have used three different formations this term (3-5-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-5-1-1), all have entailed deploying a back three, with only the make up of the attacking players slightly altered. Conte has less flexible, utilising a 3-5-2 in all but one match, switching to 4-3-3 for the 3-0 win over Torino two weeks ago, undoubtedly searching for the element of surprise against his mentor and close friend Giampiero Ventura in the latest edition of the Derby della Mole.
Harder to explain is the chameleon-like nature of Stramaccioni’s Inter, a side it is difficult if not impossible to categorise in quite the same manner. There are few clues to be found in the same statistics; their average 51.7% share of possession is offset by an 82.7% pass completion rate and they have a seemingly constantly revolving and evolving first team line up which has seen no fewer than 21 different players start a match this season.
They have switched formation frequently, with no less than seven different frameworks deployed by Stramaccioni from kick off. Currently using a back three, he has fluctuated between 4-3-2-1, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-1-2-1-2, 3-5-1-1 and 4-4-1-1 this term, and it remains unclear whether the changes are made to counter the plans of opponents or as part of a search for their own identity.
With more than half the season remaining it remains equally unclear who will prove to be the ‘anti-Juve’ the Italian press love to create. Yet, if we borrow the old boxing adage that styles do indeed make fights, this season’s Serie A title race could indeed prove to be one of the best in recent memory. As we watch the differing approaches of Conte, Mazzarri and Stramaccioni, lets just hope for a good, clean fight…