It is three games into Claudio Ranieri's reign in Inter and after two consecutive wins he has suffered his first defeat as Inter manager, but that defeat to Napoli came under circumstances of extreme controversy.
Saturday's 0:3 loss made the referee Gianluca Rocchi persona non grata in San Siro, at least for Inter games, as his decisions in case of Joel Obi's yellow cards and the penalty of Napoli have pretty much angered any Inter fan or person that holds any soft feelings towards the club.
It is hard to remember last time there was such anger towards a referee's performance in the Inter camps. There have been some similar cases, like the same Rocchi sending off two Inter players in a derby in January 2010, but even when he sent off Wesley Sneijder for his sarcastic applause, it did not meet with too much anger. The incident was forgotten quite soon and the tension it caused was small. In this case Rocchi, it is better that he does not meet too many Inter fans any time soon and it is highly probable that he will not be assigned any Inter games in the future.
However, the heavy reaction probably lies much deeper than simple anger at the decisions being wrong. Rocchi's errors came at a very difficult and vulnerable time. Inter had won the first two games under Ranieri, playing just about enough to win and it was obvious that improvement was needed. For many, that improvement was clear in game against Napoli. Even if the ball possession numbers were quite similar eleven against eleven, Inter looked to have the game under control and they were very straight-forward and even when attacking with numbers, did not really find themselves exposed at the back. One would think that if Wesley Sneijder had been in the team instead of Ricardo Alvarez and, drifting into past a little bit, Samuel Eto'o instead of Diego Forlan, Inter would've found themselves ahead by a goal or two come the 40th minute.
They seemed to have hit a good balance on Saturday night with just bit of cutting edge missing that would make dangerous positions into dangerous chances. That is why the decisions by Rocchi were so painful and frustrating for not just the fans but Inter players. For once they looked like a proper title-challenging team, but that confidence was quickly taken away from them.
Inter of past has been able to respond when falling to ten men, but this case is slightly different:
Firstly, the incident happened so close before the half-time that it made it much easier for Walter Mazzarri to slightly re-do his plans for the second half while Inter players faced the whole half-time wondering how they can come back from this. It was easy for Napoli to take any sting out of Inter.
Secondly, Inter did not start the second half well or badly, but the goal from Christian Maggio after mistake of Yuto Nagatomo probably killed the come-back hopes off for sure and after that you could expect fair bit of slackness.
Thirdly, Inter's past strong shows with ten men have come with squads of slightly different mentality or composition. There are 3 main examples of Inter with ten men getting a great result. One example is the side who beat Milan 2:0 in that same derby mentioned earlier, that was a side who were not playing well before the derby, but were not under that much pressure and were relatively confident of its strength, it was Milan who came into the game needing to prove that they are good enough. Besides, they had taken the lead in that game before the sending off. The second example would be game at Barcelona in which the Nerazzurri did not need to chase anything and just needed to sit deep and hold off Barca bombardment. Third example and very similar one to the game against Napoli is last seasons game against Lazio in which Inter fell down to ten and found themselves behind from a penalty, but the difference comes from the context of the game as Inter had already lost the hope for the title while being almost certain to finish in top three. Also the they had players like Sneijder and Eto'o available, especially the later makes playing with a man less that little bit easier as he can attack on his own.
Inter against Napoli was still looking for its confidence and also, when chasing a game with ten men against a team that does not need to attack, it is much different from a game in which the teams are even or the ten man team is in lead. If something is to be criticized after the game, it is the fact that Inter after Eto'o does not have a player any more that can carry the attack on these situations and make up for the one lesser man up the pitch.
Can it motivate Inter to improve?
How Inter comes out after this loss is something we have to wait at least two weeks for. Much like the half-time at San Siro on Saturday night, the international break might have come at a wrong time. One would imagine that had there been a Serie A or Champions League game next, those players would have converted the anger into motivation and performance on the training ground and on the pitch. Now there is the high possibility that after the international break, the motivation will not be as high and the anger that could have fuelled the players to turn Inter's tide is largely gone.
One certain effect the game will have is bringing new manager and the players closer. This is very much reminiscent of the Jose Mourino and us against the world days. Ranieri had done a whole lot in winning the players and the fans over already, but on Saturday he showed that he is willing to fight with them, although in a more polite and held back manner than Mourinho did. Such moments bring the team closer and bring the manager closer to the team as well.
