Ambition. The word ran through the pre-game press conferences of Paulo Fonseca and Antonio Conte like mozzarella in Roman supplì: the mouth-watering core ingredient that elevates all the rest. Both managers wanted their audiences to know that this was a weekend that mattered, an occasion for which the recipe had to be just right.
Fonseca’s Roma were seeking validation for their rise to third in the table. They won only a single game against Serie A’s top four last season, his first at the club, and that against a Juventus side who had already sewn up the title. The Giallorossi were yet to demonstrate that they had learned how to handle the big occasions in this campaign, collecting only two points, and conceding 13 times, in fixtures against Milan, Juventus, Atalanta and Napoli.
Inter, meanwhile, needed to bounce back after a surprise defeat to Sampdoria in midweek. Milan’s win on Saturday, which extended the Rossoneri’s lead at the top to four points, had increased the pressure to get a result, ahead of an even more high-profile game against Juventus next weekend. “This is a moment to measure our ambitions,” said Conte, “with facts and not words.”
Roma’s approach was bold. The selection of Gonzalo Villar ahead of the more muscular Bryan Cristante in central midfield offered some indication of Fonseca’s mindset, but it was the very high positions occupied by wing-backs Rick Karsdorp and Leonardo Spinazzola once the game began that made his intentions most clear.
At times it felt almost like a game of chicken was being played, especially on the right side of Inter’s formation, where Achraf Hakimi is hardly shy about getting forward himself. The visitors had the better of the early exchanges, but it was an over-commitment down that flank which provided Roma with the opportunity to open the scoring on the counter.
When Jordan Veretout ran down Nicolò Barella in the 17th minute, Inter were caught out of position – Hakimi having already accelerated ahead down an inside channel. The Frenchman fed Edin Dzeko, before the ball was worked inside to Lorenzo Pellegrini. His shot from the edge of the box took a small but crucial deflection, wrong-footing Samir Handanovic on its way to the bottom corner.
Inter, though, are well-accustomed to playing from behind. They got level early in the second-half, when Milan Skriniar headed home from a corner, and took the lead through Hakimi in the 63rd minute. It was a beautiful strike, whipped on to the underside of the crossbar from 18 yards, but the Moroccan had been granted endless space to work in.
After all the talk of ambition, the decisions that came next felt perplexing. Despite Inter dominating play after the interval, Fonseca seemed reluctant to make any changes. He eventually replaced Spinazzola with Bruno Peres with just over a quarter of an hour to go, then Veretout with Cristante 10 minutes later. Attack-minded reserves such as Borja Mayoral – who had scored twice in midweek – and Carles Pérez remained on the bench.
Instead it was left to Conte to change the game on Roma’s behalf. As he removed Lautaro Martínez and then Hakimi from the pitch, so Inter retreated into deeper positions. They were punished, after a brief flurry of chances, when Gianluca Mancini headed in from a corner.
The scoring finished at 2-2 – though Fonseca did finally throw on Mayoral at the end in the hope of upgrading one point into three. It was a result that both managers could paint as positive, but which hardly felt ideal for either. Roma had once again failed to show that they could defeat a direct rival, despite an early advantage. Inter had dropped five points in two games.
“We need to understand that when we score a goal, we cannot just think about defending,” said Fonseca, lamenting the period right after half-time when his side had fallen too far on to the back foot. “We need to still be the same team.”
Conte was left defending his changes. “They were all replacing like for like, it’s not like I dreamt something up. Vidal came off because he was injured, Lautaro and Hakimi were exhausted. I sent on Perisic to attack the spaces in behind. We were on our third game in a week with the same players always playing.”
Some of those remarks deserve to be challenged. Lautaro had indeed played the full 180 minutes of Inter’s two previous matches, yet hardly looked like a man desperate for a break as he mouthed a surprised “me?” when the board went up calling him to the sideline. More broadly, why have Inter been relying so heavily on a core group after investing close to €300m in strengthening their squad since Conte arrived in 2019?
The Inter manager was eager to dispel reports that he was demanding further investment in this transfer window, arguing that there had been no significant transfer activity in the summer, either, since the deal to land Hakimi from Real Madrid was already sewn up in April. Yet Kolarov and Arturo Vidal both also arrived on substantial wages, even if they did not require a transfer fee.
It was a lack of experience that Conte had lamented last season, but has either player been more of a help than a hindrance thus far? Kolarov was not directly at fault on Roma’s equaliser on Sunday, but he had several catastrophic performances early in the campaign. Vidal earned a needless red card in a crucial Champions League game against Real Madrid and began this year being called out, loudly, by his manager after giving away a penalty against Crotone.
His presence, furthermore, may have restricted opportunities for Stefano Sensi. The 25-year-old, who had three goals and two assists in 12 league appearances last season, has struggled with injuries, but after replacing Vidal and helping Inter to win that game against Crotone, it has been surprising to see no role for him in the two games since.
Perhaps his opportunity is just around the corner. This game, after all, felt something like a partial judgement for both clubs, with even bigger games on the horizon. Roma’s next league appointment is the derby against Lazio. Inter, as mentioned, host Juventus on Sunday.
Ambitions will continue to be tested. The first round of supplì, after all, often serves only to whet the appetite.
• Nicky will post her talking points in the comments section below