The non-stop skipper once again proved why he is the first name on the Nerazzurri's teamsheet despite his advanced years as he helped keep his side in the Champions League race
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Inter’s 3-1 victory over Chievo at San Siro on Sunday saw them move back to within one point of the top three, but with 14 games still to play in the Serie A season there is much for the Nerazzurri still to do if they are to become convincing candidates for a Champions League spot. Still, with Javier Zanetti leading the way, they will certainly not give up for as long as there is still a mathematical hope.
The Beneamata’s zenith of 2012-13 came at Juventus Stadium in November, when a 3-1 win ended Juve’s 49-match unbeaten run and suggested that Inter could yet make a concerted run at a 19th Scudetto. But that was soon proven to be a premature belief, with the victory over Chievo marking only their fourth league success in the 13 games since then, and only Napoli of any note have been beaten in that time. What’s more, they have collected only one point on the road in their six matches since departing Turin.
Even their 3-1 Sunday success came despite clear signs of weakness. The Flying Donkeys’ first-half equaliser came after Luca Rigoni had been astonishingly allowed to ghost into space just six yards from goal. Whatever Andrea Stramaccioni had set up by way of defensive plans for attacking runners was not carried out. Walter Gargano, the joint-shortest player on Inter’s books, had originally been assigned the runner rather than the more appropriate marker of Zdravko Kuzmanovic, and when he gave up on the task completely, Rigoni found it all too easy to head home.
Inter didn't learn their lesson either, as Chievo had further chances from simple crosses, most notably when Alberto Paloschi miscued a free header in the second half. But while their progress under Stramaccioni is proving a slow process in some departments, the dependability of the veteran Zanetti is leaving them in with a decent shout of reaching their goal for the season.
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And, as extraordinary as it seems on the surface, the Argentine only appears to be growing more vital to the Nerazzurri cause with every game. As the first-team squad continues to come to terms with the loss of those players that formed the basis of the treble-winning side – Wesley Sneijder being the most recent to have departed – it is the durable captain who leads from the front every week.
Once more against Chievo he put in the shift of a 29-year-old, despite being a decade more senior, marking his 831st game for Inter with just as much drive, endeavour, enthusiasm and athleticism as he did his 31st. The man is a machine. A study into distance covered by an average footballer suggested that full-backs run an average of around 10.43 kilometres per game. Extrapolate that over the 1087 professional matches that Zanetti has competed in, and ‘the Tractor’ has clocked up around 11,337km. Yet he still shows no sign of stopping!
He has intimated in the past that next season may be his last, bringing down the curtain on his glorious career just a few months shy of his 41st birthday. But why should he when he continues to be the first name on the Nerazzurri’s teamsheet? He is not Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, who barely get a start in Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides these days, nor is he Paolo Maldini, who spent most of his 40th year sidelined with knee problems and was way short of his once great self in the final 24 months of his Milan career.
Zanetti is still turning in practically the same calibre of performance as he was three years ago in the run-up to that famous moment when he beamed with pride as he lifted the Champions League trophy aloft in Madrid. And with the treble-winning squad fracturing and ageing all around him, he is the last one to be showing signs of ageing, with 22 starts out of a possible 24 under his belt in Serie A during 2012-13. At this rate, he could yet break Stanley Matthews' record of playing top-flight football at the age of 50!
This Inter squad is a long way from forming a great team just yet, and they rely almost more than ever on individuals to pull them through. No longer do they boast dependability all across the park. But while Antonio Cassano’s tricks are a highlight, and Diego Milito’s goals are a big key, it is the driving force and on-field know-how of Javier Zanetti that is helping to keep them in the Champions League picture for the moment.
Now, all that Inter and the football world need is to persuade Zanetti that age is nothing but a number. Because while he continues to defy the sands of time, he remains a massive asset to both.ELSEWHERE...
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