A 92nd-minute winner in the Derby della Madonnina to seal all three points for your side? Who are you going to call?
There was only one man you could have placed in the penalty area to read the flight of Matias Vecino’s right-footed cross from the right-hand side. There was only one man who could have used his power of mind control to persuade Gianluigi Donnarumma to vacate the safety of his goal line to enter the unwanted corridor of uncertainty, no-man’s land.
It seems to always be one man.
He was ready for this game. “Derby is coming”, his caption read on one of his Instagram posts. “I’m Ready.” His wife’s name was inscribed into his blue boots.
So were the names of his step-sons.
Comments are disabled for all of his posts, and with good reason. Controversial as he may be, revelling in the role of pantomime villain but orchestrator of all that is good for Luciano Spalletti, he does all of his talking on the pitch.
“Mauro Icardi touched the ball 15 times in 90+ minutes,” Paolo Baldini tweeted, “But it only takes one.” Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio tried to mark him, tried to keep their eyes on the one man you cannot take your eyes off for one second. You have to look constantly at every move he makes because his movement is to die for.
With the signature cusping of the ears as if to taunt the Inter ultras or the untucked white T-shirt that is worn under the blue and black vertical stripes, Icardi is one of those centre-forwards that you cannot mistake. His job is simple, and Spalletti, who once described him as the “perfect striker” when it comes to finishing, must have a shrine that pays homage to a man that steps up for the Italian when he needs him the most.
It sometimes may not even matter how Spalletti sets up. He could have a team of nine defenders, but one good ball into the area and the game could be decided because of this special talent.
AC Milan were blunt going forward, and unfortunately could not get their own weapon of striking destruction, Gonzalo Higuain, firing. Inter were more pro-active and were able to find their man when it mattered the most. This derby was always going to be the story of one of these elite foxes in the box, two of Argentina’s very best in one of the signature games of the Serie A season. They only need one chance. Higuain was the spectator; Icardi was the match-winner.
Sometimes, it is hard to believe that Icardi is not somewhere else, earning half a million Pounds or Euros, playing for Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain – anywhere else, but Inter. It is also hard to believe that for long periods, controversy aside, he was behind Higuain in the Argentine pecking order.
Yet here he is, beginning his sixth season with the Nerazzurri, the captain who is more of an anti-hero like Deadpool or Venom, but continues to be a source of great gratitude and relief in a team that could so easily be labelled, “The Mauro Icardi team.”
Why do we not read of him more often? YouTube is filled with videos of his incredible prowess in front of goal. There was one that really caught the eye and caused the brain to shut down for a moment in this fixture that ended 3-2 in favour of Inter last season. From a low Ivan Perisic cross, Icardi contorts his body to somehow strike a well-timed sliced volley with his wand of a right foot, jumping off the ground with his left foot, eyes firmly fixed on the ball. The Italian commentator exclaims, “Mama mia!”
There are some elements of football that you cannot coach, elements that need to come naturally from within, especially finishing. Icardi exhibits the qualities of a well-rounded centre-forward at the age of 25, especially the ability to keep one’s chin up and shoulders upright at all times even when it looks like the ball will not find you where you want it the most.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Then strike. In a team like Spalletti’s Inter, Icardi is the perfect fit: efficient as he is effective.
His ability to create something out of nothing, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat, is his signature. He rarely finds himself in the nitty-gritty of the build-up play and focuses on being between the width of the penalty area, the hunting ground for a man with keen predatory instincts. The Champions League game against Tottenham Hotspur was a prime example of why Spalletti needs him. If he could marry him, he probably would, although Wanda Nara may be the first one to oppose of such a union.
With the ball dropping from Kwadwo Asamoah’s cross, Icardi swung his majestic wand, striking the upgraded blue and silver Champions League ball with a whip and a swerve that saw it leave his boot like a shooting star. It sparked delirious celebrations, only ever seen when he scores it seems, such is his popularity with the Inter supporters even after his off-field antics of the past.
That all seems to be behind him – did it ever bother him in the first place? – and now, he is making headlines for the right reasons. As humans, we are prone to making mistakes and can be found on the wrong side of the moral high ground, but Icardi has not let this affect his performances in any way. Since joining Inter in 2013, he has amassed 104 league goals in 166 appearances and has shown us that beyond the controversial tabloids and bad boy persona, there is no controversy in his natural centre-forward play that cannot be ignored for much longer.
My admiration for him has not gone unnoticed but how can one not be in awe of his supreme magnificence?
I may have pushed my admiration a bit too far there.
Either way, he is not perfect, not the best role model, but he is perfect enough for Spalletti, for Inter. His values may be questionable, but his value is undeniable. Unapologetically himself, long may he ignore the “haters”, long may he ignore the outside noise.
Long may the predator in the box continue to execute his football God-given capabilities.