Mauro Icardi might just be the most annoying footballer in the world today. Unless you happen to be an Inter Milan fan, of course. But even then there are no guarantees – the Argentine has argued with his own club’s Ultras in the past.
However, for the time being, all is forgotten, if not entirely forgiven, as far as Interisti are concerned. Because, when a striker scores a hat-trick to seal a 3-2 win over a city rival in a crucial Serie A match, there can be nothing but love. And that’s exactly what the Chelsea transfer target did earlier this season against AC Milan.
The Derby della Madonnina is a headline-grabbing event nowadays. A couple of years ago, the players on the pitch could not live up to the atmosphere off it. But more recently they have, if anything, exceeded the fans’ passionate efforts with a series of exhilarating encounters.
Icardi is the ultimate front page finisher. His goals punctuate Inter’s performances. And his trio against Milan went a long way to helping him become one of the world’s best No.9s.
ICARDI THE KNOCKOUT ARTIST
Milan went into last month’s match with a desperate desire to win. And, if not that, they had to at least avoid a fourth defeat in eight league games – a record made all the more pitiful considering the vast sums of money pumped into their squad over the summer transfer window.
But Icardi is a footballing pest worthy of the match-winning metaphor. If Inter were a boxer he’d be their knockout blow – behind on points, losing control of the contest and on the ropes, he is capable of unleashing a torrent of unanswered shots to seal victory from the jaws of defeat.
Milan got stronger as the derby clash wore on. Having gone behind twice, they came back. Head coach Vincenzo Montella, who remains under pressure, made important tactical tweaks in the second half and it looked as if they were on the verge of pulling off an extraordinary win.
But they let their guard down once too often, failing to account for their opponent’s sucker punch.
Icardi came out of nowhere on 28 minutes to open the scoring. Antonio Candreva, who couldn’t have been any closer to the touchline, put the ball in the penalty box. That was all that was required. In came the Argentine to finish with aplomb.
And he was there again on 63 minutes, just as Inter were losing their grip on the contest, to acrobatically volley home an Ivan Perisic cross from a tight angle.
Montella and Milan are made of stern stuff, though. They knew their plan was working, they knew they had control of the match, and they continued to dominate the ball and the game. That led to their second equaliser. But even that wasn’t enough.
A controversial penalty decision allowed Icardi the chance to collect his hat-trick. With the match-ball – and, more importantly, the game – at stake, he faced down Gianluigi Donnarumma, a bear of a goalkeeper with a reputation for saving from close range, in the 90th minute.
Naturally, he coolly sent his opponent the wrong way.
ICARDI BY NUMBERS
Icardi had just 24 touches on the night, the lowest of any player on the pitch by far. Three of them were shots that went in. So, essentially, for every eight touches he had, a derby-winning goal was scored.
Afterwards, his head coach, Luciano Spalletti, was quick to applaud the display.
“Mauro was grandiose today. Grandiose,” he said. “Despite all the responsibility poured on his shoulders, he has the humility to listen to advice and works hard dropping back to win the ball.
“A centre-forward cannot always just hang off the striker, as he becomes easier to mark. Icardi is a complete striker and for his age shoulders so much responsibility, contributing his hand.”
Icardi has a record of eleven goals in 12 Serie A outings this term. Only Ciro Immobile of Lazio (14) boasts higher output –Paulo Dybala of Juventus also has 11.
But more than simply finding the net, Icardi tends to find it at pivotal junctures.
His strike against Bologna turned defeat into a draw. His hat-trick against Milan, meanwhile, turned defeat into victory. He performed similar heroics against Roma earlier in the campaign. In an away match Inter had struggled to compete in, he scored twice to seal a 3-1 win.
In short, Icardi changes his team’s narrative. Without his clinical touch in and around the opposition penalty area, the Nerazzurri would be nine points worse off and would be sat tenuously in seventh place as opposed to third, two two points off leaders Napoli.
Both Roma and Milan fans have felt the full brunt of just how frustrating it can be to come up against the Inter hitman, who takes the cliché of ‘it only takes one chance to score’ very literally. Indeed, comparing his shot accuracy to the other top No.9s presents some truly scary findings.
Sergio Aguero, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain, Harry Kane, Robert Lewandowski, Romelu Lukaku, Álvaro Morata and Luis Suarez are all superb strikers. But, of the nine, the highest shot accuracy percentage is Higuain with 65 per cent. Icardi’s rate? 74 per cent.
His unerring ability to find the target, coupled with intelligent movement, penalty box instincts and improving all-round play, are suggestive of someone with the quality to one day earn the status of World’s Best No.9.
Helping his team to a title would probably seal the deal.