Serie A kicked off again after the winter break last week with a busy fixture schedule. At the top of the table, AC Milan maintained their winning streak by taking three points from Cagliari on Thursday, but then played a freak 4-4 draw against Udinese on Sunday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic getting the equalizer in stoppage time. The big news for Milan during the break was obviously Antonio Cassano’s transfer from Sampdoria (and Ronaldinho’s departure to an unknown destination in Brazil which turned out to be Flamengo). Many questioned the rationality behind the move for the 28-year-old ticking time-bomb but on the evidence of the two matches Cassano has played in, Massimiliano Allegri knew what he was doing: in 45 minutes of football Cassano has provided three assists. Autumn’s surprise-package Lazio, on the other hand, seem to be struggling after the break. A 0-0 draw at Genoa was still a decent result but then Lazio crashed to a 2-1 defeat against relegation-bound Lecce at the Olimpico. Meanwhile, Juventus got to a dreadful start as first Parma ran riot in Turin, coming away with the most unlikely 4-1 victory (only to lose at home to Cagliari on Sunday) in a match which saw one of the ugliest fouls seen anywhere this season perpetrated by (you guessed it) Felipe Melo. On Sunday it didn’t get any better for Juve as they were ripped apart by Edison Cavani in Naples in a match in which Juve gave a perfect lesson on how not to organise your defence.
Perhaps the biggest news during the break was former Milan coach/player/director (or whatever the title was) Leonardo’s appointment in place of Rafael Benitez. This probably did not endear too much to the Inter fans since adding to Leonardo’s history in the Rossoneri shirt, he didn’t exactly set the San Siro on fire when he was coach of Milan last season. He did, however, make Milan play fairly attractive football and at this point the Nerazzurri faithful will settle for anything as long as it’s not Benitez’s overtly pragmatic, devoid-of-emotion-approach and strategy riddled with tactical failures.
And Leonardo’s reign at Inter could not have got off to a better start really. First, Inter beat Napoli 3-1 at home and came a way with all three points from Catania, who hadn’t lost a single home match all season. And yesterday, Inter continued their perfect start, winning 4-1 at home to Bologna. Inter might not have dazzled especially on neither of the former occasions, but particularly against Napoli Inter started to resemble the team they were last season. First of all, they defended solidly in their defensive third, keeping Cavani quiet all evening, and then looked lively and organised on the counter.
Leonardo didn’t do drastic tactical changes to Benitez’s system and started out with a seemingly defensive 4-3-1-2 against Napoli’s 3-4-3. In terms of the formations, Napoli had the upper hand because by fielding two attacker and no wide midfielders against Napoli’s back three, Inter were playing in the pockets of the opposition. In practice, however, Leonardo seems to have planned the occasion to perfection. Inter got off to a great start getting a goal already on the fourth minute with an excellent attacking combination that was emphatically finished off by Motta. This goal served as a warning to Napoli about Leonardo’s game plan. Since Napoli’s wide midfielders (Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena) were extremely eager to go forward, when Inter got the ball one of the forwards (Diego Milito or Goran Pandev) drifted wide to receive the ball which then forced Napoli’s back three to react and stretch their line just enough to create gaps for Inter midfielders to run at.
After the goal, Inter were happy to curb their attacking enthusiasm and sit back and soak up any pressure the visitors were throwing at them. Gradually Napoli started to use their numerical advantage in midfield better; they pressed high up the pitch and made it extremely difficult for Inter defenders to open play with the result that they often had to resort to seek their forwards with long balls. The visitors tried to break through the flanks (using Maggio and Dossena almost as attacking wingers) but were always short of a killer ball inside their attacking third. Inter were well organised at the back but with a bit more passing ability up front, Napoli could have inflicted some real damage. Napoli were, nevertheless, awarded with an equalizer (scored by Michele Pazienza) for their active efforts on the 25th minute which came fittingly from a corner. After the goal, Inter, however, started to take more initiative going forward, especially using the right hand channel and Maicon to take advantage of Napoli’s high midfield. The second goal came courtesy of a trademark forward run and pinpoint cross by the Brazilian full-back which Cambiasso finished with a powerful header on the 37th minute. Motta then killed the match with a perfect header from a corner which was the second in the game and third goal in four matches for the defensive midfielder.
All in all, Napoli came to Inter with a brave game plan that involved high pressing, rapid counter-attacking and mobile movement up-front. They were full of ideas but short of the end product. Against Benitez’s Inter Napoli might have succeeded, but already Leonardo seems to have restored the confidence and routine to Inter’s playing that have been the keys to their success in recent years and, as a result, Inter took a deserved victory. Leonardo still hasn’t necessarily set the San Siro alight, but at least Inter look like a team that still might have a say in the title race.