It was the second weekend of the season, but it felt more like the first. There had been too many protagonists missing from Serie A’s opening round, too many of the most fascinating storylines left on hold. Inter, Atalanta and Spezia were granted special dispensation to delay their starts to this campaign after concluding the previous one in mid-August.
How could the show really get started without last season’s runners-up and top scorers, plus a club making its Serie A debut? Not to mention Benevento, Lazio and Udinese – the opponents they were scheduled to play in opening fixtures, which will be caught up this Wednesday instead.
Atalanta were quick to remind us what we were missing, romping past Torino 4-2 on the back of yet another inspired performance from Papu Gómez. The Bergamo club’s captain had been linked this summer with Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr, but said at full-time that he never truly considered the move.
Spezia made a less positive start, losing 4-1 to Sassuolo. Their opponents’ No 9, the irrepressible Ciccio Caputo, had a further three goals disallowed.
This was always destined to be a bittersweet occasion. Spezia had waited 114 years for their first tilt at the top flight, yet Covid-19 restrictions meant only 1,000 fans could be there to support them. Although notionally the home team, they were playing in Cesena – more than 150 miles away – due to renovation work at their Stadio Alberto Picco.
The muted response to Andrej Galabinov’s equaliser for Spezia was another of those small sharp reminders of how much has been lost in this pandemic. Might this game have unfolded differently if it were played before a stadium full of fans who had waited more than a lifetime to see their team compete at this level?
Or maybe we afford too much weight to such things. Antonio Conte used to imagine that he could change the culture at Inter, famously insisting that “this will no longer be ‘Pazza Inter’ (Crazy Inter)” – a reference to the club’s own anthem, which he banned from being played before kick-off. Nineteen months later, it might be time to acknowledge that it was neither the song, nor the fans who embraced it, that were responsible for this club’s follies. Inter’s match against Fiorentina on Saturday was as wild as any we have seen in recent years.
It began with Conte’s team selection. Inter conceded the fewest goals in Serie A last season, when the most common starting back three was made up of Stefan De Vrij, Milan Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni. But with the first of those suspended, and the second having fallen out of favour, he opted here for something completely different. Bastoni, who has typically lined up on the left of the back three, was moved into the middle, with Danilo D’Ambrosio and Aleksandar Kolarov on either side.
Taken in isolation, each decision made sense. D’Ambrosio had replaced Skriniar in the team towards the end of last season, while Kolarov had slotted into a back three on occasion for Roma. Bastoni was the only true centre-back, so it followed that he should go in the middle. Yet the combined effect was to make a 21-year-old with only a modest amount of starting experience into the director of a defence in which nobody had been playing their role long enough to know the lines by heart. Hardly surprising, then, that things should quickly go off script.
When Cristiano Biraghi sent a cross over from the left in the third minute, Kolarov was all alone in the middle of the area trying to mark two Fiorentina players. Christian Kouamé was able to head down and take a return pass from Giacomo Bonaventura before slotting calmly into the net. D’Ambrosio had completely failed to track the scorer’s run, while Bastoni seemed to have got lost trying to revert to his usual position.
Were it not for Samir Handanovic in goal, Inter could have fallen further behind. Instead, Lautaro Martínez pulled them level with a gorgeous strike. Shortly after the interval, the same player scrambled into the area down the left and hooked a shot across goal that would have gone wide if Fiorentina’s Federico Ceccherini had not diverted it into his own net.
Inter were on top, but never in control. Franck Ribéry drew D’Ambrosio and Bastoni to him as he advanced down the left, neither defender looking up in time to see the run of Gaetano Castrovilli. The Frenchman cut him the simplest of square balls, and the score was back level at 2-2.
It was Ribéry again who set up Fiorentina’s third, rolling a 30-yard diagonal into the path of Federico Chiesa. This was a magnificent pass from a player whose enduring quality can take the breath away, but Kolarov’s tracking of the goalscorer left a lot to be desired.
Inter had half an hour to rescue themselves. They left it till the final three minutes. Alexis Sánchez picked out Achraf Hakimi, who centred the ball for Romelu Lukaku to force home inside the six-yard box. Moments later, the Chilean sent over a cross of his own for D’Ambrosio at the back post. The defender headed it down into the net for 4-3.
Even Conte embraced the delirium. Many believed that his time with Inter was coming to an end last month, his repeated laments about a lack of support from his club appearing to lead towards an inevitable conclusion as he refused to commit his future in the aftermath of the Europa League final defeat by Sevilla.
Although Conte insisted that that his frustrations were never just about transfers, they were certainly an important part of it. Among his more infamous tirades was the one following defeat by Borussia Dortmund in November, when he complained of a lack of experienced options to change up his team from the bench. “Who am I supposed to ask for that something more from?” he demanded. “Nicolò Barella who came to us from Cagliari? [Stefano] Sensi from Sassuolo?”
Inter added Hakimi and Arturo Vidal this summer, as well as making Sánchez’s deal permanent. Radja Nainggolan has also returned from a successful season on loan at Cagliari – though the club’s plans for him are unclear. All four players were introduced from the bench on Sunday – together with a certain Sensi (from Sassuolo) – and together they transformed the game.
Will that suffice to content Conte? Perhaps the manager has turned over a new leaf in any case. After such a chaotic performance he might have been expected to see the glass as half empty, but Conte showed up for his post-game commitments in a positive mood. He focused on the things his team had done well even as journalists tried to draw a line out of him on the enduring struggles of Christian Eriksen.
“I hope that soon he can find that spark that sets him alight,” said Conte. “I, on the other hand, have had a little reflection: sometimes, even when you lose, you need to enjoy the journey.”
Those sound dangerously like the sentiments expressed in a certain banned club anthem. “Crazy Inter, love her,” runs the chorus. “It’s an infinite joy.”