21st September 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
It was shaping up to be a difficult week for Internazionale. A stumbling start to the Serie A season, which had seen them record just one win from their opening three games, was followed up by a humiliating 2-0 defeat at home to Hapoel Beer-Sheva in the Europa League last Thursday (15 September).
So Sunday's encounter with reigning champions Juventus at the San Siro the Derby d'Italia was a cause of trepidation among Inter fans, who would be watching the game through their fingers.
There were even rumours that, should the Nerazzurri fail to beat the Old Lady, Frank de Boer would be facing the sack, little more than a month after taking over from Roberto Mancini in charge of the eighteen-time champions of Italy.
But Inter came up trumps, producing a stellar performance to beat Juventus 2-1. De Boer, with his cast of summer signings, struck the perfect balance between potent attack and resolute defence; the home side were well worth their win.
And no individual stood out more that Mauro Icardi, the Inter captain.
The 23-year-old Argentinian striker scored the goal that drew Inter level his seventh goal in eight career appearances against Juve -- just two minutes after Stephan Lichtsteiner's opener for the away side. He then provided a sumptuous, outside of the boot assist for Ivan Perisic to bag the winner with 12 minutes to play.
Icardi's performance against Juve was about so much more that his goal and assist, though. Often thought of as a dangerous yet limited penalty box poacher, the former Sampdoria man demonstrated several new strings to his bow; the Inter number 9's link-up play was outstanding, as he led the line and combined with midfield runners to great effect, while his hold-up play caused problems for the Bianconeri's defence all game.
And that in itself is no mean feat. Juve had conceded just two goals in their last four games, and started with Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini (two of their vaunted 'BBC' backline trio) and Mehdi Benatia in defence -- a thoroughly impressive, high quality triumvirate. But Icardi had them in the palm of his hands for most of the game, and came within a hair's breadth of opening the scoring after 59 minutes, when he outmuscled Chiellini, leaving the experienced Italian international on the floor as he bent the ball just wide of the far post.
Minutes later it was again Icardi proving to be the most creative force on a pitch which included the likes of Miralem Pjanic, Joao Mario, Ever Banega and Paulo Dybala, as he crossed for Antonio Candreva to volley inches beyond Gianluigi Buffon's goal.
But it was Icardi's trusty poacher's instincts that saw him net his fourth goal in as many Serie A games, when he was able to find a yard of space in the penalty area to head in from Ever Banega's corner.
If his goal was a reversion to type, Icardi's assist for Perisic to volley home the match winner was evidence of a player evolving. Collecting the ball near the byline on the right side of the Bianconeri's penalty area, the one-cap Argentina international turned and delivered a precise centre, demonstrating impeccable technique, allowing Perisic to strike the ball into the bottom corner without breaking stride.
The result was hampered slightly by Banega picking up a needless red card in the final minute, but little could detract from the jubilation inside the San Siro.
Inter had demonstrated a level of cohesion and work ethic that had been absent in their errant start the season, with de Boer showing that he has the managerial chops to outthink a wily tactical master like Massimiliano Allegri.
But the biggest plus of the Derbi d'Italia, from an Inter point of view, was the performance of their skipper.
Icardi, who was born in Rosario, Argentina, but grew up in the Spanish Canary Islands, joined Inter from Sampdoria in 2013, with the Nerazzurri initially forking out €6.5 million for the then-20-year-old.
The former Barcelona youth team player made his Inter debut in August 2013 against Genoa, coming off the bench and striking the crossbar in a 2-0 win. His first goal for his new club came against Juventus the following month in a 1-1 draw.
By the end of his first season in Milan, Icardi had netted nine goals in 23 appearances, averaging an impressive ratio of a goal every 145 minutes. In recognition of the young man's supreme goal-scoring talents, Inter agreed to pay Sampdoria another €6.5 million fee for the remainder of his ownership rights.
Despite the struggles and eventual sacking of Walter Mazzarri as Inter boss midway through the following season, Icardi continued to thrive, and finished the season as the top scorer in Serie A with 22 goals in 36 games, netting an all-competitions total of 27 from 48 appearances.
To begin the 2015-16 campaign, Icardi was named Inter captain by Roberto Mancini who had taken the reigns at the San Siro after Mazzarri's sacking in November of the previous season.
Having taken on the responsibility of captaining one of the biggest clubs in Europe at the tender age of 22, Icardi rose to the challenge of his new leadership role, and was once again the club's top scorer that season, scoring 16 goals in a team which was built around defensive stability, and created very few chances.
Despite the team's slow start to the season, and a recent failure to qualify for the Champions League, there are high hopes for the future among Internazionale supporters, thanks in no little part to the investment in the playing squad by the new Suning Group owners.
In has come Joao Mario, Ever Banega, Antonio Candreva and Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa, at a cost in excess of £100 million.
But, rather than one of their expensive new signings, it is Icardi who is the man with the shoulders broad enough to carry Inter on their fight to get back into the Champions League.
With a maturity of attitude and an ever-expanding skillset, Icardi is showing that he is capable of being the focal point of the club's resurrection. More than just a poacher; a leader too.
Mauro Icardi Leading Internazionale's Resurrection
21st September 2016. By Ryan Baldi.