Inter Milan had to come from behind to earn a point against Slavia Prague on Tuesday evening, drawing 1-1 at the San Siro.
With Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund facing off, Inter went into the game knowing a win would put them in a good starting position to qualify from the group stages – something they failed to do last season.
But Antonio Conte’s men were well-matched by their Czech opponents, with Peter Olayinka scoring the winning goal midway through the second half. It took an injury-time strike from Nicolo Barella to rescue a point for Inter.
The draw was the first time Conte’s Inter have failed to win, and gave fans a look at how he would be approaching obstacles different from the usual challenges of Serie A.
So what do we know so far about Conte’s Inter?
1. “Bravery and intensity” not enough
In the build up to the game, Conte took some exception to being asked about changing formations for the Champions League. The Italian has become known for utilising three central defenders and wing-backs, and has set his Inter teams up accordingly so far.
“Only in Italy are we fixated on formations,” he told reporters. “I’ve coached in England and they don’t give a damn over there.
“I want to see bravery and intensity, the things we’re trying to propose. The rest is all rubbish.”
Conte did indeed stick with his tried and tested formation on Tuesday evening, with Danilo D’Ambrosio, Stefan de Vrij and Milan Skriniar the starting centre-backs, and there was no reason for him to change.
Unfazed by the San Siro, Slavia Prague came out fighting and were on the front foot in the opening stages, barely allowing Inter to take control of the game. In these situations, the wing-backs helped Inter to protect Samir Handanovic with a back-five, not letting Slavia make any advancements with their possession.
After continuously pressing, Slavia did eventually find their way through Inter’s defence, with Peter Olayinka attacking from the outside, teeing up Jaroslav Zeleny before finishing the rebound.
And when Inter did steal a point, it came partly through a Slavia mistake – a poor challenge on the edge of the area – rather than good play from the home side. Although the quality of Sensi’s free-kick or Barella’s strike should not be ignored.
2. Lukaku is Conte’s man
In the summer of 2017, Antonio Conte wanted to bring Romelu Lukaku – then at Everton – to a Chelsea side looking to build on their Premier League title win. But the Belgian signed for Manchester United, adding to Conte’s frustration with the Chelsea board and their lack of backing in the transfer market.
Fast forward two years, Conte finally got his man as Lukaku swapped Manchester for Milan, signing for Inter on a five-year deal. The 26-year-old was almost instantly thrown into the starting XI as a replacement for Mauro Icardi, and Inter have not looked back.
In his first three Serie A fixtures, Lukaku has scored two goals, only failing to net against Udinese at the weekend. Against Slavia Prague the Belgian was partnered with Lautaro Martinez, a strike duo Inter fans have already grown used to seeing, and should expect to see throughout the season.
Martinez himself has scored one goal so far this season and looked the more likely of Inter’s two front men to score, sending a good low shot just wide of the right post 15 minutes in.
The Argentinian would go on to have another shot on goal with Lukaku also testing the goalkeeper once while they were both on the pitch. But having more shots than his partner was not enough to protect Martinez from substitution, as he was replaced when Inter needed a goal.
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3. Not much room for Alexis Sanchez
Another signing of the summer transfer window, Alexis Sanchez has not enjoyed the start to life in Milan as former Man Utd team-mate Lukaku. Joining on loan towards the end of the window, Sanchez has not exactly had the time to impress his new manager, but it is already looking like an uphill battle.
The Chilean international has managed just 10 minutes of football for Inter Milan so far, coming on as a substitute for Matteo Politano in the 1-0 win over Udinese at the weekend. This was a change possible due to Conte having a more narrow formation with three central attacking players. But should Conte opt to line up as he did against Slavia, with a three-man midfield and two strikers, Sanchez’s chances will surely be few and far between.
Sanchez certainly isn’t a wing-back, nor would he be worth training to be one as Conte did with Victor Moses at Chelsea, given the temporary nature of his time in Inter. Conte also seems set on Lukaku and Martinez as a strike partnership, and with Inter chasing the game, Sanchez was left on the bench with Politano and Nicolo Barella coming on.
4. Stefano Sensi is the key
Of Inter Milan’s signings this summer, not many would have expected Sassuolo loanee Stefano Sensi to be the key man for Conte’s side.
The 24-year-old has started the new season strongly for Inter, creating more chances (8) in Serie A than any other Nerazzurri player, while also contributing two goals.
It was the same against Slavia on Tuesday night, with Sensi at the heart of most of Inter’s good attacking play, creating three chances – more than any other player on the pitch. He also hit the crossbar with a wonderful injury-time free-kick, which resulted in Inter’s late equaliser.