Despite Slavia Prague being winless in the Champions League since their very first game in the competition back in 2007, it was the Czech champions that played with verve and a “European manner” in the meeting on Tuesday night, according to Inter manager Antonio Conte.
“They tried to bring a high pace, a huge pressing, while we were not good at finding solutions.”
Central to that idea was Nigerian striker Peter Olayinka, continuing the game’s ironic theme in that he was playing his first-ever game in Europe’s elite club competition.
The 23-year-old has had a surprisingly peripatetic career, taking in Albania, Belgium and the Netherlands, but did not look out of place at San Siro. His goal, taken emphatically just after the hour mark, was fair reward for a shift that was full of endeavour and invention.
In examining his role in the victory, it is necessary to look at the structure of the side in which he played.
Slavia Prague were a pleasant surprise last season in the Europa League, advancing past Genk and Sevilla to the Quarter-final stage only to be eliminated following a quite exhilarating 5-3 defeat to eventual winners Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Managed by Jindřich Trpišovský, they’re a side built on high pressing, high-volume of shots and quite extreme positional interchanges.
That was crucial here, as they harried Inter brilliantly, played out from the back with staggering confidence (and almost got caught doing it on a few occasions), and gave their forwards and wide midfielders a great degree of flexibility in movement.
Conte admitted their approach had stunned him somewhat. “In other matches we found teams that waited for us in their half, while they attacked us and we had to find different solutions.”
The only constants in possession were the center-backs and the excellent Tomas Soucek at the base of midfield, who dropped between the defenders to overload the Inter frontline and allow the full-backs fly forward.
It seemed reckless at times, but there was a method to it. Slavia played with four at the back, but negated the 3-5-2’s natural dominance in the middle with a diamond in midfield (Nicolae Stanciu on Marcelo Brozovic, Josef Husbauer on Roberto Gagliardini, and Ibrahim Traore on Stefano Sensi, with Soucek to spare). They had a two on two at the back, but Soucek’s positioning all game, both in covering behind and in doubling up on Romelu Lukaku when Inter played direct, was strong.
They played with two upfront, but split the strikers extremely wide, to the point where at times they looked like wingers, in order to go up against and apply pressure on the outside centre-backs. Importantly, this put Olayinka up against Danilo D’Ambrosio, and it was a battle the Nigerian had the upper hand in for the duration of his time on the pitch, both on the ground and in the air.
Just six minutes in, he fronted up D’Ambrosio, shuffled past him quickly, and won a free-kick, which Samir Handanovic was forced to beat away. In the 20th minute, he got the wrong side of the Italian defender inside the box, held him off with ease, turned him and laid the ball off when perhaps he had the angle to bend a shot toward the far post. D’Ambrosio was getting much too tight to him in these situations, and was suffering for it.
Ten minutes before the break, he forced an error from D’Ambrosio, then faked his way out of a pressing situation, before arriving in the box to attack the cross after the ball had been worked to the opposite flank.
Fifty-one minutes on the clock, and Olayinka dropped centrally with his back to goal, bringing D’Ambrosio up the pitch with him. He let a pass run across his body, taking his marker out of the game, before pivoting his hips and reversing the ball into a runner bursting forward from midfield.
There was a great deal of endeavor as well without the ball. He showed a lot of intensity and concentration to recognize optimal moments: in the 18th minute, he won the ball back by counter-pressing immediately from behind, after his teammate had turned the ball over, and on the half-hour mark he showed eagerness and good body orientation by forcing a pass back to Handanovic, before then pressing the Slovenian goalkeeper and almost nicking the ball off him.
In the 35th minute, he worked back to cover for Husbauer who was stranded high up the pitch, executing an uncompromising tackle on the edge of his own penalty area to snap Inter’s momentum.
There is an irony in the fact that, for all his good work on the left side, his goal came just moments after he switched over to the right, changing places with Lukas Masopust. However, it was no less than his showing deserved, and while correlation does not equal causation, he must have been gutted to watch from the bench as Slavia failed to hold on for a famous victory, conceding in the 92nd minute.
The footage of their club representatives chuckling in disbelief during the Champions League draw went viral on the internet, but the courage to play in this manner against a far superior side, to “believe and execute their game at a high intensity” (Conte’s read), was a credit to them and the work of Trpišovský. In Olayinka, they had the perfect figurehead for that approach.
FACT: Peter Olayinka became just the fifth different Nigerian to score on their Champions League debut after Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Lucky Idahor and Yakubu.