On Thursday morning, Tottenham drew Inter Milan, Barcelona, and PSV Eindhoven for the Champions League group stage. It could be worse, but it could definitely be better. We’re only one Schalke short of what Sean Cahill forecast as a group of death, and we’ll have to finish higher than Inter Milan or Barcelona to advance. It’s all in a day’s work for a team that beat Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in last year’s group stage. In eager anticipation of the upcoming challenges, over the next couple of posts, I’ll delve into a few of the most interesting players we could see line up against each other. Today, Inter.
Inter Milan (September 18 away, November 28 at home)
Inter started this season slow, losing to Sassuolo in their opening Serie A match and drawing with Torino in their second, but they have a few excuses. Many of their players made long runs in the World Cup, and favorite Radja Nainggolan, who was transferred from Roma earlier in the summer, was sidelined by injury until this past weekend. If everybody’s fit, Inter could field a pretty formidable lineup full of players that make me equal parts excited and nervous. On Saturday, they beat Bologna 3-0 with a partially rotated squad lined up in a 4-2-3-1 instead of their preferred 3-4-2-1. You may notice that both formations are rather similar to the shapes Poch likes his teams to take. The game against Inter will be full of opportunities to see how another team measures up using similar strategy.
Radja Nainggolan vs. Mousa Dembele
Belgian against Belgian. Radja Nainggolan was controversially left out of the Red Devils’ World Cup squad, prompting his retirement from international football and outrage from Belgium supporters. He shares many attributes with our beloved anchor, Mousa Dembele. FourFourTwo once called Nainggolan “Roma’s midfield pitbull.” He’s a strong, hardworking player equally capable of winning tackles and completing incisive passes. He has moved into progressively more attacking roles over his career, and when he lines up against Tottenham, it will likely be on the right of an attacking midfield two behind striker Mauro Icardi in a 3-4-2-1. He’ll be positioned slightly deeper and more centrally than Ivan Perišić, who will push down the left wing. If Dembele features for us, they’ll frequently face off through the midfield in both directions, Dembele protecting our back three or four against Nainggolan’s attacking distribution, and Nainggolan pressuring Dembele as he links into our offensive play. A contest between the two would be physical, frenetic, and potentially game-changing.
Ben Davies/Danny Rose vs. Šime Vrsaljko
On loan from Atletico Madrid, Croatian right back Šime Vrsaljko arrived at the San Siro this summer with a World Cup second-place finish to his name. Vrsaljko is an athletic right back who has been tipped to shore up Inter’s ongoing struggles at the position. This season, he has lined up as a wing back ahead of Inter’s back three, meaning that when they attack, he’ll push forward down the right flank behind the aforementioned Radja Nainggolan, fighting it out with whichever left back starts for us in these matches. Both Davies and Rose would push up in a similar role when Spurs are on the attack, setting up a serious battle for control of the flank, and an opportunity to watch our fullbacks against a world-class opponent in a similar role.
Harry Kane vs. Milan Škriniar
Toby Alderweireld wasn’t the only center back linked with a big-money move to Manchester United over the summer. Meet Milan Škriniar, 23, who had a massive first season for Inter last year after joining from Sampdoria. The Slovakian completed more passes than any other Inter player in Serie A last season and averaged 2.3 tackles per game (last season Jan Vertonghen averaged 1.7). Škrinar is a rising star among central defenders in Europe, and it will be fascinating to see how he and his partner Stefan de Vrij manage against a Kane-sized goalscoring threat.
Inter have a strong starting eleven. Mauro Icardi, Radja Nainggolan, and Ivan Perišić are a front three that will certainly test our defense, and the squad is full of young and emerging talents across the pitch. That said, I’m confident of our chances in this game. It’s interesting that Inter play a shape somewhat similar to ours, with a back three and high-pressing fullbacks. Watching the game, I’ll be interested in how the above players acquit themselves against each other, but also in how both teams assert their style of play in a game that will be fast, attacking, and with very slim margins. It’s also worth mentioning that as a young, budding Spurs fan, Bale’s hat-trick at the San Siro last time we faced Inter in the Champions’ League was one of the moments I watched over and over again, so these matches will have a special place in my heart.