Andrea Stramaccioni’s ascent started provincially in his home town of Rome, before he climbed through the ranks at AS Roma and then moved to the coaching position of the Inter Milan Primavera (Under 19s). Victory in the inaugural NextGen Series at venues as glamorous as Griffin Park and the Matchroom Stadium saw him elevated to head coach of the first team and he has yet to look back.
There is a touch of the magic dust about Stramaccioni and something serendipitous about the meeting with Juventus in the much-revered Derby d’Italia this weekend. On the day his Primavera side toppled Ajax on penalties to claim the NextGen prize, Claudio Ranieri watched his Inter team meekly surrender 2-0 at Juventus Stadium and departed Turin the day after. On Sunday, the Nerazzurri head west to face the Italian champions for the first time under new management.
Initially seen as something of a stop-gap to bookend a season that had already watched two managers try and fail to evolve an ageing Inter team, Stramaccioni did his credentials no harm, winning five of his nine games, (and all four of his matches at Giuseppe Meazza) including a 4-2 victory in the Derby della Madonnina – ending AC Milan’s hopes of retaining the Scudetto.
The 36-year-old was handed the keys to the castle by Massimo Moratti and has shown an admirable quality in turning a team in transition from old to new, to a legitimate Serie A contender. So far this campaign, Inter have won eight of their 10 league matches, including their last six, leaving them just four points behind Juventus. Unconventionally, their two defeats have come on home ground, and both by a two goal margin. Is it a question of mental fragility or simply a team adjusting to a host of changes?
Whatever the answer, Inter travel to the first Derby d’Italia of the season in buoyant spirit. They have won every single game on their travels in 2012-13 – eight wins in all competitions – a remarkable statistic and one that should provide more than a token threat of an upset for Antonio Conte’s side.
The Bianconeri have hardly let up this year either. Unbeaten in their opening 10 matches, their record of 49 games without defeat is now just nine behind AC Milan’s all-time record of 58 games, achieved between 1990 and 1993. With Paul Pogba rescuing the Italian champions last night and ensuring they achieved their fifth home triumph – importantly keeping them four and not two points clear of their nearest rivals – the scene is set for a clash of enormous magnitude.
The hosts haven’t been defeated by Inter on their own patch for seven years, when Julio Cruz guided a superb header beyond Gigi Buffon for the only goal of the game. That was Roberto Mancini’s only success and a feat even Jose Mourinho and his Champions League-winning Inter failed to match.
Historically speaking, Juventus have a considerably better record in this fixture than Inter and will be looking to claim their 95th win (compared to 67 Inter wins), subsequently placing the club in a dominant league position. It is early to speculate, but going on recent strength, Juventus would not be far from an unassailable position should they take all three points this weekend.
But there is much to worry the Bianconeri: Stamaccioni’s Inter have only conceded one goal away from home in Serie A – and just two in total this season, while finding the net 19 times in those eight fixtures. They may have stuttered at home, but there are few better gatecrashers in Europe than Inter right now.
The caveat – there is always a caveat – is the quality of opposition the Nerazzurri have faced. They say you can only beat what is in front of you but it remains a telling statistic that every win on alien territory has been against a side occupying a position in the bottom half of Serie A. Pescara, Bologna, Chievo and Torino hardly strike fear into the heart of opponents and their nine wins from 40 combined games speak volumes. There is of course the anomaly of AC Milan – neither a real ‘away’ game for Inter, but nor a legitimate powerhouse this year.
Inter have, however, blown their opponents away at times. There are fewer ‘smash-and-grabs’ and instead dominant displays – particularly as the season has moved on. There appears to be greater focus on the collective, a hunger and ambition to fight as a unit for victory, rather than days gone by where the individual brilliance of players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Wesley Sneijder would be the difference between victory or defeat.
And thus, Stramaccioni has utilised his squad to effect, drafting in 23 players in the league so far. It is a sign of the times – a tinkerer with purpose, not just in name only (looking at you, Mr Ranieri). Speaking to reporters after their hard-fought 3-2 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday night, Stramaccioni explained: “We had to continue our growth. If I spared players who had been putting in good performances recently in view of Saturday’s game against Juventus, then I would have been giving the wrong signal both to my players and to the atmosphere.”
This is a man that recognises the value in each fixture, someone whose fallibility has yet to be pinpointed. When his team struggled, 1-0 down at the break, he turned to his bench – introducing Esteban Cambiasso at half time before Yuto Nagatomo helped inject further purpose. Despite a late Eder goal, Inter found the solution, leaving Stramaccioni purring about the strength of his squad. “We brought on quality, anger and desire,” he added.
On any normal day, travelling to Juventus Stadium is a test, the biggest in Italy these days, but this fixture threatens to unravel much more than the Scudetto credentials of both teams. If Juve succumb to Stramaccioni’s Inter, it really will be time to sit up and take notice of the almost vertical ascent of the 36-year-old prodigy.