Inter Milan faced Bayer Leverkusen in the quarterfinals of the Europa League on Monday evening, with Fortuna’s Merkur Spiel-Arena in Dusseldorf, Germany, chosen as the neutral venue for this match. Goals from Nicolo Barella and Romelu Lukaku were enough to see the Italian side progress to the semifinals, with Kai Havertz providing what turned out to have been a consolation strike for Leverkusen.
Inter the supreme stiflers
Bayer Leverkusen under the command of Peter Bosz are known for their extremely attacking style, with usually a high percentage of possession and fluid style of play. Only Bayern Munich boasted higher average possession in the 2019/20 Bundesliga season. To counter this, Inter boss Antonio Conte chose a midfield trio of Marcelo Brozovic, Roberto Gagliardini and Nicolo Barella, with Brozovic and Gagliardini particularly good at breaking up opposition play.
Conte’s plan worked well. Inter worked hard on every part of the pitch, pressing high and moving their lines back quickly whenever the press turned unsuccessful. But they mostly managed to prevent Leverkusen from playing their way forward, leaving the man on the ball rarely with an option for a pass. This approach not only prevented the German side from developing their usual game, but it made the work of creating chances for Inter much easier.
Once the ball was won high, the players in black-and-blue would quickly move forward to threaten Lucas Hradecky in the Leverkusen goal. It should, however, be said that Hradecky put in a really fine performance between the posts.
What about Havertz?
Havertz is undoubtedly Leverkusen’s main man at the moment, but though Conte obviously didn’t feel compelled to assign a particular man to mark him, the 21-year-old didn’t have the best of evenings. He started out as a wide attacker on the right in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Kevin Volland the man furthest up, Kerem Demirbay behind and Moussa Diaby on the left, but the way Demirbay was often forced to drop very deep to receive the ball and organize play from there made that shape seem more like 4-3-3 for large spells of the contest.
Havertz did score his team’s only goal of the game, but it was the only moment when his unquestionable talent managed to shine through as he turned past Ashley Young and played a fantastic one-two with Volland to get one-on-one with Samir Handanovic. Even then his powerful blast from close range only just managed to squeeze past the Inter goalkeeper.
But overall, Havertz’s impact on this game was hugely underwhelming, given all the attention
his potential move to Chelsea has been getting lately. His habitual smart runs, which serve to open up space and get others involved, were stifled just like Leverkusen’s entire game plan.
Wherever he went he seemed to have been expected and was mostly dealt with by the agile opposition.
Lukaku the menace
Menace is probably the word that best describes the way Leverkusen defenders looked at the Belgian striker. Massive and strong as he is, he boasts an unusual amount of pace which often catches his opponents by surprise. Further more, he has perfected the technique of backing into a defender, having chosen the physically weaker centre-back, and keeping him absolutely rooted to the spot. Both of Inter’s goals came as a result of that particular skill of his, and Edmond Tapsoba isn’t very likely to forget the way he was being battered throughout the game.
Based solely on this game, with all context put aside, it seemed strange for an instant to consider the fact that Chelsea once sold Lukaku as surplus to requirements and are now willing to pay through the roof to sign Havertz.
VAR is one of the most discussed topics in football in the last two years. It has been heavily criticized in the Premier League this season, with referees not going to see incidents again on a pitch-side monitor, but rather getting instructions from the so-called VAR room on whether their calls have been correct. Here, however, referee Carlos del Cerro Grande took full advantage of the monitor on two occasions.
Twice he blew the whistle and pointed to the spot in Inter’s favour, first for what he initially felt was a handball and then for an apparent foul on Christian Eriksen, and both times he changed his mind after a look at the screen. No blame to the referee for his mistakes and no harm done. That’s what VAR should really be all about.
Inter the favorites?
The competition is slowly moving into its final stages and the debates are now shifting towards the subject of the eventual winner. Based on what they showed in this game, Inter can certainly be considered among the top favorites for the trophy. Other teams shouldn’t be underestimated, of course, but at the moment it feels that it should be decided between Conte’s team and Manchester United, who also secured their place in the semifinals by beating Copenhagen after extra-time on Monday.