Sunday was arguably the biggest game of the season thus far for Inter. The entire world was chuckling away at I Nerazzurri’s humiliating exit from the Champions League – so bad that they didn’t even qualify for the knockout stages of the dreaded Europa League.
The easily irritable Antonio Conte had absolutely lost his marbles on live TV, refusing to respond to the respected Fabio Capello while attempting (and failing) to belittle another presenter. All in all, it’s been a wretched week for Conte and Inter.
So it’s no surprise that changes were afoot when they travelled to Sardinia to take on Cagliari on Sunday. Conte had to get his selection right, and with the pressure building on the Italian, there could be little room for error in his tactics and lineup.
What did come as a surprise however, was the inclusion of a certain Christian Eriksen on the team sheet for their journey south. The Dane has been in Milan for almost a year now, but you could count on one hand the number of clutch contributions he has made since leaving Tottenham Hotspur.
That’s not all down to him, though.
I doubt the 28-year-old will be receiving any heartfelt Christmas cards or gifts from Conte this year, let’s put it that way. The pair have never seen eye to eye, neither personally nor tactically. The Italian boss’ 3-5-2 formation leaves little room for an inventive, floating attacking midfielder, and he’s not offered the maverick much wiggle room.
If you don’t earn Conte’s trust, you don’t play. And that has been the story of Eriksen’s Inter career, with many believing it’ll come to a premature end in this January transfer window. And yet, in I Nerazzurri’s time of need, Conte turned to the Danish star against Cagliari.
Shackles off, it was time to sink or swim for the midfielder.
Eriksen almost made the difference immediately, showing his class and quick-thinking that very few other players possess, daintily flicking a glorious cushioned volley into the path of an unmarked Romelu Lukaku, despite being surrounded by defenders.
Lukaku wasted the opportunity, taking too long to get his shot away, but his effort was saved and fell to Eriksen. With the goal mouth completely covered by bodies, the Dane went for power, but his thunderbolt was bravely blocked. A positive start, then.
But that’s where the feel-good story ends. After a positive and ambitious first ten minutes, the penetrating screams of Conte could be heard from the touchline.
“Deeper! Don’t go forward, don’t move!”
From nowhere, the shackles were clamped back on, and Eriksen reverted to the clueless fish out of water which he has embodied over the past 12 months. He visibly retreated and began operating in a much deeper role, and with that change, Inter’s adventure evaporated.
The clear-cut chances that they had carved disappeared, and Cagliari sensed this shift in momentum. Eriksen became more of a target in the midfield, now unable to express himself with the freedom he desired, and he was even dispossessed in the buildup to the hosts’ opener.
Some will argue he should know better than to squander possession, and he didn’t show the intelligence or heart to track back and make amends for his mistake. Others will say this knowhow is not in his locker, due to the fact he’s rarely been asked to play in such a rigid position.
Either way, many were expecting him to suffer Conte’s wrath, and not return for the second half. He survived this one. But his time soon came. On 58 minutes, his name was up in lights on the official’s board – it was game over.
A visibly-dejected Eriksen departed from the nearest touchline, kicking a bottle cap out of his path as he meandered towards the exit door. In one hour, we had witnessed the midfielder’s entire Inter career in a microcosm.
He started brightly, threatened to demonstrate his creative and dazzling best, before being wrestled back into line by his drill sergeant, who then refused to relent until his free spirit was completely broken. Instead, Conte introduced his soldiers who he knew would carry out his instructions to the letter, and they did the business, turning the game on its head and dragging Inter to a 3-1 victory.
So maybe, what we’ve learnt is that this rotten affair has to come to an end. Eriksen isn’t enjoying the football he’s being forced to play, and Inter look a much more efficient team when he’s not on the pitch. Some things are just not meant to be.