Tuesday arrived as a day of much fanfare for Inter as they finally secured passage into the future, with Erick Thohir confirming his majority takeover of the club.
Alas that the beloved Massimo Moratti, the next to preserve his family’s legacy with the Nerazzurri since taking up ownership in 1995, ended his tenure as sole proprietor with a 3-0 drubbing against Roma two weeks ago. As coach Walter Mazzarri suggested, that the defeat had not been so much the one-way traffic implied by the scoreline proved harshly unbecoming afterwards.
Billed as an epic pitting the rejuvenated outfits of 2013-14 against each other in a clash of tactical ideologies – Inter as the master of the pragmatic counter-attack and Roma as the progenitor of silky, attacking football – their roles couldn’t have been more reversed that day.
Losing at San Siro left a sour taste in the mouth of the local fans, who saw their team virtually dominate in terms of possession, shots, corners and territory, but crucially fail to make something meaningful of it against the capital side. Instead. it was the divine touch of Francesco Totti that swung the tie in Roma’s favour, of which Inter had no response to.
Or was the ‘response’ just never utilised? Teen prodigy Mateo Kovacic spent 57 minutes cooped up on the bench before being thrown on in a futile effort to stem the tide. By then, their visitors had retreated into defence, and nothing the Inter sensation could produce would penetrate the wall thrown up in front of Morgan De Sanctis.
Despite the shellacking inflicted on them nevertheless, it’s impossible not to churn out a lengthy list of positives showcased this season under the stewardship of Mazzarri. The Italian trainer’s spontaneity has galvanised a squad shorn of pride and belief previously, while his ethos of organisation and meticulous planning restore competitiveness to a fallen giant that currently sits a credible fourth in Serie A.
Yet, the unlikely victim of the revolution afoot is now proving to be young Kovacic.
Confusion exists over the Croat’s role under his new boss. “I think he [Kovacic] can really make the difference in the final third,” Mazzarri commented in early September. “He’s a versatile player who can play in three positions. I think he’s the sort of player I’d like to see operating a bit further up the field. In the future I think he could play his best football in the hole or out wide in a front three.”
Still, Kovacic has never enjoyed the opportunity to lead from the front so far due to Ricky Alvarez flourishing into a mainstay of this current squad. As a long-running advocate of players sporting a good engine and bags of resolve, Mazzarri has thrust the Argentina international into the thick of the action; even in cases when his counterpart and present rival was alleged to be dropping with exhaustion, Kovacic has barely got a look in on the starting XI.
“As things stand, the eleven who have been starting games are the best options available. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Mazzarri had maintained. “When a coach has a clearly defined tactical set-up, it’s best to change things around as little as possible.” And admittedly, based on the progress Alvarez has showcased since coming good of his youthful promise, it would be devastating to drop the former enigma back to the fringes again.
Rather, on the occasion Kovacic has been fielded, it has been deeper, in a position familiar to the playmaker from his first days in Serie A during Andrea Stramaccioni’s tortured reign. Being injured in pre-season was never going to aid his cause, but neither has Kovacic been content to stand on ceremony, recently confirming a co-existence with Alvarez is conceivable via a lustrous performance together at Cagliari, while simultaneously providing a glimpse of the attacking solutions the duo might offer Inter.
The 19-year-old remains a remote source of finesse and imagination in a side as laden with midfield corporals as Inter are through Esteban Cambiasso, Yuto Nagatomo and Fredy Guarin – and it is the Colombian’s status that must now come under scrutiny following an indifferent start to the campaign.
As summer arrival Saphir Taider continues to underline his worth over numerous mature and composed outings, time could well be running out for Guarin, who most lately ran afoul with the Inter crowd after suffering a meltdown in response to perceived criticism. Barring the odd tenacious display, the ex-Porto man’s muscular performances have too often left Inter lacking guile in forays upfield, ensuring Mazzarri can ill afford to ignore Kovacic’s technical qualities in the former’s place any longer.
If the coach is to resume Inter’s ascent up the table in tandem with the ambitious project underway under Thohir’s tenure, he must begin turning to the resident starlet of Appiano Gentile, who could turn out to be the club’s greatest asset in the months ahead.
Beginning this weekend, that Alvarez has been ruled out of the running presents a fine opportunity for Kovacic to seize. Simply without equal on the pitch, irregardless of the position he is deployed in, the gem of a youngster will be at the forefront of guaranteeing his club’s ambitious new chapter gets off to a winning start in Torino’s Olimpico on Sunday.
Follow Jeremy Lim on Twitter: @JLCalcio