After recovering from a mixed autumn, the Morocco wing-back’s growing influence will be key as Antonio Conte seeks huge win over his old side
In the context of Inter Milan’s season, victory over Juventus in Sunday’s Derby d’Italia will not only be helpful for bragging rights but significantly crucial as they look to maintain reasonable distance to Serie A leaders AC Milan.
Last week’s highly-entertaining 2-2 draw at Roma saw the Nerazzurri fall three points behind their local rivals, a margin they won’t want to increase particularly as they’d fought so hard to close the gap following an eight-game winning run before the New Year.
Failure to get the better of the Old Lady at San Siro will undoubtedly cause Antonio Conte’s side to rue the last two results where they picked up one point from a possible six and face the prospect of Milan extending the lead at the top to four if they draw at relegation-threatened Cagliari or six if they win.
That Roma stalemate greatly rankled due to how Inter responded to going behind at Stadio Olimpico and took the lead through an amazing Achraf Hakimi effort, a strike worthy of winning any game.
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Achraf Hakimi in 2018-20 Bundesliga season:
54 games 7 [email protected], @MalekShafei and @EddyDove talk up what to expect from the full-back in Serie A this season.
: https://t.co/hi1WPaOfjNpic.twitter.com/9LbkaqkDcl— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) September 19, 2020
However, following the Morocco wing-back’s sixth Serie A goal of the campaign, Conte’s side dropped deeper, as opposed to trying for a third when they evidently had the Giallorossi on the ropes.
While the former Chelsea manager put it down to‘anxiety to get the result’ and Roma automatically pushing for the leveller, the ex-Italy boss’ substitutions were beyond questionable.
Replacing Hakimi and Lautaro Martinez in the final 15 minutes not only sent the wrong message to his side to hold on to their advantage, it also robbed them of two vital components to how they play. The Morocco star was Inter’s most incisive attacker for the majority of the game and the South American’s vaunted partnership with Romelu Lukaku was absent after the 77th-minute substitution.
They lost every shred of attacking menace afterwards and didn’t even have the option of launching counter-attacks due to the profile of players on the pitch at the end of the encounter.
For Hakimi, the difference in the last few weeks has been marked, particularly after a troubled autumn in which he lost his place in the side and was somewhat criticised by Conte for lacking defensive awareness, which led to the passionate tactician leaning on Matteo Darmian for a few games.
The greater censure was directed at the Bundesliga, a league the coach believed hadn’t developed the wide defender’s tactical growth as well as it should.
“This is a lad that is just over 20 years old and who played for just two seasons in Dortmund and the Bundesliga, a league which is much less tactical,” the Inter boss interestingly stated after beating Bologna in December. “Here, there’s less space and there’s greater preparation for matches, with opponents studying his characteristics more.”
In the last few gameweeks, however, the North African has absorbed some of the requirements to thrive under the demanding manager and is proving to be one of their prominent players, as predicted at the start of the season.
He’s scored three goals and set up another in the last five Serie A games, sitting third for total goal contributions (nine) behind Lukaku (15) and Martinez (12). With six goals in total, Hakimi’s now equalled Maicon’s 2009/10 tally while surpassing his own personal best (five) achieved last term.
Mind you, we’re not even halfway into the league campaign yet. While the recent run of goal contributions is unsustainable, the possibilities that come to mind when you think of the heights the Morocco star could attain when he wholly adapts to football in Italy are exciting.
Europe’s top-scoring defender may not top many of the underlying numbers in this Inter side but he ranks highly for progressive carries per 90 (third), second to Lukaku for carries into the penalty area and fourth for successful dribbles per 90. He tops the expected assists table along with the Belgium superstar, although he falls to third for xA per 90.
Conte’s team also tend to fare better as an attacking unit when the ex-Real Madrid defender features. For players with 500 minutes or more, Hakimi ranks sixth for points per match, third for goals scored per game when he features and second for xG per 90 when he’s on the pitch.
Having lost both games to Maurizio Sarri’s Bianconeri team last year, the Black and Blues need a statement win over a team that’s won Serie A for nine successive seasons. The Nerazzurri boss believes Sunday night’s game will be a decisively indicative test of their level…and he may be right.
Aside from failing in the Champions League, they’ve also come away from the Milan Derby with a loss and played out draws vs Lazio, Atalanta and Roma. They did beat Napoli 1-0 in December but their lack of success in big games this season will be magnified if they don’t get the better of the Old Lady on Sunday.
While nothing will be decided in the derby of Italy, Conte needs a colossal result against his old side and the in-form Hakimi will be vital in Inter’s litmus test at San Siro as they look to move seven points clear of the club they hope to finally supplant in Serie A at the end of the season.