Inter as favourites? Nobody said so in July – Inzaghi

By Sports Desk December 22, 2021

Simone Inzaghi lauded his Inter players for an outstanding first half of the Serie A season, pointing out a successful defence of the Scudetto was not always widely expected.

Inter are favourites for a second straight title heading into the second half of the campaign having created a gap at the top of the table through 19 matchweeks.

In beating Torino 1-0 on Wednesday, the Nerazzurri moved seven points clear of Napoli and Milan, who were both in action later the same day.

But Inter had to withstand a tumultuous off-season to get to this point, losing coach Antonio Conte and star players Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and, to health issues, Christian Eriksen.

It was not necessarily a given then that the champions would maintain their form from last term, reaching the end of 2021 having scored 104 goals (the most since Milan's 120 in 1950) and won 32 matches (trailing only Juventus' 33 in 2016) in Serie A.

The Torino game, settled by Denzel Dumfries' latest strike, was not Inter's best display either but marked a sixth straight win without conceding for the first time in their top-flight history.

A delighted Inzaghi, who left Lazio to join Inter at the end of last season, told a news conference: "I immediately had great confidence when I joined and met the squad.

"Now, it is probably convenient for everyone to saw that Inter are a juggernaut and are the favourites, but I remember in July that's now what people were saying.

"The players have been good, but for us these results must be motivation to keep pushing, as a journey full of pitfalls awaits us."

Dumfries is not an obvious difference-maker in the final third, scoring twice in 30 Eredivisie games for PSV last season, but he now has three in 16 in Serie A.

Five team-mates have four goals or more, with Inter now boasting options in attack as well as an increasingly sturdy defence.

Defender Alessandro Bastoni told DAZN: "We've gone on a good run of not conceding goals after a tough start.

"It was important to re-establish a solid defence in line with what we were doing last season and we're doing great in that regard.

"Coach Simone Inzaghi's approach gives us an element of surprise which we were perhaps lacking last year. We have a great time together on the pitch and we get on great together. The new players have slotted right in.

"We're on a great winning run and we want to keep this up. We want to experience the feeling of winning the Scudetto, which we got to enjoy last season."

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    Sadio Mane has revealed he came close to joining Manchester United in 2016, agreeing a contract with the Red Devils before making a last-minute decision to join Liverpool after a call from Jurgen Klopp.

    Mane has scored 23 goals in 50 appearances for Liverpool in all competitions this term, helping Klopp's team to win the EFL Cup and FA Cup trophies, while the Reds could yet add the Champions League when they face Real Madrid in Saturday's final in Paris.

    The 30-year-old scored when Liverpool faced Madrid in the 2018 final in Kyiv, though substitute Gareth Bale netted a brace to condemn Klopp's side to a 3-1 defeat.

    Liverpool are bidding to win their seventh European crown at the Stade de France, and Mane has been touted as a potential Ballon d'Or contender after also firing Senegal to their first Africa Cup of Nations title earlier this year.

    However, things could have been very different for Mane, who said he had the chance to join Liverpool's rivals United when he departed Southampton in 2016.

    Speaking to former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher in an interview for the Telegraph, Mane recalled how a phone call from Klopp, who had attempted to sign him for former club Borussia Dortmund on a previous occasion, saw his head turn.

    "I have to say, I was really close to going to Manchester United," Mane said. "I had the contract there. I had it all agreed. 

    "It was all ready, but instead I thought, 'no, I want to go to Liverpool'. I was convinced to go with Klopp's project. 

    "I still remember the first time I got the call from Klopp. He said, 'Sadio, listen, I want to explain to you what happened at Dortmund'. 

    "That was when he thought of signing me for Dortmund and for some reason, it didn't work out. He tried to explain and I said, 'it's okay, it happened'. I forgave him.

    "Then he said, 'now I want you at Liverpool', and I said, 'okay, Dortmund is behind us, let's focus on the future'. He said, 'we have a big project at Liverpool and I want you to be part of it'."

    Mane scored in both legs of Liverpool's Champions League semi-final win over Villarreal, setting up the Reds' ninth European Cup/Champions League meeting with Madrid.

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  • Champions League final: Will Paris showpiece also be shootout for Ballon d'Or? Champions League final: Will Paris showpiece also be shootout for Ballon d'Or?

    Saturday sees Liverpool and Real Madrid go head-to-head in the final of the Champions League.

    After the trophy has been lifted, the medals handed out and the confetti all cleaned up, there will be talk of more individual matters.

    Discussions have already begun about which player will take home the coveted Ballon d'Or trophy this year, with the goalposts slightly moved for 2022.

    As the World Cup takes place in November and December, it has been decided that this year's award will be handed out in October, with the tournament in Qatar being included in consideration for the 2023 gong.

    It will also take into account the entirety of the 2021-22 season, rather than just the calendar year period.

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    Here, Stats Perform takes a look at Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema, breaking down the numbers and trying to predict which one might be donning a tuxedo with a beaming smile at October's ceremony.

    Mohamed Salah

    At the halfway point of the season, you would have been forgiven for suspending betting on at least the Premier League's player of the year, and arguably the Ballon d'Or as well.

