Other than the usual mismanagement of the lead, as the second half versus Freiburg was particularly horrid, good news all around from the last two fixtures. Juventus advanced and, with Arsenal getting eliminated, they are one of the top three teams left, along with Manchester United and Roma, which might have a lesser squad but are led by a coach that knows a thing or two about winning a continental trophy. They’d have to best both to go all the way, which will be a tall order. A final versus the Giallorossi already has all the makings of another disappointment in Europe, but it’d be wrong to look that far ahead.
A holistic approach wouldn’t be entirely correct, as these bouts are games of inches decided by a few episodes, which went the Bianconeri’s way in the return legs of the last two rounds, but the earlier stages are probably more challenging than the later ones under certain mental and physical aspects, which will be more on point when the finish line approaches.
The Dusan Vlahovic nightmare ended, or was at least postponed for a few matches, with that lucky PK. While he’s obviously paid the big bucks to score, it’s not actually an issue if he plays like in the Sampdoria game. At a bare minimum, he needs to be engaged, energetic, and a catalyst for the offense, which doesn’t know which way to turn when Angel Di Maria is absent if the Serb gets engulfed. Still, the goal was noticeably important for his psyche, and everybody can move on now. Federico Chiesa looked very spry too, and hopefully, he’ll manage to stay completely healthy for a few games in a row.
The only recent negative was Paul Pogba suffering another injury, but you can’t really miss what you never had. Considering how long he’s been out and the predictable lack of form, it’s hard to imagine he’d contribute more than Nicolò Fagioli at this point. The youngster has been on a steady rise for a few months and has become a very dependable and inventive ball handler. Whatever the Frenchman will bring to the table this season will be a bonus. The medical and coaching staff might as well begin building him up ahead of the next one without unnecessarily rushing things.
It was odd that the gaffer turned to him in a demanding spot, but Federico Gatti responded very well in Freiburg, having arguably his best showing of the season. His tenacity and muscularity have been manifest from day one, but the technique and level of concentration haven’t always been where they need to be. Leonardo Bonucci has shaken off his latest injury, but he’s far from 100 percent, so the manager might be forced to turn to other players.
Mattia De Sciglio as a braccetto is moderately interesting because, as a pure fullback, he’s fairly similar to the Brazilian, although not as far along in the transition, so he helps in the build-up and can venture forward a little, creating advantageous situations. But fielding him would make more sense in matches where Juventus have better chances of pulling the strings and won’t face an imposing frontline. Going with the youngster over Daniele Rugani, who’s okay but very vanilla and has no upside, would be a strong vote of confidence and a sink-or-swim moment that could be very telling about his future. Fabio Miretti is out, and Matias Soulé was tested next to Vlahovic Saturday, as Di Maria and Chiesa aren’t 100 percent, but there are good chances one of the two starts if they prove to be in good enough shape in the final light practice.
3-5-2: Szczesny; Gatti, Bremer, Danilo; De Sciglio, Fagioli, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Soulé, Vlahovic.
Absences: Kean (suspension), Alex Sandro (thigh strain), Milik (thigh strain), Miretti (thigh injury), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear).
Making the Champions League’s quarter-finals is a real achievement, especially considering Inter came out of a very challenging group, but the overall assessment of their season will hinge on whether they finish in the top four. They should have no trouble doing so considering their roster, but they routinely shoot themselves in the foot. Nobody could really keep up with Napoli, but they should have been much closer, especially since they were one of the two teams that beat them.
They are Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, depending on whether they play at home or on the road. They look confident, commanding, and at ease at San Siro, sluggish and insecure in away fixtures, where they have dropped countless points against minnows. The Spezia game was different, though, as they were unlucky not to win since they created a myriad of chances, and the opponents just two. Previous showings were much more underwhelming, and eight losses are way too many for a team of this caliber.
At some point, you lose motivation if you can’t catch up with the league leaders and feel superior to your contenders for your backup objective, but their cushion over the fifth-placed Roma is only three points. They remain clear favorites, but they’ll have to be more consistent the rest of the way to land the plane comfortably.
The subpar campaign is raising questions about Simone Inzaghi. Like Massimiliano Allegri, minus all the titles, he seems a peace-time president who does his part when things are going well and struggles to come up with new solutions when they don’t. He rarely ever modifies his 3-5-2, and they fumbled away the Scudetto last season. He has done well with some choices, like trusting Federico Dimarco on the left, who’s a true force at this point, and routinely picking Francesco Acerbi over Stefan De Vrij, as he’s been more reliable. In contrast, other aspects, like their attention and energy level in easier fixtures, have left much to be desired.
Considering Giuseppe Marotta’s caution, the bar to stick with the manager will be very low. They’ll move on from him if they feel like they have a strong replacement in hand, and that’s dubious considering their financial woes, or if they sense that he has lost the ear of the players.
On the pitch, they have had to cope with a few issues that lowered their ceiling. Romelu Lukaku only recently managed to play consecutive matches. He has been fine but far from a dominant force. Edin Dzeko, who filled in extensively, bagged some clutch goals but is no longer a formidable striker. Lautaro Martinez took it up a notch and has been a machine gun in 2023, but that wasn’t the case in the first portion of the season. Their attack has been just so-so for a long time. The call of the future of the big Belgian will be fascinating. The ex-Roma veteran is in a similar spot, and they ultimately might not want to have to find two strikers in the summer.
Marcelo Brozovic has also missed a lot of time with injuries, but they have had an easier time replacing him. Hakan Calhanoglu has been excellent as a deep-lying playmaker, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is an extremely savvy contributor who’s perfectly capable of taking care of whatever the gaffer asks him to do, on top of providing offensive punch, given his past. The alternation has been awkward once the Croat got healthy. He’s not yet back at elite helps, which hasn’t helped his playing time.
Denzel Dumfries has lost the starting job after the World Cup, either due to lingering physical problems or perhaps because they have already found a buyer. Matteo Darmian is one of the most solid backups around, but they lose oomph and physical assertiveness without the Dutchman. He has resurfaced lately due to Milan Skriniar’s physical problems, but he has had just one really good game in 2023. Nicolò Barella has also tailed off in the final third as the season progressed after a blistering start, but his hustle and stamina remain essential for their balance.
Having two cornerstones on the mend and multiple key starters sputtering for months would hurt any side. In addition, the absences shortened their rotation, forcing the regulars into heavy minutes. The replacements have been okay enough for it not to be a massive problem, thus legitimizing the criticism of their displays.
At home, they generally play like a big team is supposed to, taking command and creating a lot. But their boss wouldn’t be new to toning down their aggressiveness in a crunch match and settling with playing on the counter. However, their defense might not be as airtight as in the past to make it a fail-safe strategy, especially with its two best members, Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni, on the shelf. In any case, it’s highly likely to be a war of attrition rather than an entertaining fixture.
3-5-2: Onana; Darmian, De Vrij, Acerbi; Dumfries, Barella, Calhanoglu, Mkhitaryan, Dimarco; Lukaku, Martinez.
Absences: Skriniar (gluteus injury), Bastoni (thigh pull), Gosens (calf pull).