If Inter wants to get back into the fight for the title then it is far from late as seven points is a lot in terms of the games played, but it is almost nothing when you consider how many games there are to play. The first half performance against Napoli is a great building block and if you add further improvement of current players in this system plus new faces like Wesley Sneijder and Thiago Motta into the team you can imagine the attack having bit more of the end product too.
Then another question comes up, probably the most important for Ranieri: "Who does Motta comes in for?" He is far from the perfect player, but for now he is definitely better than Joel Obi or Javier Zanetti. Does Ranieri have the balls to bench Javier Zanetti, who, with deepest respect, is not starting material anymore? His performances are reasonable, but a club like Inter needs more from its midfielder. It is highly probable it is going to be Joel Obi who is sacrificed - he has offered lot energy into Inter's midfield, but the fact that he is still raw in certain technical areas will make him the obvious candidate. A brave manager would go with him and Motta, but Zanetti's history will probably keep him in the team for a while when in fact his role should be similar to Ryan Giggs bit-part appearances in Manchester United and as a full-back, not as a midfielder.
Future of Inter
There are some fundamental problems in the squad of Inter. Some are caused by one great players starting to show effects of age, similarly to Zanetti, and some are problems with the type of players that are in use for Ranieri as large hope has been put on certain people to improve with large strides or turn flashes into consistency.
Defense needed a new central defender in the summer and Gian Piero Gasperini asked for one, but the directors were maybe the only people around the club who thought it was not necessary. Now the situation is that Inter has three useable central defenders Andrea Ranocchia, Lucio and Walter Samuel. First one still has a long way to go to reach true top level, Lucio has not been in good form for a while and Samuel has been on and off in his first five or so games since returning from around half a year out. The other options of Ivan Cordoba and Cristian Chivu are simply appalling and young Luca Caldirola hasn't yet had a chance in an official game but looked average in pre-season. It's unlikely that there is going to be a move for someone in January, but some names have been tossed around as to give hope that Inter to recognize the problem to get someone young and fresh in there.
Midfield will be boosted by the arrival of Juraj Kucka probably as early as January. Slovak has enjoyed a positive start to the season in the central midfield of Genoa and he would definitely add energy and defensive solidity to the midfield but again the question of "who would he replace in that midfield?" comes up. Another central midfielder Andrea Poli is yet to play for Inter and his true quality or how he fits into this team is to be seen. He is definitely a creative player, something that Inter needs in central midfield, but he is not a pure up and down runner so he might look very much out of place. Although it is not quite the names of Arturo Vidal, Freddy Guarin or Ever Banega like Inter fans would have wanted, there seems to be enough options with Kucka, Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic, Obi, Poli and Motta to find the right mix of attack and defense from its central midfield in balance with how the full-backs work in Ranieri's system.
Moving slightly forward, there is the question of Inter without Sneijder. Much hope was placed on Ricardo Alvarez whose start to Inter career has been dreadful considering his 14 million euro price tag. Ranieri is one person who remains very optimistic as he attributes Alvarez's slowness with the ball and poor vision of what is going around on the field to the fact that the step up from Argentina to Europe or more specifically Italy is not an easy one to make. And you would have to agree with him, Javier Pastore was a great example of a talented player who really struggled at first when moving with huge hopes to Palermo from Huracan, much like Alvarez. Luckily for Inter and Alvarez, there is Sneijder who can take the immediate pressure off him and let him adapt on the training ground and under more comfortable circumstances. After all, there are the examples like Andres D'Alessandro and few more who have failed to adapt to that step up in tempo although being very talented players.
Attack is where lot of the issues lie. It lacks a bit of dazzle and ability to explode. People like Coutinho and Mauro Zarate need to make a step up or two this season because they are the only one's that are able to add freshness and unpredictability to the way Inter plays. Forlan, Milito and Pazzini should still be able to play top level football although the first two are severely lacking in confidence, especially in front of the goal, but they are players that need a support act, someone that gets the ball to them. They are not the type of players to take the ball into dangerous situations themselves. If either one of Zarate or Coutinho cannot make improvement in quality, Inter will be forced to find a way how to buy someone like Giuseppe Rossi next summer in order to hold or retain credibility as a dangerous and top European side.