    Salah was unstoppable as Liverpool looked to push Manchester City in the title race, as well as steer their way through a tricky Champions League group.

    The Egypt international scored a hat-trick as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 5-0, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for over 18 years, since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid back in April 2003 in the Champions League.

    At that point, Salah had bagged 15 goals in 12 games for Liverpool for the season, and had only failed to score in one.

    He had 23 goals in all competitions to his name by the time he left to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations in early January, where he helped Egypt reach the final in Cameroon.

    It was heartbreak for Salah and The Pharaohs though, losing on penalties to Senegal, before experiencing exactly the same outcome against the same opposition in their World Cup qualifying play-off almost two months later.

    Salah returned to score crucial goals against Inter in the Champions League last 16 and Norwich City in the Premier League, but after that went 11 games in all competitions without scoring a goal in open play, before bagging another two against United in a 4-0 win at Anfield.

    There were a further seven games without a goal at all after that, though when he came off the bench to score against Wolves on the final day of the season, if it had not been for City's comeback against Aston Villa, Salah would have scored the goal to win his team the Premier League title.

    Salah ended the season with 31 goals in all competitions, as well as 15 assists. He lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup before missing out on Premier League glory.

    If he can get the "revenge" he is openly seeking against Madrid for their 2018 Champions League final victory against the Reds and make it a trophy treble, he could well be top of the list in the Ballon d'Or voting.

    Sadio Mane

    Like Salah, Mane had an impressive start to the season as he scored in nine of his team's first 16 games in all competitions, though had a drier period just before the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring just once in 10 outings.

    Where Mane arguably has the edge over his rivals is his showing in Cameroon. Though he only scored three goals during the tournament, he played a big part in key moments.

    He netted a pressure stoppage-time penalty in the opening game against Zimbabwe that turned out to be their only goal in the group stage, therefore crucial in them progressing. Mane then scored the opener against Cape Verde in the last 16, and a late clincher against Burkina Faso in the semi-finals.

    Mane then took the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he slammed home the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Egypt in the final.

    By the time he returned to club action with Salah, Luis Diaz had arrived at Anfield and already taken up residence in Mane's usual position on the left of the front three.

    It wasn't a problem, though, as Mane simply reinvented himself as a central striker, scoring a vital winner against West Ham before repeating the trick of scoring a pressure penalty against Egypt to send Senegal to this year's World Cup.

    Mane really started to motor as Liverpool looked to win an unprecedented quadruple, scoring nine goals in his last 13 games, including in both the league draw and FA Cup semi-final win against Man City, and then in both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.

    His numbers still might not quite match up to Salah or Benzema, with 23 goals and two assists in 50 appearances in all competitions at club level, but he did only score two fewer non-penalty goals than Salah (25).

    His ability to turn important games and a potential medal collection of EFL Cup, FA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League all since January should put him in a strong position.

    Karim Benzema

    Calling Benzema the man for the big occasion still doesn't feel like it quite does him justice. The 34-year-old is in the form of his life, showing that age really is just a number.

    Benzema has made headlines throughout the season, mostly for his uncanny ability to come up with important goals in the Champions League, and he is without doubt the main reason Madrid made it past the last 16, let alone all the way to the final.

    Five goals in the group stages from Benzema helped Los Blancos to a last 16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain, with Kylian Mbappe and company taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Mbappe was dominating again that night, making it 2-0 on aggregate and getting through time and again, until Benzema took over.

    His 17-minute hat-trick turned the tie on its head, and sent Carlo Ancelotti's team through to face Chelsea, who Benzema also scored a treble against at Stamford Bridge.

    Though Madrid struggled in the second leg at home, Benzema's extra-time strike sent them into the semis, where Man City awaited.

    Two more goals from Benzema in the 4-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium gave them a fighting chance, and though it was Rodrygo who caused all the drama in the closing stages of normal time of the second leg, it was Benzema from the penalty spot who ultimately took his team to the final.

    As this year's Ballon d'Or takes into account the whole season, you would have to assume that includes the 2020-21 Nations League, which Benzema and France won in October, with his goals in the semi-final win against Belgium and the final success against Spain seeing Les Bleus lift the trophy.

    Benzema was also unstoppable in LaLiga, with his 27 goals being nine more than anyone else managed in the Spanish top flight, and he scored an incredible 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions.

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    The Tottenham striker is now just four goals behind Rooney's Three Lions record, despite playing 50 international games fewer than the Manchester United legend.

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    "I'm excited," Kane told host Jimmy Fallon. "In the last World Cup we got to the semi-finals, which was the furthest we've gone in the tournament for 30 years.

    "The country was going mad, but we fell just that one step short. I'm looking forward to this one as we've got a really good coach and a really good team. 

    "We've been building nicely to this World Cup, and hopefully I can break the goal record while we're there."

    Kane could even break the record before the tournament, with England facing four Nations League contests next month, including clashes with Germany and Euro 2020 final conquerors Italy.

    The 28-year-old scored six goals as England progressed to the final four of the last World Cup in Russia, and a repeat performance would also see him become his country's record goalscorer at the competition, with Gary Lineker having scored 10 goals across the 1986 and 1990 tournaments.

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