Reigning champions Inter Milan enter Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Schalke on a low after losing league ground at the weekend.
Inter fell five points adrift of Serie A leaders and bitter rivals AC Milan following a 3-0 loss in Saturday’s ‘Derby della Madonnina’.
The result shapes as possibly the killer blow to Inter’s hopes of retaining the Scudetto in Italy, a feat that seemed nigh-impossible as Rafael Benitez’s tenure plumbed new depths earlier in the campaign.
Brazilian manager Leonardo has led the treble-winning champions to a stunning turnaround since taking over in late December, with Saturday’s loss the first real setback of his reign.
But Inter still have plenty of reason to feel confident in Europe, after their spirited come-from-behind 3-2 win at Bayern Munich that sealed their progression to the quarter-finals.
Next up is another German club in Schalke, who have under-achieved in the Bundesliga this term but still bundled out Spanish club Valencia 4-2 on aggregate in the round-of-16.
Mixed form at league level has seen Schalke fall to 11th on the German table, one year after finishing runners-up behind Bayern Munich, prompting the unexpected sacking of manager Felix Magath last month.
Tuesday’s trip to the San Siro will be a stern test for new boss Ralf Rangnick, who has never before coached in the Champions League knockout stages.
Rangnick may have to make do without a number of first-choice players on Tuesday, notably defender Christoph Metzelder, who broke his nose against St Pauli on Friday.
Mario Gavranovic (ankle) and Peer Kluge (abdomen) also picked up injuries in Friday’s league match, which was abandoned with Schalke leading 2-0 after the assistant referee was hit by a cup of beer thrown from the stands.
Inter’s biggest absence looks to be Brazilian defender Lucio, who will sit out the match due to suspension and is expected to be replaced by Colombian Ivan Cordoba.
Inter have been troubled without Lucio, and Andrea Ranocchia has been exposed in recent fixtures by Bayern and AC Milan without his partner in central defence.
Whether Ranocchia and Cordoba can work together to limit Schalke’s movement will play a big part in determining the winner of Tuesday’s opening leg.
The return leg will be played in Germany next week.
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