By Dharnish Iqbal.
Last week in a foggy, muddy day at the Luigi Ferraris Stadium, Inter Milan missed a chance to go top of Serie A as their ability to ‘win ugly’ finally diminished after a spell of fixtures grinding out wins.
To rub salt into the Inter wounds it was two former Inter men who sunk the Nerazzurri as they were beaten by a resilient Sampdoria side.
Inter came into the game having won eight straight league matches, oozing title-winning credentials and showcasing a repeated knack of winning whilst not necessarily playing well, but their title momentum was checked in Genoa on Wednesday.
Claudio Ranieri’s Sampdoria side are having a rock-steady season and always provide sturdy opposition, with evergreen striker Fabio Quagliarella still proving he can cut it at the top.
The opening 20 minutes of the game were action-packed and entertaining. It had just about everything as both teams hit the woodwork and were awarded a penalty apiece.
Inter started the better side and were given the chance to make this count when the ball skimmed Morten Thorsby’s hand prompting referee Paolo Vieri to award a penalty to Inter.
Regular penalty taker Romelu Lukaku was rested after picking up a knock in the 6-2 victory against Crotone, so Alexis Sanchez stepped to the spot in his stead, but saw his penalty saved by Samp goalkeeper Audero. It was followed up by Ashley Young, but the Englishman crashed his shot against the post.
There was more handball drama as Sampdoria were awarded a penalty after the ball was lashed against Lautaro Martinez’s hand, only for the decision to be changed and a free-kick awarded as it was judged to be outside the box.
Shortly after, a Lorenzo Tonelli header from a Sampdoria corner struck Nicolo Barella in the hand. He comically fell to the ground feigning the ball hit his eye, but his acting failed to convince the officials and this time Sampdoria were awarded the penalty. Barella trying to sell his eye pain was hilariously futile, especially considering VAR sees all and incidences are reviewed thoroughly.
Once again, the penalty decision was dubious. It seems as though, in Italy at least, if the ball strikes a hand in the box a penalty is always given. Antonio Candreva converted, and Inter found themselves a goal behind.
Amid all this razzmatazz action, pigeons flocked onto the pitch, creating a distraction for both sets of players, though it did make for scenic viewing.
An absorbing 20 minutes offered dubious penalty decisions, veterans returning to operatically haunt their old clubs and a perfect pinch of the eccentric to add a spanner in the works, everything one loves about Serie A.
Another Inter old boy put Sampdoria 2-0 up. This time it was Keita Balde who poked home a cross after tidy work from Mikkel Damsgaard filling in for a rested Quagliarella.
Inter clearly missed the telepathic Martinez-Lukaku partnership as they tried to find a way back into the game. Sampdoria sat deep and the visitors continuously looked to feed Achraf Hakimi, but they missed the Belgian’s presence in the box.
Though the mobility and dynamism of the Sanchez-Martinez pairing often works as an alternative, it is tougher for them to break down teams who sit deep.
A glimmer of hope eventually came via a set-piece, as Stefan de Vrij headed home from a corner on 65 minutes. It looked as though Conte’s team would once again perform a rampaging comeback, embodying their manager’s fighting spirit. Something we have become accustomed to seeing.
But as the rain lashed down and treacherous conditions worsened, Inter failed to create much in open play, with corners looking their most likely way back into the game.
Conte frantically threw everything he could at Sampdoria making all five substitutions, including bringing on Christian Eriksen for Sanchez, but he couldn’t make the difference.
With Marcelo Brozovic dropping deep, it allows a midfielder to join Barella and the forwards to offer support up top. In the future, Conte may look to start with Sensi/Eriksen in place of Roberto Gagliardini who doesn’t offer much going forward. It was a game no dissimilar to the lucky win vs Napoli in which Inter needed a central attacking option.
Just as the pigeons flew away from the Luigi Ferraris Stadium, so did Inter’s chance to go top.