They may not have entertained the neutrals too much this season, but Inter could be up to seven points clear at the top of Serie A as the Italians head off for their two-and-a-half week winter break after this weekend’s set of matches. Even if the margin is smaller, the Nerazzurri are already guaranteed to be at the summit on Christmas Day, and the side with that honour has gone on to win all nine of the post-Calciopoli league titles on the peninsula.
Here are five reasons why Inter increasingly look like the real deal…
1. They've got some steel
In Europe’s top five divisions, only Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich have conceded fewer goals than Inter, whose backline has been breached just nine times in 16 games (and four of those came in the 4-1 defeat to Fiorentina in September). They've recorded 11 Serie A clean sheets – including in clashes with Roma, Juventus and Milan – and Inter have only conceded in one of their last seven league outings.
Newcomers Joao Miranda and Jeison Murillo have formed a solid partnership at the heart of defence, with Samir Handanovic already long established as one of the best goalkeepers in the league. While the team’s midfield has been accused of lacking invention and guile, the likes of Felipe Melo, Gary Medel and Geoffrey Kondogbia are adept at putting out fires in the engine room before the threat gets too close to the danger zone.
Manager Roberto Mancini, moreover, has always emphasised a resolute rearguard: in each of his three full seasons at Manchester City – including in 2012/13, when he was sacked in the final week of the campaign – City let in the fewest goals in the Premier League.
Inter are an extremely well-drilled unit, and the Italian’s work on the training field will ensure every last ounce is eked out of his squad. In this most open of title races, it could be Inter’s defensive solidity that ultimately gets them over the line first.
2. Oooh, aren't they flexible?
The fact that Claudio Ranieri has started five players – Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy – in all of Leicester's Premier League games this season means that the Tinkerman tag is up for grabs. Mancini could be the man to inherit it: no fewer than 24 players have pulled on the Inter shirt in Serie A in 2015/16, and the former Sampdoria striker has also experimented with various different tactical configurations.
The Nerazzurri began the campaign in a 4-3-1-2 formation, but have since used a 4-3-2-1, 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 depending on the opponent and conditions in front of them. That ability to switch between shapes and adapt to changing circumstances is likely to stand Inter in good stead for the remainder of the season.
3. They've got a tasty strikeforce
Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala are probably the two hottest centre-forwards in Italy right now, but Mauro Icardi and Stevan Jovetic are right up there with the best Serie A has to offer. The fact that the former hasn't even been at his best in the last four months is an ominous sign for Inter’s rivals; the Argentine, who was the top scorer alongside Luca Toni in 2014/15, has scored six goals despite being in and out of the team this term, and remains one of the deadliest marksmen in Serie A.
Jovetic, meanwhile, has impressed as a second striker, creating chances for team-mates and also getting on the scoresheet four times. Injuries disrupted his time in England with Manchester City, but the Montenegro international is already an essential member of the Inter squad.
“There is no longer the role of playmaker that there was in the past [in football generally], but even though I play as a striker I like to drop deep to receive the ball, play inventively and make assists,” Jovetic said on Wednesday, explaining his role at San Siro well.
4. They actually win the games they should
It’s often said that beating your closest rivals is the key to a successful title challenge, but that’s frequently not the case at all. In the last five Premier League seasons, for example, only Chelsea in 2014/15 (remember that team?) and Manchester City in 2011/12 have won the championship and also gained more points than each of their top-four rivals in head-to-head fixtures between the quartet. The same does not ring true in Italy only because Juventus have dominated the league to such a large extent in recent years.
Having lost to Napoli and Fiorentina, drawn with Juventus and scraped past Roma – Rudi Garcia’s charges were rather unfortunate to lose 1-0 at San Siro in late October – Inter’s record against their fellow big boys is nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, it is they who are looking down on the rest from the top of the tree, largely because they’ve been extremely reliable against the sides they’re expected to beat; indeed, Inter have taken 29 points from a possible 33 from match-ups with teams currently outside the top five, and draws to Palermo and Sampdoria away from home can hardly be labelled as awful results.
5. Mancini's title-winning experience
The 51-year-old has had his fair share of critics throughout a managerial career that has spanned 14 years, but he has won more top-tier league championships (four: three in a previous spell at Inter and one at Manchester City) than any other Serie A coach, and only one fewer than the other 19 put together.
While it’s true that the trio of titles he claimed with the Nerazzurri in the 2000s were not the most challenging given Juventus’s relegation to Serie B and Milan’s malaise, Mancini’s experience could count for a lot in the run-in this year.
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