COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It was on Saturday that forward Keita Balde really took flight at Internazionale. The Senegal winger was devastating, scoring twice and whipping in a cross which was met by Lautaro Martinez in the Nerazzuri's 3-0 win over Frosinone.
His first, a mix of persistence and skill, saw him outwit two markers in the area, before firing past Marco Sportiello. He would put gloss on the scoreline eight minutes from time, receiving a pass from Mateo Politano before coolly slotting home into the bottom corner.
Up until that point, his time at San Siro, where he is on loan from AS Monaco, had been largely frustrating.
Aside his three at the weekend, he had only been directly involved in one goal this season: an assist in victory against Genoa a fortnight ago. A far cry, then, from the electric forward whose performances while at Lazio made him a hot commodity all over Europe.
Fueling the frustration is the sense of an opportunity missed. While Politano has come into the club and made an immediate impact, beating off Antonio Candreva on the right side of the attack, Balde has failed to take a similar step on the opposite flank.
Croatia's deep run at the World Cup in the summer has seen winger Ivan Perisic struggle to recapture his best form, seemingly drained not only physically, but emotionally. His drop-off offered the perfect chance for Balde to stake his claim.
All is not lost though, at least on recent evidence. While the decision to start the Senegal international was taken ostensibly to give Perisic a rest (with an eye to the crucial midweek Champions League match against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley), it cannot have escaped Inter boss Luciano Spalletti just how menacing his team looked with Balde linking up with Martinez.
Whether he can have the same impact combining with Mauro Icardi remains to be seen, but suddenly the prospect of replacing his Croatian teammate in the lineup does not seem so fantastical.
In the reverse fixture, the Italians executed a late turnaround, as the game pivoted wickedly on Icardi's volley to leave Spurs empty-handed in a game they had utterly dominated. The Argentine is, of course, one of the most clinical forwards around, but there is a sense that the team goes as he does, a natural consequence of having no other real goalscorer alongside.
The upshot of this is that Icardi can be marked out of a game, and so can Inter be neutered.
Granted, he only needs a moment, or half a yard, but he can be nullified nonetheless.
In this regard, it would be beneficial to include Balde ahead of Perisic, who is more provider than goalscorer himself (despite starting twice as many games, the Croatian has scored at a significantly weaker rate in Serie A this season).
The ability of the Senegal international to play out wide, while still taking up strong positions in the centre of the box, could prove valuable if Inter are to cause the Spurs defence problems, and would prevent Icardi from being perpetually isolated.
If there is a worry, it is that Perisic is the more conscientious defender, and would more willingly work back to track the full-back (like Kieran Trippier, if he makes a return as expected from a knock).
However, that is the conundrum Spalletti will have to grapple with: if anything, from the first leg, he will be aware of the dangers of letting the hosts dictate the terms of engagement.
While playing for the draw is the most stereotypical Italian trait, Inter will know all too well the danger of hunkering down from minute one.
Better to aim for the stars, and find a fluffy landing place amid the clouds. Balde would be key to that bold approach.