(Quick note: I hope I'm not stepping on anyone's toes by attempting a match preview here, as no one has given me permission to do so. It just seemed wrong to go into the first match of the season without one, and I wasn't sure if MAD would be back in time. God willing, the queen of this blog Johonna will return sometime soon with more of her delightful coming attractions, but until then, you might be stuck with me. Two of this blog's regular readers very graciously asked me to write more here, so please blame them if you hate this.)
Details: Match Day 1. Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan. Sunday, August 25, 18:00.
History: While anything can, and often does, happen where Inter is involved, the odds seem to be forever in our favor whenever Genoa is the opponent. Looking at our last 15 competitive encounters with Genoa, we have won 10 and drawn 5. Look back even further, and the same general ratio remains. In fact, the last time Genoa defeated Inter in a competitive match was in 1994, back when Batistuta was Capocannoniere and Justin Bieber was a newborn. It gets even worse when the San Siro is involved: Since the formation of Serie A, Genoa has only beaten Inter at home four times. Like, ever.
The last time we faced them at San Siro was a 1-1 draw last December. For the opener, Ciro Immobile pan-seared, oven-roasted, and then garnished our defensive line with some parsley and sherry vinegar after staging a run from near the halfway line; Cambiasso equalized with a very late header. Our last meeting was last spring at the Marassi, where Genoa finally secured its safety in Serie A by playing out a nil-nil draw. I'm pretty sure I watched that match, though I doubt I stayed fully awake for it.
Them: It would be unfair to suggest that William Garbutt is rolling around in his grave, but these have been some pretty wretched years to be a Grifone supporter. After managing a fifth place finish in 2009, Genoa has gone nowhere but down. Last year saw them hovering around the relegation zone for most of the season, holding together just well enough for a 17th place finish. They finished 17th the previous season as well, which featured one of the most pathetic sights I've ever witnessed in all my years as a Serie A fan, with then-captain Marco Rossi wandering the pitch like an overgrown waterboy, collecting his teammates' jerseys to deliver to a gang of violent, angry fans who stopped the match for 45 minutes.
This season, it's hard to see much reason for optimism. Despite welcoming back the still-ticking Alberto Gilardino from loan and signing free-kick wizard Francesco Lodi, the team has lost defender Andreas Granqvist, not to mention the surprisingly mobile Immobile and walking STD Marco Borriello, who together accounted for 24 of the 38 goals the whole team scored all last season. The only replacement they've managed to sign is one Moussa Konate, who has scored exactly one goal -- for a Russian side I'd never heard of -- in his entire European career so far. They have also already been eliminated from the Coppa Italia, losing on penalties to Serie B side Spezia last Saturday.
Can't pretend I know how they're going to line up on Sunday. But here's my best guess:
Some guy - Another guy - A tallish fellow - A speedy little bugger
Dude wearing a Genoa jersey - Good ol' what's-his-face - Slovakian guy we were inexplicably interested in a while back
Gilardino - Some guy
Us: As the weeks roll by, it should become easier and easier to guess Mazzarri's formations and lineups. Unlike the dice-rolling Stramaccioni, Mazzarri likes to establish a plan and spend the season fine-tuning it. However, given that his Plan A is still very much a work in progress, some questions do remain.
1. Saphir Taider is now a full-on Inter player, wearing number 21, and he's already had his first practice session with the club this week. Exercise caution when browsing through training photos, however, as the Mohican Algerian bears enough of a physical resemblance to a certain former Inter bidone to pose a serious heart attack risk.
I can't properly express how glad I am to see a new midfielder on the roster, and unlike most of our summer transfers, this is a player our coach specifically requested. Yet Mazzarri is nothing if not cautious, and it's hard to see him taking a player with less than a week at the club and inserting him into one of the most tactically demanding roles on the pitch. He'll be on the bench, with a late cameo at best.
