Despite Mauro Icardi’s absence and all its surrounding speculation, Inter were unbeaten in their last four games ahead of their trip to Cagliari on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, the Rossoblu had won only one of their last eight games.
Going into this game, Inter had not recovered any points from losing positions until their last domestic trip to Florence in the eventful 3-3 draw. Despite this, many would have pegged Inter to be dominant throughout, but Cagliari had other plans.
As Inter attempt to play out from the back, Cagliari’s front three – accompanied by Artur Ionita – press aggressively which leads to Inter kicking the ball out of play. An immediate statement of intent from Cagliari, who were on the front foot in the early stages.
Cagliari press intensely as Inter attempt to play out. When the ball is played to D’Ambrosio, Ionita and Pavoletti compress D’Ambrosio against the touchline. Politano is nowhere to be seen for support.
Cagliari’s first moment of danger arose from Inter’s sloppy defensive positioning. Inter sought to swarm the wide areas which Cagliari often utilise. However, in doing so Inter have almost completely isolated their box, with Skriniar, Asamoah, Vecino and Brozovic all occupying the same area. Paolo Farago puts in a dangerous cross which Joao Pedro looked likely to tuck away, had it not been for the presence of D’Ambrosio.
Inter’s aggressive counter-press was short-lived. The likes of Martinez, Politano and Nainggolan gave Cagliari defenders enough time to play a long ball up to Leonardo Pavoletti. The Rossoblu’s top scorer proved an effective outlet, knocking balls down to Barella, Pedro and marauding full-backs.
Cagliari’s build-up play was more assured and composed than Inter’s, largely due to Inter’s reluctance to press as intensely. This was exemplified by the amount of space Kwadwo Asamoah gave Darijo Srna, a well-known crosser of the ball. Matias Vecino loses his midfield runner, Ionita, allowing him to win the header from Srna’s cross. To amend Vecino’s error, D’Ambrosio leaps to block Ionita but leaves Cagliari’s top scorer Pavoletti free at the far post. Inter were shaky and fortunate to escape again.
The Nerazzurri’s first shot on target came from the utilisation of their wide players. Both Matteo Politano and Ivan Perisic were positioned outside of either full back and could have either made a run inside or, as Perisic did, peel off the back post unmarked for a shot. A sign that Inter could have hurt Cagliari with their talented wide players, particularly as Cagliari’s full-backs liked to get forward.
Cagliari continued to be relentless in the press, preventing Inter’s build up. Their aggression and aerial threat finally rewarded them with a goal from a set piece. Ceppitelli rose above Perisic to score past Inter skipper Handanovic. Dubious circumstances as the assister, Luca Cigarini, committed a foul earlier while already on a yellow card.
All the same, it was yet another example of Inter’s poor defensive positioning. The Rossoblu caused perpetual danger when crossing from wide areas. D’Ambrosio failed to close Luca Pellegrini’s cross and Pedro nearly bagged Cagliari a second. But magnificent goalkeeping from Handanovic kept it 1-0, as Farago fired the rebound over. Alarm bells ringing for Inter.
As Cagliari increasingly find found rhythm, Inter fell further back into their shells. The Nerazzurri lost their width and intensity, allowing Cagliari players time on the ball to distribute to wide areas.
Very much against the run of play, Inter draw level. Radja Nainggolan delivers a good cross which is attacked by Martinez, who penetrates the space at the near post left between the defenders.
After drawing level, Inter sat deeper and pressed Cagliari much better. By increasing defensive numbers inside their own box, Inter displayed their reluctance to concede, especially before half-time. However, Inter’s defensive solidity was brief as their ball-orientated defence were prone to any ricochets and mistimed clearances which fell to Farago in space. Inter survived, but a major warning sign for Spaletti that his side needed to stop Cagliari’s midfield runners.
In preparation for this game, Spaletti would have no doubt recognised the danger of Srna on Cagliari’s right-hand side. Almost half the Rossoblu’s attacks (44%) come down Srna’s flank, a testament to Cagliari’s direct but effective approach. Inter have done a poor job of suppressing that threat. A fact which becomes evident in the build-up to Cagliari’s second goal.
Inter possess a relatively unused defensive presence in Andrea Ranocchia. To utilise this asset, perhaps Spaletti should have changed to a 3-4-2-1 (as they have done already this season) with Skriniar, Ranocchia and de Vrij in the back line. This would have provided a more physical and defensively solid presence at the heart of Inter’s defence.
Although Cagliari appear somewhat in control of the game, it is still open enough for Inter to equalise through the individual brilliance of their personnel.
Cagliari’s defensive approach changed after the restart. Their press was not as aggressive and their midfield and defence sat deeper in two banks of four. This presented an opportunity for Martinez to drop between the lines, turn Ceppitelli and fashion a shot that goes over.
Inter’s second big chance comes from Martinez’ work between the lines again. An early cross from Vecino is controlled by Martinez and laid off to Politano, who fires straight at Alessio Cragno. A sign of weakness from Cagliari that Inter should have further exploited with Nainggolan, Perisic and Politano.
A common feature of this game was the early cross catching the opposing defenders off-guard. Candreva’s first involvement produced a cross to Nainggolan who cut it back to Martinez, shooting and hitting the woodwork after Cragno’s save.
Despite a fiery midfield battle, Inter did not click in the final third. The players were lethargic in the press and stagnant in their attacking runs. This was typified by the introduction of Borja Valero, who is comfortable in possession but without much movement ahead of him, his capabilities are limited.
Inter did not at all seem prepared for Cagliari’s threat from wide positions and aerial dominance and lost the match and third place as a result.
Although, Spaletti did lack real attacking impetus off the bench without Keita or Icardi. Instead, to spark a turnaround, Spaletti brought on Antonio Candreva at right back initially and introduced Ranocchia as a makeshift striker.
But this still begs the question: if Spaletti knew he did not have any attacking super-subs, why did he not instruct his side to strike first and hold on?
Only time will tell when Inter will escape this Icardi hoodoo. But they appear to have another striker prepared to fill the former captain’s boots in Martinez.
As for Cagliari, this win will go some way to securing their safety in Italy’s top flight and put their mind at ease ahead of their trip to Bologna. The likes of Barella, Srna and Pellegrini were industrious, progressive and incisive and fully deserving of the victory.
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