Written By Onyeka Daniel
Inter Milan had a Jekyll and Hyde type of performance against Portuguese club, Benfica in the UEFA Champions League group stage game as they had to mount a spirited challenge to grab a point from the game. The Nerazzurri managed an extraordinary comeback from 3-0 down to a Joao Mario hat-trick to hold Benfica 3-3 with goals from Marko Arnautovic (51) Davide Frattesi (53) and Alexis Sanchez (72).
The Nerazzurri had already booked their place in the knockout stages of the competition and with a huge game against Napoli in the Italian Serie A at the weekend in view, the manager decided to massively rotate the squad, including a debut for Emil Audero in goal. The Portuguese giants were rock bottom after losing all four games, with Alexander Bah, Goncalo Guedes and David Neres injured.
These sides met in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals, so it was surprising to see Benfica struggling so badly. It was the worst possible start for the visitors, because within five minutes a ball was floated over the top and Casper Tengstedt nodded it down for Joao Mario to score against his old club.
It was initially flagged offside, a decision overturned on VAR. Benfica added a second when Kristjan Asllani was caught napping in the final third, then Yann Bisseck failed to clear the roll across from the right, allowing unmarked Joao Mario to turn in from 12 yards. It was the first time In history that Inter had been 2-0 down in a Champions League or European Cup tie in the opening 15 minutes.
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An Angel Di Maria half-volley flashed just past the far top corner and Marko Arnautovic failed to beat the on-rushing goalkeeper when sent clear by Davide Frattesi’s pass. Instead, Joao Mario completed his hat-trick by bundling over the line from a yard with his stomach, as Francesco Acerbi blocked the first attempted cross and Bisseck did not intercept the second. The only other player to put a Champions League hat-trick past Inter was Gareth Bale for Tottenham in October 2010.
After that, the Italian side seemed to wake up as Carlos Augusto fired over from a deflected Bisseck cross. Inter managed to get one back from a corner when the Bisseck header forced a one-handed save, Arnautovic tapping in at the back post. It was again originally flagged offside, corrected by VAR.
Simone Inzaghi clearly gave them a strong half-team talk, because the Nerazzurri clawed it back to 3-2 when Acerbi’s cross from the left found a wonderful Davide Frattesi volley off the inside of the left boot from 12 yards. Bisseck flung himself in the way of the Tengstedt finish after a rapid counter-attack, but when Inzaghi introduced some of the big names, they made an immediate difference.
Nicolas Otamendi brought down Marcus Thuram within moments of coming off the bench and Alexis Sanchez converted the resulting penalty. Audero flew to palm a Di Maria strike over the bar and Benfica went down to 10 men, as the referee changed his yellow card to a red after a VAR on-field review of Antonio Silva’s late lunge on Nicolò Barella.
Barella thought he’d won it for Inter in stoppages, but a ferocious strike from distance cannoned off the frame of the goal. Real Sociedad drew 0-0 with RB Salzburg, so Inter must win the final match at San Siro, or the Spaniards will go through as leaders on overall goal difference.
As for the second Italian team, Napoli, Inter’s opponent at the weekend, they weren’t so lucky as they lost to Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Spain, but the result doesn’t really jeopardize their chances of making it to the knockout stages of the UCL. In fact, the Parte could even afford to lose by one goal to SC Braga at home in their last game and still qualify for the Champions League Round of 16.
They were defeated 4-2 by Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, but German side, Union Berlin did them a favour by holding 10-man Braga to a 1-1 draw in the other group game. That means Napoli are still on the verge of a place in the knockout rounds going into the final showdown with SC Braga at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
Napoli are on seven points and SC Braga sit in third place on four. All they need is a point to be sure of qualification for the Round of 16. In fact, even a defeat might be sufficient, as long as it is only by one clear goal, because they won 2-1 in Portugal back on September 20. If the two teams therefore finish on an identical head-to-head record, it goes to overall goal difference, where Napoli have the advantage.
Inter CEO Beppe Marotta explains the importance of Inzaghi’s squad rotation in the Champions League with Benfica. ‘It is a bonus for their future and the future of Inter.’ Marotta extended his contract with the club last week, perhaps ensuring a level of consistency even if Suning are to sell Inter.
“Extending the contract continues the project started with President Steven Zhang in 2018 and the team that works behind the scenes to keep getting positive results,” Marotta told Sky Sport Italia before the game against Benfica kicked off. “Ausilio, Baccin and others all get along well, we all delegate and have a sense of responsibility, so we are very pleased.”
Last season’s Champions League Finalists have already booked their spot in the knockout rounds, but it all goes down to the final showdown with Real Sociedad at San Siro to decide who gets the leadership. “Squad rotation is necessary, because the coach must protect the psychological and physical strain on the players who are not just dealing with a tight club schedule, but also international duty.
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“It also gives these lads the opportunity to increase their experience and therefore be a bonus for their future and the future of Inter.” Agent Pablo Bentancur claimed that Inter have been in talks for Cagliari midfielder Nahitan Nandez, something that seemed to take Marotta by surprise.
“The squad at the disposal of Inzaghi has quality and is well-amalgamated, so we do not need to go on the January transfer market. “I don’t know why Bentancur said that, I am trying to be respectful, but we never sought out his players.” Fabio Capello asked Marotta if he is keeping up with the modern tendency to pick players using computer algorithms, seeing as they keep churning out smart signings.
“I am fairly old-school, but as a manager I have to work with algorithms and artificial intelligence now too. I personally believe the human element is crucial when evaluating players, but modern managers must combine competence with technology.
“Sustainability is just a logical balance between costs and revenue. It is not right for any club owners to continually pump money in, the club must also try to get the best value out of young assets. “Naturally, we want to keep our players for as long as possible, as this group grew over the years, and fortunately we have a squad deep enough that allows us to deal with any emergency situations.”
Marotta was asked if he had to choose between a Scudetto this season, and therefore the second ‘star’ on the jersey, and another Champions League Final, what would he pick? “I would gladly choose both! We’ll see what happens, but these are two extraordinary targets and the common denominator is to put in the effort to achieve them.” He further added.
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