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...
- Milan may have lost two points in the Champions League push, but on the balance of play they may well accept that it was more a point gained as they secured a late 1-1 draw away to Cagliari. After falling behind to Victor Ibarbo's goal on the stroke of half-time, the Rossoneri ran the risk of conceding a second as the home side took advantage of a rather stagnant midfield line to create a number of decent chances, and had Daniele Conti found the top corner with a ripper of a shot from distance, then they could well have lost even more ground. But the luck is with Milan at the moment, and they can count themselves fortunate that Davide Astori picked an inopportune moment to hold back Mario Balotelli's shoulders in the box as his Italy team-mate attempted an acrobatic shot. The striker's subsequent penalty was an inevitability, and when the chips are down, it could prove a huge moment in the race for third place.
- Despite bossing possession for most of the match and playing against a side noted for their cageyness, Roma's ability to throw away points was on show again on Sunday as they collapsed to a 3-1 loss at Sampdoria. Erik Lamela had a seemingly valid goal ruled out at 0-0, but from there they had nobody to blame but themselves for their downfall, as one of the league's best squads somehow capitulated once more. Zdenek Zeman may have gone, but his philosophy still clearly runs deep, and the afternoon in Liguria was notable for the presence of one Roberto Mancini. He may well have been one half of the 'Gemelli del Gol' (Goal twins) for Samp back in the day, but his potential availability in the summer seemed a much more pertinent reason for his sudden appearance at the Marassi. A team lacking in discipline and defensive structure could well be the perfect next destination for Mancini, so the link to Roma may well prove to be more than just a flight of fancy.
- Oh Palermo, what has become of you? It was a case of new coach, new sporting director, same old story at the Renzo Barbera as the Rosanero dropped two huge points in their 1-1 home draw with Pescara. Not only was the game a veritable relegation six-pointer, but it was also the Sicilian side's most winnable fixture of their run-in. Yet it took a second-half equaliser from Diego Fabbrini to avoid defeat, and there is now a dawning realisation that they are destined for Serie B. Their deficit of four points from 17th spot does not make safety unachievable, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that a team which has won just three games all season - that's an average of one per coach - can expect to suddenly turn around a dreadful run of form with what increasingly looks like the league's most incapable squad. Their club record nine-year run in Serie A is hanging by a thread.