Inter were beaten by Manchester City with heads held high, but summer will show where Steven Zhang’s priorities lie

There was no shame in how Inter lost the Champions League final to Manchester City, but the summer will show whether the club want to get another chance on the big stage or not.

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As Pep Guardiola walked into his press conference in the aftermath of Manchester City‘s 1-0 win over Inter in the Champions League final, a small portion of journalists burst into timid applause, which was quickly interrupted as if they were afraid to bother him, sparking the manager’s typical irony: “Yes, yes, you can applaud”.

Despite having just sealed Man City’s first Champions League trophy in the club’s history, as well as his second personal treble, his gaze looked exhausted. When the first question from the press asked him to reflect on whether the game had panned out as he expected, he said that, before anything else, he wanted to “congratulate Inter on their performance”.

Much has been said about Guardiola’s allegedly cheeky way of giving compliments to his opponents without really meaning it, arguably in an attempt to take some pressure off his side.

That wasn’t the case this time, though, he looked sincere and his words were further supported by the evidence everyone had just witnessed on the pitch. After overcoming Bayern Munich and thrashing Real Madrid along their path to the final in Istanbul, Manchester City were really put to the test by an Inter side that seemed both mentally and tactically prepared to face, and possibly stun, what Simone Inzaghi had defined as “the best team in the world”.

Guardiola’s tactical choices were telling of Inter’s worth

The most evident sign of respect came from the tactical setup Guardiola himself had planned for the game, clearly aimed at limiting Inter’s strengths in spite of a quality gap between the two teams that, according to many, should have been more than enough to secure Man City a comfortable win.

Instead, after having presumably watched countless games in the weeks that preceded the final, Pep put together a “scientific” pressure that saw Bernardo Silva aggressively press Inter’s ball carriers at the back from his side, in order to push the build-up towards the Nerazzurri right-flank. That is where Matteo Darmian and Denzel Dumfries, perhaps lacking the technical ability of Alessandro Bastoni and Federico Dimarco on the left, were unable to link up with the strikers effectively.

As a result, Inter struggled to make the ball progress down their best side when in possession. Inter did not see enough of the great passes that are usually provided by Dimarco, Bastoni, or Hakan Calhanoglu on the left.

Pep Guardiola celebrates the 2023 Champions League win. (@ManCity)

Inzaghi’s gameplan and Inter’s limitations

At the very same time, though, Simone Inzaghi himself had come up with a plan to prevent Man City from taking full control of the game – Calhanoglu’s tight marking on Rodri, a move that Guardiola labelled as “unexpected”, meant that the English champions couldn’t find their passing rhythm and force Inter into their box through their trademark possession-based football. The nerves and the pressure felt on the occasion also played a part in their first-half difficulties.

However, as the minutes ticked by, Inter’s relentless efforts to cover each gap and double up on Man City’s free players gradually drained their energy, leaving them incapable of capitalising on the opportunities that came before and especially after Rodri’s opener.

In other words, Inter’s match resembled a catch-22 situation, as they seemed forced to choose between focusing on limiting Manchester City’s strengths or attacking in numbers in order to trouble them, which would’ve probably resulted in bigger spaces for Pep Guardiola’s side. However, this takes nothing away from a Nerazzurri outfit that left nothing on the pitch, and has more to do with the evident quality gap that separates the two teams.

As Francesco Acerbi admitted in a press conference, all the talking about their opponents’ brilliance in the weeks which preceded the Istanbul final had somehow affected Inter’s “awareness of being able to really hurt Manchester City“, which is probably also why they just fell short when the equaliser seemed within their grasp.

But Guardiola’s attention to his opponents’ way of playing, coupled with a brilliant performance against a much stronger side, should be enough to realise that Inter’s achievement of reaching the final was far from a fluke, as their success comes from afar, unlike many may think.

How should Inter react to reaching the Champions League final?

As of today, the Nerazzurri can boast a backbone of players who have certainly been going through highs and lows but were able to put together a Europa League final, a Scudetto win and two Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana triumphs respectively.

This path was crucial to help them develop a new awareness that became evident on the international scene as they went toe to toe with Liverpool last year before competing against an eventual treble-winning side in Manchester City beyond every expectation. Seen from this perspective, one can’t help but consider this season’s heroics as part of a process, rather than a one-off miracle.

Inter players Raoul Bellanova, Francesco Acerbi and Federico Dimarco applaud fans after the 2023 Champions League final loss. (@Inter_en)

While Simone Inzaghi surely needs to reflect on the reasons that lie behind their 12 Serie A defeats, which came as a result of a lack of consistency that was simply inexcusable, the mentality and team spirit exhibited in the European nights impressed to the point where Guardiola himself claimed that “they are exceptional in every part of the pitch, if they keep up like this, they’ll be able to try again next season”.

While he may be right, the ball is in owner Steven Zhang‘s court as his policy in the summer is likely to be decisive for the club’s future. Should Inter manage to retain the likes of André Onana, Bastoni, Nicolò Barella and Lautaro Martinez, then Inzaghi would still be provided with the foundations to reach ambitious goals.

On the other hand, if their recruitment needs to be funded by the sale of some of their big names once again, then the Nerazzurri will certainly lose momentum and postpone their hopes of reaching another Champions League final to an undefined date in the future.

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