This Sunday brought another season of Serie A action to a close for another year. Juventus, of course, had already wrapped up their seventh straight Scudetto title to put the icing on the cake for Gianluigi Buffon in his final season; they did so having been pushed all the way by the brilliance of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli.
But while the race for the title was already over ahead of Sunday’s final fixtures, the race for the Champions League was still alive. Inter Milan travelled to Rome and the Stadio Olimpico to take on Lazio knowing nothing other than a win would suffice in their quest for European qualification. Juventus, Napoli, and Roma were already guaranteed a spot in next season’s competition but with the 4th spot in the league table still up for grabs, this was a game to be savoured between the two candidates for the final qualification spot.
With all of the top four in Italy now automatically entered into the group stages of next season’s competition without having to go through earlier qualifying rounds, it was hard to underestimate the importance of Sunday evening’s game. For Inter, this game was potentially pivotal in more ways than one for their future.
Despite the arrival of new investment in 2016 from Chinese businessman Zhang Jindong, Inter have since still failed to qualify for the Champions League group stages. Their seven consecutive seasons outside of the top three in Serie A has been made more painful watching their bitter Derby D’Italia rivals Juventus lift the trophy in each of these seven seasons. Inter’s players have therefore gone through much anguish during this time; perhaps none more so than captain Mauro Icardi.
Oh captain, my captain
The Argentine striker, who has spent almost five years at Inter, has been a controversial figure during his time in Milan. For example, he released an autobiography two years ago which made some rather derogatory remarks towards the club’s fanbase. Famously, the ‘Ultras’ of the club unveiled a banner demanding he left the club before he removed this chapter from his book to calm the situation.
While off-the-field matters have grabbed the headlines, Icardi has begun to reach new heights on the pitch. He was made captain of the club in 2015, and this has coincided with him transforming into one of the most clinical strikers in world football. Somewhat of a throwback to strikers of old, Icardi thrives when inside the box. His tactical awareness, sniper-like finishing, and ability to be in the right place at the right time have all contributed to his 157 goals for the club.
When you are consistently scoring 25+ goals a season, it doesn’t go unnoticed; Icardi has been linked to the likes of Chelsea and Real Madrid in recent months. Going into Sunday’s match, failure to qualify for the Champions League may have helped push him closer to the exit door.
After Sunday, however, Icardi may be willing to stay for at least one more season. A brilliant twice-come-from-behind 3-2 victory at Lazio, in which Icardi won and converted the penalty for Inter’s second equaliser, saw the club match their evening’s opponents for points, and scrape past them into the Champions League places on head-to-head.
Next season, we will see Inter competing again amongst the elite in Europe. And their most valued player will be able to show what he can do on a stage befitting of his abilities.