2. Speaking of cautiousness, the biggest question about our Sunday lineup regards Kovacic. His injury struggles this summer have been curious: According to all reports, he suffered a very minor little niggle, yet he went M.I.A. from our summer friendlies for a weirdly long time, even after he was back in training looking fine. Perhaps skittishness is to blame, with Mazzarri not wanting to risk his most promising young asset, and the conspiracy-theorist in me wonders if maybe Mazzarri opted to work with him under the radar to avoid all the perils of high expectations. In any case, with so little pre-season game time under his belt, one might imagine Mazzarri sticking with the fitter likes of Alvarez for the opener. But I actually think we'll see him from the start. After all, most commentators expected to see some Primavera players starting in last weekend's Coppa match, yet Mazzarri fielded a nearly full-strength side from minute one. If Kovacic is fit, I can't imagine Walter keeping one of his biggest guns holstered for his first real battle as Inter Mister.
3. Finally - and I can't believe I'm really about to type this - I would much rather see Jonathan and Nagatomo manning the wings than Nagatomo and Pereira. Not only does Naga seem more comfortable on the left, but Jonathan is really trying with all his might to become more than just Inter's No. 1 meme-generator, while deep-sea fishermen are still complaining about finding balls from Pereira's most recent crossing attempts in their tuna nets. If Pereira played half as well as his physical gifts would seem to dictate - or even half as well as he played for Porto - this wouldn't even be a question. But give me the choice between a mediocre player sweating blood to redeem himself, and a (theoretically) high-caliber player operating at 20% functionality, and I'm proud to say that #IBelongToJonathan
In other words, despite that long-winded windup, I think we'll line up very similarly to our match with Cittadella, with one change:
Ranocchia - Campagnaro - Juan Jesus
Jonathan - Cambiasso - Guarin - Kovacic - Nagatomo
Icardi - Palacio
Impact subs: Belfodil, Alvarez
TL;DR Summary: While writing this, I constantly had to remind myself that the match coming up this weekend is an actual match. This is it -- Serie A is actually starting in a few days. Give or take a few dudes, this is the squad we're going to be using to compete for a league title, and this is the coach who's going to lead us. I don't mean that in a negative light, but I just can't remember a time when there were this many unknowns this close to the beginning of a season. I've often been wrong in my pre-season predictions (I never would have imagined us winning the treble in 2010, and I couldn't have foreseen us finishing 9th last year), but this year I couldn't possibly even begin to make guesses where we'll be in April. 2nd? 7th? 9th again? 12th? They all seem equally feasible.
Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to imagine anything other than a win for us on Sunday, but it's been a while since the circumstances at this club have been anything resembling normal. It's important to remember that this is the first time Mazzarri's Inter has ever played a side like this. We've played far better sides during the U.S. tour, and we've played far worse sides during pre-season, but tackling these sorts of desperate lower-tier clubs is always tricky, and it requires a certain mindset that this squad has not yet been asked to display. Plus, as pathetic as Genoa has been of late, they aren't without threats: Even as he winds down his career, Gila has proven eternally capable of scoring on us, and Lodi could easily punish our exasperating tendency to give up free kicks in dangerous places.
Considering this club's habit of making major signings in the closing hours of the transfer window - not to mention the insanely elongated uncertainty over this club's ownership - it's entirely possible that our roster will include a number of different players this time next week. But there are no mulligans in Serie A, no special considerations for unfinished squads, and with competition for even Europa League places tighter than ever this season, the pressure is already intense to pick up three points where we can.
On paper, this should be a nearly ideal way to start the season: at home, facing a mediocre and dysfunctional team who will be fighting to stay up this season. In theory, it ought to help us ease into the season and build up our confidence with minimal headaches. But if we were to start the season by breaking a nearly 20-year unbeaten streak against minnows, I shudder to think what that could do to us psychologically. Luckily, I'm pretty sure this is something that has crossed Mazzarri's mind too.
Ieri, oggi, domani. Per sempre Forza Inter.
Fela Kuti - Let's Start (via gd73)