When Christian Eriksen arrived in Milan following 18 months of alienation and the odd moment of brilliance at Tottenham, the Dane was seen as the magic potion for a stagnating Inter outfit.
Eriksen’s arrival at the end of January rounded off a month in which Antonio Conte’s side had fallen three points behind Juventus in the race for the Scudetto following three consecutive 1-1 draws against Atalanta, Lecce and Cagliari.
With Conte’s pre-determined patterns becoming easier to prepare for, Stefano Sensi struggling to reach his lofty early-season heights following his return from injury and the Nerazzurri’s intensity starting to wane off the ball, Inter looked a mere shadow of their scintillating best.
But with Eriksen providing a threat from distance against the deep blocks the Nerazzurri were so often thwarted by and serving as a legitimate creator in-chief, Inter were set for a resurgence spearheaded by the Dane.
Right? Well, not quite.
Between the start of February and the unprecedented universal suspension in March, Eriksen started just one Serie A encounter and had accumulated 120 minutes of action in total.
And after January had served as a warning for an imminent slump, back-to-back defeats at the hands of Lazio and Juventus left Inter nine points adrift in the title race before calcio returned earlier this month. They had fallen into Scudetto obscurity.
The former Spurs man, meanwhile, had struggled to have the desired impact Interisti were craving – albeit in the limited opportunities he was granted to shine. He’d looked somewhat restricted in a deeper box-to-box role in Conte’s 3-5-2; being substituted before the hour mark in his first Serie A start at Udinese, before the more functional Matias Vecino was favoured alongside the dynamic Nicolo Barella for Inter’s crunch games against Milan, Lazio and Juve.
The absence of a genuine creative force was pivotal in those aforementioned defeats; Eriksen simply had to come good soon if Conte’s debut campaign at the helm wasn’t going to end in anti-climatic fashion. ‘The Godfather’ needed a little bit more than a goal and an assist across Inter’s Europa League round of 32 tie against Ludogorets.
There was a reason the Nerazzurri splurged almost £17m for a player they could’ve signed for free six months later. They were desperate to get ahead of the competition and for Eriksen, one of the finest creators of the Premier League era, to spearhead their late surge for glory.
And following a three-month hiatus, it appears their gamble may well have paid off.
Inter returned to action via the Coppa Italia on June 13 as they drew 1-1 at Napoli, a result that saw the Partenopei through the final – which they’d go onto win – following Fabian Ruiz’s strike in the first leg at San Siro back in March.
Despite their exit, it was nonetheless an encouraging display on the Nerazzurri’s behalf, with the hosts’ deep defensive block ultimately just being a little too stern in the end.
Eriksen, meanwhile, had given his side an early lead in bizarre fashion as he nutmegged David Ospina to score directly from an inswinging corner. It was bizarre due to the whole scoring from a corner thing, not the fact that he was able to beat the first man.
Deployed as the ‘one’ in a 3-4-1-2, Eriksen showed flashes of his very best as Inter dominated the opening exchanges. Man-marker Diego Demme had a difficult time tracking the movements of the former Spurs man as he rotated craftily with the likes of Barella and picked up spaces in behind Napoli’s midfield three. Later on in the game, he was presented with Inter’s best chance of finding a winner after his surging run was masterfully picked out by Alexis Sanchez, but his fierce effort was saved well down low by Ospina.
Nevertheless, while the Dane’s display in a freer advanced midfield position at the San Paolo was a more substantiated tease of promise, his showing in just his second Serie A start against Sampdoria on Sunday night was one even the 2017 iteration of himself would’ve been proud of.
As the footballing world tried to rid themselves from the horrors of the Merseyside derby, Antonio Conte’s side served up a masterclass at San Siro later that evening.
It was a spellbinding first-half performance by the hosts; the transitional and combination play was efficient but exquisite, while we continued to see a few fresh tactical nuances in Conte’s system which helped befuddle a disorganised Samp backline and allow Inter easy progression through the thirds.
At the heart of all of it though – in the absence of typical metronome Marcelo Brozovic – was that man Eriksen.
The Dane – once again utilised in an advanced midfield role- set up Romelu Lukaku for the game’s opener with a delicately weighted first-time pass into the Belgian’s stride after ‘Lula’ had combined superbly, and handed Lukaku another glorious opportunity after his dummy allowed Milan Skriniar’s pass to find the feet of the striker, but he blazed over.
It was an opening period of majestic positional play; every Inter player knew the consequence for each action, they were creating all types of superiorities in every zone of the pitch and Eriksen continued to wreak havoc in behind the visitors’ initial flat midfield three.
His influence on proceedings would eventually wane as Claudio Ranieri wised up to Conte’s brilliance, but he should’ve collected his second assist of the night early on in the second period.
After exploiting the space between two Sampdoria centre-halves and latching onto Ashley Young’s through ball, Eriksen craftily fooled keeper Emil Audero into going to ground too early before spinning and picking out Lukaku inside the area, only for the former United man to drag his effort well wide.
It was the sort of showing that even Spurs fans had forgotten he was capable of producing, and it highlighted just how bloody good this man still is at football.
With Conte finding the ideal formula to get the very best out of him in Milan, you’d be straight-up foolish to rule the Nerazzurri out of the Scudetto race. It’s just a six-point deficit to a flawed Juventus side.
Watch out, Serie A. Christian Eriksen has arrived.