Udinese 2.35, the draw 3.35, Inter 2.9
Even Massimo Moratti suspected he had done too little, too late. “I still hope we can get third, but I no longer believe we can,” said the Inter owner one day after his appointment of Andrea Stramaccioni as the club’s new manager at the end of March. The former youth team coach had inherited from Claudio Ranieri a team which sat eighth in Serie A, 10 points behind the Lazio team occupying Italy’s last Champions League berth.
With just nine games left to play, it was a gap that appeared insurmountable. Two weeks later, not so much. In the space of three games Stramaccioni’s team have shaved four points off Lazio’s advantage and could have made up even more ground had they beaten Cagliari in Trieste (though in the event they were fortunate to draw). Seven points from three games represents a solid start for the new manager but it has been made to look spectacular by the shabby form of the rest of the chasing pack.
The five teams who stood between Inter and third place have collected just 13 points between them over the past three rounds of fixtures since Stramaccioni took charge – Roma leading the way with six of those but also suffering a 4-2 humiliation at the hands of 18th-place Lecce in the same spell. On Sunday Inter will have the chance to do further damage to one of those rivals when they travel to face an Udinese side who have won just once in seven games.
There was an air of resignation about the Udinese manager, Francesco Guidolin, when he responded to a question about his team’s Champions League hopes this week by insisting that this was “a battle for all the European positions” – Europa League included. His team has spent most of the season in the top three but the exertions of a long season, which began with a Champions League preliminary match against Arsenal in mid-August, have taken their toll on a thin squad.
A season-ending injury suffered by Mauricio Isla – the Chile wingback whose versatility and technical quality allowed him to be deployed at different times all across the midfield and even in attack – in February has deprived Guidolin of a key weapon. Isla’s pace was critical to Udinese’s counter-attacking style, and would have been even more valuable against this old Inter team. Stramaccioni’s teams for his opening two games in charge had an average age of 31 years and eight months.
Antonio Di Natale remains Udinese’s most potent threat with 20 Serie A goals this season and would be the obvious bet to get the game’s opening goal against an Inter backline shorn of the injured Walter Samuel. Diego Milito has been in prolific form for Inter with six goals in three games since Stramaccioni’s arrival, though the more superstitious bettor might consider taking longer odds to back one of the striker’s compatriots such as Javier Zanetti or Esteban Cambiasso. All nine of Inter’s goals since the new manager took charge have been scored by Argentinian players.
Milito broke ranks following Wednesday’s win over the in-form Siena, stating that “we believed before, so obviously we do now” in response to a question over whether his team could still land third place. Yet he and his team-mates will know that Saturday’s match is critical.
Udinese may be struggling lately, but they have lost just once at home all season, winning 11 out of the remaining 15. Rather than looking for value in the win market, the smart move might be to back over 2.5 goals in a match between two teams who have managed just one clean sheet between them in the last five rounds of games.