Andrea Stramaccioni officially became the longest serving Inter coach since the Jose Mourinho era in his second visit to the Stadio Olimpico to face Lazio. He has now sat at the helm of the Nerazzurri for 36 games, overtaking his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri.
- Report: Lazio 1-0 Inter
In a game that showcased the tactical nature of Italian football, the players of these two evenly matched sides became the pieces in a footballing chess game between two talented coaches, both focused on a top-three finish by the end of the season.
This wasn't a match for those who aren't interested in the intricacies of tactical football, but for me it will go down as a classic. It was games like this one that first attracted me to Italian football back in the early '90s, and watching the coaches make subtle changes to their formations, counteracting the advances of the opposition, still fascinates me even all these years later.
Matches like these aren't just a game, they are a battle in which the planning and split-second decisions by the coaches mean the difference between winning and losing. That was highlighted in Lazio's 1-0 win, which in truth Inter deserved to win, but a small change in the flow of the game led to Miroslav Klose taking three shots in as many minutes, and he put away the third with an excellent strike that Samir Handanovic had no chance of stopping.
The first half of the game would be considered sparring between the two teams as they both prodded and probed looking at different ways to test the resolve and defensive capabilities of the other. Stramaccioni's decision to play a four-man defence worried me when I saw the starting lineups, but as it turned out, this was the perfect setup to counteract the Lazio attack, with both Walter Samuel and Andrea Ranocchia becoming a solid wall in the Nerazzurri defence.
It was Stramaccioni's first half midfield I had several issues with, though, as Javier Zanetti played as an anchorman in the centre between Walter Gargano and Esteban Cambiasso. This position for the Inter captain was giving the 39-year-old too much work to do, meaning he had to cover the entire width of the pitch in an attempt to delay any forward runs by the Lazio attackers. For me, Gargano would've been the better option for this role, or even Cambiasso, for that matter.
Ahead of these three was probably the biggest surprise of the Inter lineup with Fredy Guarin playing in the trequartista role behind the strikers. I can see what Stramaccioni was thinking by doing this: Guarin is a great player for controlling the tempo of the game and making key passes through to the front line, but unfortunately, the Nerazzurri coach got it wrong this time. In my opinion, Guarin was too far forward. As I've said before, he is more suited to playing ahead of the midfield line, but deeper than the trequartista position. This would give him room to run forward when possible, but also be deep enough to pass the ball around with the midfielders.
Stramaccioni corrected these faults for the second half by moving Zanetti to his favoured right back position, and giving the anchorman role to Gargano with Yuto Nagatomo moving to the left of the midfield three. This brought about a return of Inter's trademark attacking left flank with the Japanese wingback linking excellently with Antonio Cassano up front. Then when Cambiasso took a knock, it gave the Nerazzurri coach the perfect opportunity to take Guarin into a deeper position by replacing Cambiasso with Rodrigo Palacio, who went to partner with Diego Milito up front, in turn leaving the trequartista position open for Cassano to fill.
With these changes in place, the tempo of the game increased and Inter turned the screws on Lazio, pilling on the pressure, and even hitting the post twice in a short space of time. At this point it looked inevitable that the Nerazzurri would claim a much-deserved goal and take a well-worked three points. After starting the game with a solid defensive line, and then slowly moving their possession and control through the midfield and up to the strikers at the top of the formation in a patient and controlled manner over the course of 65 to 70 minutes, I thought Stramaccioni had hit a perfect balance to take home the win.
Lazio, however, had a secret weapon in the form of Antonio Candreva, who after coming onto the pitch, managed to cause the Nerazzurri a whole load of problems and disrupt all the hard work Inter had built up. This game-changing substitution eventually led to Klose's best chances, and ultimately his goal. Candreva, however, was lucky to have not received a red card for a cynical foul he made in the final minute of normal time, much to the disgust of the Inter bench and most of us Interisti watching at home.
In the dying minutes of the game, the Inter bench was in uproar again as the Nerazzurri were denied a penalty when Ranocchia was dragged to the ground by Michael Ciani. This was a clear penalty and should've probably have been given. Then again, so should've one for Lazio in the first half when Alvaro Pereira clipped Klose's heels in the box as they both watched a high diagonal cross float in toward them. To be fair to Pereira, it wasn't intentional as he was watching the incoming ball and not where he was running. Later in the game, Klose again made claim for a penalty but the replays clearly showed he stumbled over his own feet, catching the toe of his boot in the turf.
Obviously, I'm hugely disappointed with this loss. Juventus now have a chance to move seven points clear of Inter, but it is a game that will live long in my memory as a classic example of the true science of football.