By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
There were plenty of gifts being handed out on Cristian Chivu’s birthday yesterday, but as the Romanian turned 31, he was the one giving rather than receiving the presents on offer as Inter got away with a 1-1 draw at Atalanta - but only thanks to Luca Castellazzi’s late penalty save.
The day had seemingly started out so well for the former Roma defender. When passed the morning newspapers with his breakfast in bed, he will have seen flattering reports linking him with a summer move to Premier League leaders Manchester City, but that was to be as good as his birthday would get. By midnight, he’d turned in another shocking defensive display which would have resulted in three points for the Orobici were it not for German Denis’ tame 90th-minute spot-kick.
Claudio Ranieri’s side had looked set to continue their gradual progression under their firefighter of a coach, with the returning Wesley Sneijder getting on the end of a Mauro Zarate pull-back and firing a low effort off Luca Cigarini and into the bottom corner.
|MATCH FACTS | Atalanta 1-1 Inter
It was a deserved goal given the amount of possession and territory Inter had had, but Atalanta continued to look dangerous at the other end, as they have for much of their excellent start to the campaign after a summer points deduction.
Ezequiel Schelotto, in particular, was causing them headaches with his direct running at pace down the right channel, and when the home side switched play away from his wing, Inter – or more specifically Chivu – switched off. Maxi Moralez played a regulation angled ball into the box, and the Romanian reacted far too slowly, allowing Denis to steal the half a yard he needed to get a header in which beat Julio Cesar with ease.
As the visitors searched for an elusive winner, several chances went begging, while some questionable decisions might also have gone their way on another night. The lively Zarate continued to forge space down the right until his somewhat premature substitution, while Giampaolo Pazzini saw a couple of opportunities go begging after replacing Sneijder.
The biggest guilty party in front of goal though was Diego Milito, who somehow managed to chest the most simple of chances from two yards over the bar after Maicon’s excellent volleyed cross from the right. It was the latest example of just what a shadow of his former self the Argentine has become.
But while ‘Il Principe’ has fallen furthest of all the 2010 Champions League-winning squad, Chivu remains the weak link he was two seasons ago. Though he’d done remarkably well to recover from the awful cranial injury he suffered against Chievo earlier that year, it was he who was the 12th man in a largely 12-man effort in the knockout run which would eventually finish in glory.
Back then, it panicked Inter fans when he was asked to start, as happened in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona at Camp Nou due to Goran Pandev’s pull-out in the warm-up. And many spent the run-in to the final worrying about the main connotation of Thiago Motta’s suspension being the potential exposure of Chivu to the threat of Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller.
Chivu | May have been switched to the centre, but his fortunes haven't changed
Last season he was one of Inter’s biggest problem areas once more. Outplayed and sent off in the 3-0 derby defeat to AC Milan, he managed to repeat the feat three days later as they were humiliated by Schalke in the Champions League. He had almost become the symbol for the Nerazzurri’s demise, and all this having only recently returned from a three-match ban for a cowardly punch on Bari’s Marco Rossi in a Serie A fixture.
Last night his coup de grace came in the last couple of minutes, foolishly allowing substitute Guido Marilungo to get in front of him and then running straight into the back of the forward, giving Atalanta a late penalty. That Castellazzi saved Denis’ poor strike down the middle with his legs should not deflect from the fact that Chivu nearly lost them the game.
With resources in the centre of defence and midfield ageing, the opportunity to give the Romanian a spell in the side was always going to be tempting to Ranieri, but surely now he will look elsewhere for defensive cover. Chivu’s contract runs out at the season’s end, and at the current rate it is highly unlikely that the club will find significant justification for offering him another one.
And for as long as Inter’s worst enemies are the ones in their own strip, their hopes of a concerted run for a Champions League spot will continue to fade away.