Just a month ago, Inter Milan’s 0-0 draw at champions Juventus kept the Nerazzurri top of Serie A, apparently underlining their credentials as title challengers.
It was their 16th game undefeated since the start of the season. Against the odds, Luciano Spalletti’s men looked like they might be ready to mix it with the big boys.
It was only the second game in an impressive start to the season in which they had failed to score.
The other happened to be at buoyant Napoli – who have serious title pretensions of their own – so as on that occasion, there was a sense that Inter had laid down another marker, even if victory had eluded them.
There was no suggestion that the blank would become a damaging trend.
Inter followed up the draw with Maurizio Sarri’s outfit back in October by winning five and drawing one of their next six league fixtures before their meeting with the champions.
And as they departed the field in Turin with a hard-earned point, they were expected to continue to Christmas and into the New Year in similar vein.
But the last three weeks in December have ultimately proven disastrous for Inter. The Nerazzurri were knocked out of the Coppa Italia by city rivals AC Milan, and lost back to back league games against mid table Sassuolo and Udinese – their first Serie A defeats of the season – before finishing out the month with a 0-0 home draw against Champions League rivals Lazio.
Inter played seven games over the course of the month and crucially had drawn a blank in five of them. Friday night’s 1-1 draw at Fiorentina suggested little in the way of improvement.
Despite recent disappointments, Spalletti might feel that Inter dropping off the title pace might benefit him in the long term. His side’s strong showing up to December had raised unrealistic expectations about a squad that finished a distant seventh last term and about what he can achieve.
The summer market had seen a few arrivals, but more depth and quality is required to make Inter serious and consistent contenders. Recent results should impress upon the owners and fans alike that this project needs patience, thought and further investment.
Inter’s struggles in front of goal over the last four weeks makes the case nicely. The Nerazzurri have relied too much on Mauro Icardi and Ivan Perisic to win them games. The duo have scored 25 of Inter’s 35 goals to date.
But both have struggled for form of late, underlining the fact that the club needs more players capable of sharing the goal scoring burden if they are to make an impression on the likes of Juventus and Napoli across an entire season. Inter’s ten other league goals have come from just six players.
Compare that to the top two. Napoli’s front three of Mertens, Insigne and Callejon have scored 21 league goals between them, with the Partenopei’s other 23 goals coming from eight of their team mates.
Juventus show even greater goal getting prowess across their squad – Dybala and Higuain have bagged 23 goals with the other 26 spread across eleven other players.
Defensively, Inter compare well with their rivals – but until they can improve the squad sufficiently at the other end of the field, either through coaching, the market or both, a league title will be beyond them.
And it looks as if the training ground skills of Spalletti will have to provide many of the answers as going to the market may not be that simple. Legacy Financial Fair Play issues and the apparent reluctance of owners Sunings Holdings to splash the cash mean that the manager may have to make do. Indeed, he may have to sell players before he can buy.
Pulling rabbits out of hats in such wheeling and dealing is a difficult business. But Spalletti may well have bigger worries when it comes to the January transfer window.
Inter’s strong first half of the season owed much to the fact that they had no European distractions – now, ironically, that lack of continental involvement could undermine his plans for the coming months.
With the likes of Icardi, Perisic and Joao Mario available to play in the Champions League when it resumes in February, Spalletti may have his work cut out holding on to his most influential stars.