Conor Clancy Date:14th March 2017 at 5:11pm
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Having started the season slowly under Frank de Boer, Stefano Pioli’s Inter look as though they are, at long last, on their way back to competing with Italy’s top three

With a 7-1 demolition of Atalanta in round 28, Stefano Pioli’s Inter not only climbed above their fellow Nerazzurri, but sent a message to the rest of Serie A that said they are on their way back to becoming one of the country’s real forces.

Despite a disappointing start to this 2016-17 campaign under Frank de Boer, the Biscione, since Pioli’s arrival at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in November, have been one of Italy’s most in-form sides. So impressive have Inter been, in fact, that just Juventus and Napoli have averaged more than their 2.31 points per game since their early-season coaching change.

The biggest criticism of Pioli’s Nerazzurri is that they have struggled in the games that really matter. They have brushed aside the perceived smaller sides, but come up short against Juventus, Napoli, and Roma – the current top three. While Atalanta are far from being one of the major forces in Italian football, it is worth remembering that the Bergamaschi did enter round 28 above Inter in the table, and on track to bring European football to Bergamo.

Mauro Icardi epitomised his side’s performance. The Argentine was lethal, and had the conviction of a cold-blooded assassin, scoring the fastest hat-trick of an Inter player in 70 years. Opening the scoring after 17 minutes, he┬áhad killed the game off before the half hour mark by giving the hosts a 3-0 lead. Ever Banega, who, like Icardi, hails from Rosario, added two more before Remo Freuler pulled one back for La Dea.

By the break, Inter were five goals to the good and, remarkably, had found the net with their first five attempts on target. Putting Atalanta’s defence, which was the third best in Serie A before Sunday, to the sword. Banega completed his hat-trick after the break, while Roberto Gagliardini rubbed salt into the wound of his old club by getting in on the action himself.

The squad is not complete, there are still obvious weaknesses at the back, but a lot of the key parts are already in place. Some subtle tweaks and a handful of defensive additions will put them in a good position to aim for bigger things next season.

Gagliardini has hit the ground running quicker than everybody, probably even those at Inter, expected. In what is still his breakthrough season in Serie A, the former Atalanta midfielder has added so much to the Inter XI, helping to bring out the best in Geoffrey Kondogbia alongside him, as well as bringing his own energy to the side.

With Icardi leading the line, Inter have one of Europe’s most clinical marksmen. Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva offer proven quality on either side, while Banega orchestrates in front of Gagliardini and his sidekick, be it Joao Mario or Kondogbia.

Sunday’s result showed that Inter can perform when it really counts. With games against Lazio, Napoli and a Derby della Madonnina meeting with AC Milan between now and the season’s end, Pioli’s side have the chance to prove this beyond doubt.

As things stand, they sit in fifth place and six points off Napoli in the third and final Champions League qualification spot. When Napoli visit the San Siro at the end of April, the gap could be a lot closer, and Inter could be set to return to Europe’s primary club competition sooner than we might have thought at the beginning of the season.

While Juventus remain a level above everyone else in the Italian top flight, Inter can expect to challenge for the title of ‘best of the rest’ next season. After years of waiting, the San Siro might finally be set to house one of Serie A’s most dominant sides again.