Palacio keeps Inter in the chase for third

Posted by Mike Whittaker

Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty ImagesRodrigo Palacio celebrates his second half stoppage time winner for Inter against Catania on Sunday.

Upon arriving at the Stadio Angelo Massimino in Sicily's Etna region to face this season's surprise package Catania, Andrea Stramaccioni was under scrutiny due to a run of unconvincing results, especially away from home. On top of this, a training field disagreement between the Inter coach and Antonio Cassano had been blown up by the press into a full scale bust-up, which meant the unity between Stramaccioni and his players had been called into question.

But Stramaccioni's celebration with the squad when Rodrigo Palacio's game-winning goal hit the back of the net dispelled any doubt in my mind that he had lost the backing of his players. This 3-2 victory was a vital result for the Nerazzurri who could've potentially dropped down to seventh place in the standings if they had lost. A situation which would, in my opinion, have finished off any chance Inter had of finishing the season in third place. Don't get me wrong, there is still a long way to go to achieve that target, but with them now sitting in fourth place holding equal points with Lazio and just one point behind third place AC Milan, the Nerazzurri are still well and truly in this fight.

Did this win do anything to convince people that Stramaccioni is the tactical mastermind Inter need? Probably not! The first half of this match actually surprised me, with Inter managing to perform even worse than they had against Fiorentina a few weeks ago; the whole team looked completely unfocused and were run ragged by Catania for the first twenty minutes. After the hosts secured their two goal advantage, they seem to let Inter into the game more, evidenced by the vast improvement in the Nerazzurri's possession. But with the visitors failing miserably to take the ball further than the midfield players, it was the hosts that seemed the more dominant side by halftime.

Admittedly, Stramaccioni's team talk and changes at halftime made a huge difference to the team's performance, but again he failed to react to what was happening on the pitch for the first 45 minutes. In my opinion, the Inter boss made two critical mistakes when choosing his starting lineup, and his decision to leave Cassano in Milan was not one of them. I believe Stramaccioni's statement in his pre-match press conference when he said that Cassano's exclusion had nothing to do with the mentioned incident. As he explained, Cassano has played a lot in the games since the winter break and has been looking extremely jaded late on in the matches. So with the tough Europa League game against Tottenham just days away, it made sense to rest the troublesome Italian.

What didn't make sense, however, was to start the ineffective Tomasso Rocchi up front instead of Palacio in what was a match that Inter had to win. Throughout the first half Rocchi proved how useless he is by showing no awareness of what his teammates were doing, and failing to create spaces for himself with the clever movements that is a key skill for a centre forward. Too many times the wide forwards Ricky Alvarez and Ezequiel Schelotto were playing higher up the pitch than the 35-year-old which meant they were left with no one to cross the ball to in the box.

I realise I shouldn't expect too much from Rocchi, but as I've said on several occasions, what was the point of bringing him into the squad to cover Diego Milito if he isn't capable of doing the job?

Stramaccioni's second big tactical mistake at the start of the game was to play Juan in the right centre back position. This was obviously to accommodate Cristian Chivu who started in place of the suspended Andrea Ranocchia, but Juan has played the entire season on his preferred left side of the defensive line and has little to no experience on the right. Chivu, on the other hand, could've easily have played that side instead.

This mistake in particular was the cause of both Catania goals in the first half, as Juan probably felt as uncomfortable as he looked which led to him not having the confidence to take on the Catania attackers in the same way we're used to seeing. During the game I heard a lot of people criticising the young Brazilian and blaming him for Inter being two goals down by halftime, but I don't agree; Juan is a fantastic young defender who hasn't got the experience of Chivu to be played out of position. Not only this, the big problem that has been plaguing Inter this season was again an issue in this game, too. The midfield players weren't doing enough defensive work to cover the backline, which in turn led to the Catania attackers overwhelming the Nerazzurri defence all too often in the first half.

Zdravko Kuzmanovic, especially, didn't really convince me in the central holding role, as was evident by the improvement in Inter's quality when he was removed at halftime and replaced by Dejan Stankovic.

The other halftime substitution was the real game changer, though. With the introduction of Palacio it was like watching a different team in the second half. His movement and vision right across the width in the final third of the pitch brought his teammates to life and injected a desire to win that was sorely missing from the first 45 minutes.

Palacio's work rate was phenomenal, and from one minute to the next you didn't know where he would appear to take a shot or create a chance with a perfectly timed pass. His huge influence on the flow of Inter's game was justly rewarded with a brace and an assist. Palacio's impact on the game was almost instantaneous with his assist for Alvarez's low headed goal coming just five minutes after he took to the pitch.

The highlight of the game came three minutes into injury time: With the game nearing its end and a draw looking inevitable, Palacio fired home Cambiasso's cutback past the Catania keeper to win it. The second half of this match has proved beyond doubt what a key figure Palacio is for Inter's ambitions, but the pressure is really on the Argentinean now to keep up his great form and to stay fit for the rest of the season. If he doesn't, I just can't see anyone else in the squad consistently scoring the goals Inter needs.

It seems that Inter's huge problems this season are nowhere near solved, with the injury ravaged team struggling to find any sort of consistent form. I can't help but feel there is a severe lack of desire and hunger for the win from nearly all the Nerazzurri players on the pitch, and I can't see any evidence of Stramaccioni doing anything to try and change this attitude. I still think the young coach can be a success for Inter, but he has to rediscover the ability he showed at the end of last season where he could encourage his players to react to what was happening on the pitch and play in a positive way to look like the great team Inter should be.

Fredy Guarin summed it up perfectly after the game: "We must always try and replicate that determination we showed in the second half."

Now Inter's focus must shift to their difficult Europa League game in London before getting back to the important job of the league against Bologna next Sunday.

ESPN Conversations