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Serie A

Mercurial Mauro Icardi’s rise continues as he leads Inter’s title charge

Last transfer window, three of the Premier League’s major clubs made signing a top-class striker their main priority. Manchester United spent £75 million on Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea parted with £58 million to bring in Alvaro Morata, whilst Arsenal splashed £50 million on Alexandre Lacazette.

Over in France, Paris Saint-Germain smashed the world transfer record by prising Neymar away from Spanish giants Barcelona for £198 million and will spend a further £166 million to make Kylian Mbappe’s loan move permanent at the end of the campaign.

These signings represented not only the extent of the market’s current inflation, but also the dearth of world-class centre-forwards available.

It came as a surprise, therefore, to see none of Europe’s elite sides make move for Internazionale’s star man and captain Maurco Icardi. Still only 24 years old, the Argentina international has established himself as one of Serie A’s leading players since moving to Sampdoria back in 2011. A product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth academy, Icardi moved to Sampdoria for £350,000 and initially featured for their youth team.

A total of 10 goals in his debut season with the senior team the following year earned the Argentine an £9.8 million move to Italian giants Inter. Since his move to the San Siro stadium, Icardi has cemented his status as the Nerazzurri’s most valuable player and despite the Italian giants’ turbulent past few years, has still managed to bag close to a century of goals for the club. Crowned European champions just seven years ago, Inter have failed to finish higher than fourth since the Argentine’s arrival.

This season, however, Luciano Spalletti’s men are vying for their first Serie A title since 2010 with the ruthless Icardi spearheading the Nerazzurri’s attack to devastating effect. The 24-year-old’s ruthlessness in front of goal has been as evident as ever, with his 11 strikes in 12 appearances firing Inter up to third place in the league table, just two points behind league leaders Napoli. A defender’s nightmare, Icardi is the complete centre-forward capable of scoring all kinds of goals, making it close to impossible for opposition defenders to contain the Argentine for the entire 90 minutes. Despite his relatively modest size, standing at just 1.81 meters tall, Icardi is deceptively good in the air, regularly out-jumping taller, more muscular defenders to get on the end of an inviting cross, usually delivered by the left foot of Manchester United target Ivan Perisic, with whom he has formed an almost telepathic understanding.

Whilst his excellent technique is there for all to admire, it is the Argentine’s self-belief and mental strength that truly sets him apart from the rest, allowing him to deliver when his side needs him the most, as AC Milan can testify. Earlier last month, the arch-rivals played out an explosive 3-2 thriller that saw Icardi take centre stage yet again, as he bagged a hat-trick to down the Rossoneri and secure the spoils for Spalletti’s men. The way Inter’s number nine took each of his goals seemed to sum up what the forward is all about, displaying both his physical and mental characteristics.

For his first strike, Icardi met Antonio Candreva’s cross from the right wing with an expertly-taken guided finish with his right-foot into the far post of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s goal. Mid-way through the second half, with the scores tied at 1-1, the Argentine allowed a cross from left-winger Perisic to run across his body before slicing a right-footed half volley, leaving the teenage goalkeeper helpless at his far-post yet again.

Icardi’s coup de grace, however, came in the final moments of this epic encounter. Having been pegged back yet again by the Rossoneri to level the scores at two apiece, the former Sampdoria forward stepped up to take a stoppage time penalty to earn bragging rights for the Nerazzurri. Whilst many would crumble under the pressure of the 80-odd thousand present at the San Siro, Icardi thrives on it, and he coolly dispatched his spot-kick to seal the three points for Inter, collect the match-ball and enhance his status as one of Serie A’s leading lights.

Whereas many other big-money centre-forwards are labelled flat-track bullies for their tendency to find the back of the net against lower teams only to then struggle when coming up against higher-quality opposition, that accusation cannot be thrown at Icardi, who regularly strikes when it matters most. Whilst he is yet to feature in the Champions League for the Nerazzurri, the Argentine is unlikely to be fazed by Europe’s elite club competition, and one must assume that it is simply a matter of time before he is given the chance to showcase his talents on Europe’s biggest stage.

Whether Icardi remains at the San Siro beyond the 2017/18 campaign probably depends on where Inter will find themselves in the Serie A standings, come May. Until then, the mercurial forward will be backing himself to continue banging them in for Spalletti’s side, as he looks to earn a call-up to the Argentina national team for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

Having spent the last few years building up his reputation and honing his skills in Italy, the 2017/18 season looks like it could be the making of Icardi as a global superstar and it will be up to Inter to keep up with him.

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