Inter Milan and Roma seeking return to form in Serie A grudge match
Inter Milan vs. Roma on Sunday is being billed as an anti-crisis match. A chance for Inter to turn things around. The moment Roma have been waiting for to snap out of their malaise. A win at San Siro for either side would have the effect of a jab in the arm, the best medicine for a bout of winter flu.
Both teams unexpectedly slowed in December, fading in parallel. What made their respective declines all the stranger was that it came just when they seemed for real. Their title credentials checked out. Inter remained undefeated all the way until mid-December, impressively holding Napoli and Juventus to draws away from home.
Roma also looked legitimate contenders as much for the impression they were making on the continent where they finished top of a Champions League group including Chelsea and Atletico Madrid as for what they were doing in Serie A. The pair boasted the league's best defences, a not insignificant detail in a country where the team with the best rearguard has won the title every year for the last 13 years.
Opinions of Inter and Roma were being reviewed as people started to take them seriously. But then, just as they were making a step-up in our collective estimations, they slipped. Inter lost to Udinese and haven't won since. Top of the table when it happened, the Nerazzurri now find themselves nine points behind league leaders Napoli. Only Chievo fared worse over the festive period. As for Roma, during the same five-game stretch Benevento accumulated more points than them. And they now trail Lazio, who are flying.
Earlier than expected exits from the Coppa Italia, a trophy both Inter and Roma aspired to win this season, has only added to the disappointment. Inter were knocked out by crisis-hit Milan. While in Roma's case, excessive rotation was ultimately their downfall against Torino whose owner remained so dissatisfied with the job Sinisa Mihajlovic was doing he sacked him two games later.
What has happened, then? Part of the issue is standards. Not only those set by Napoli and Juventus, both of whom are on record pace, but Inter and Roma as well. Expectations were raised. Back in the summer there was more hype around Milan than Inter. As for Roma, scepticism prevailed after the departure of Wojciech Szczesny, Antonio Rudiger, Leandro Paredes and Mohamed Salah. The squad looked stronger. The first team a little weaker.
Both did better than anticipated and Luciano Spalletti and Eusebio di Francesco are right. Inter and Roma's seasons should be judged as a whole, not on the basis of the last five games.
"We have the stats to be optimistic, not pessimistic," Spalletti says.
"Twenty days ago we were the most in-form team in the league, now we're in crisis," Di Francesco pointed out, incredulous.
"There's no balance."
On the one hand, maybe Inter and Roma believed the hype they generated, growing a little presumptuous in thinking the results would look after themselves. On the other, they stand accused of not believing enough and succumbing to vertigo. But it goes deeper than that. You can have a bad day at the office, which is what Inter had against Udinese. Losing to Sassuolo the following week -- when Mauro Icardi had a chance to equalise but missed from the penalty spot -- reawakened old ghosts.
In Roma's case, it's largely down to being their own worst enemy. You think back to the penalty Daniele De Rossi gave away against Genoa for slapping Gianluca Lapadula when his side were 1-0 up and in control. Then Radja Nainggolan's New Year's party. Roma suspended him for the team's next game, a big one against Atalanta. It was a course of action they had to take. But it cost them as Roma lost 2-1.
On a granular level, the limits of Inter's squad were exposed when they had to play three games a week over the Christmas period. Injuries to Miranda and Danilo D'Ambrosio did not help, unsettling the defence.
But the bigger problem is in attack, which is odd given Inter possess an 18-goal striker coveted by Real Madrid. They have failed to score in five of their last seven games in all competitions. With the glorious exception of Icardi, everyone else on the team is allergic to goal. Ivan Perisic who, as with the other players up and down the league that were involved in World Cup playoffs, has been a shadow of himself lately. The Croat has been on the scoresheet in only one of his last nine appearances. What makes Inter so un-Spalletti-like, though, is they don't get goals from midfield. There is no Simone Perrotta or Nainggolan figure and it shows.
Roma, meanwhile, do have Nainggolan and last year's Capocannoniere Edin Dzeko but goals aren't any easier to come by for them either. There's an element of misfortune in this. Roma have hit the woodwork more than any other team, Juventus excepted. And Interisti will remember how they shook the frame of the goal three times when they met in August. It's also true that goalkeepers Stefano Sorrentino and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic had the game of their lives against them for Chievo and Torino [in the Coppa].
Bad luck is only the half of it, though. Roma scored 90 goals last year. This season their attack ranks eighth. After hitting the target seven times in his first seven games, Dzeko has found the net just twice in his last 13 league outings. And on both occasions it was against teams reduced to 10 men. Salah is much missed. In December, Di Francesco tried to integrate big summer signing Patrik Schick but against Cagliari he often stepped on Dzeko's toes and the absence of any understanding was clear as both kept making the same runs. One-on-one with Szczesny at the Allianz Stadium, Schick also missed a last minute chance to equalise against Juventus in Turin.
The 21-year-old needs time and while Di Francesco hasn't been as inflexible as some people thought he would be, the structural changes needed to get the best out of Schick are perhaps more radical than he's comfortable with. Roma have worked on 4-3-3 all year and will be mindful of what happened at Milan where a sudden switch to 3-5-2 after four games without a detailed understanding of it served to make things worse, not better.
As Sunday's game nears, it's clear Inter and Roma have problems in common. Their settlement agreements with UEFA mean they are limited in what they can do in the transfer window and for reasons of financial fair play they have to get creative. Inter have signed Lisandro Lopez, a back-up centre-back, and hope to also take Ramires and Rafinha on loan from sister club Jiangsu Suning and Barcelona. Roma's new signings are all in-house. What they need is offseason acquisitions like Schick, Gregoire Defrel and Cengiz Under to come good and make as sustained an impact in the second half of the season as Aleksandar Kolarov and Lorenzo Pellegrini did in the first.
Inter need to end a long wait for Champions League football and Roma have to stay in it. Otherwise, meeting the demands made of them by FFP will be harder to satisfy. In the event they miss out, the easiest thing to do is also the toughest decision to make: sell an Icardi or a Nainggolan. That prospect makes Sunday's game huge.
Inter and Roma must win. They have to rediscover their best but also evolve. And at the same time hope a more congested fixture list this spring brings Lazio to a halt. Right now there are three teams fighting for two places. As La Gazzetta dello Sport put it, this is beginning to resemble a game of musical chairs. No one wants to be left standing.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.