When Italian giants Inter Milan take to the field at Celtic Park on Thursday, the Europa League tie will deliver a huge slice of nostalgia for any serious student of the game. Almost 50 years on from Celtic’s greatest triumph, as they beat a previously all-conquering Inter side in the 1967 European Cup final, there are likely to be many references to the club’s Lisbon Lions. Yet while many will be looking to the past, seeing Mauro Icardi line up for the Nerazzurri will perhaps offer fans of Manchester United a glimpse of their not-too-distant future.
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The Argentinean striker has been linked with a move to Old Trafford repeatedly over the past few weeks, with reports in both England and Italy discussing the possibility of a Dh188 million (€40m) move this summer. Icardi is seen by many as a far more viable reinforcement for Louis van Gaal’s side than Radamel Falcao, who recently turned 30 and would cost around Dh230 million (€55m) to sign on a permanent basis from Monaco.
Still just 21, Icardi has been guilty of allowing his private life to make the headlines all too often so far in his career, his much-publicised relationship with Argentine media personality Wanda Nara seeing the couple become a national story. Previously married to Icardi’s former team-mate Maxi Lopez, the three parties have made public comments that reflect poorly upon them all.
Yet none of that should detract from the fact Icardi is a seriously talented striker, who chose to leave Barcelona in 2011 saying that “if a youngster wants to grow then certain decisions have to be made.” He opted to join Sampdoria in Serie B, a move he never regretted as he quickly proved capable of scoring in the biggest games. Icardi made his debut for the Italian side in a must-win match against Juve Stabia, coming on as a substitute as the club desperately sought a victory essential to their hopes of promotion to Serie A.
Netting the winning goal, he followed that up with a strike that gave Sampdoria a derby win over fierce rivals Genoa. That he was making his first top flight start for the club hinted that they had discovered something special, and that feeling would continue, as his double helped the Blucerchiati to an improbable victory away to Juventus. A meeting with Pescara would reveal a very different side to the widely disliked Icardi, the match coming just days after Sampdoria President Riccardo Garrone passed away following a long illness.
With the Stadio Luigi Ferraris filled with former players and coaches looking to pay homage to the man who had saved the club from bankruptcy, Icardi helped the team deliver a fitting 6-0 victory as he netted four times. “It is a day I will remember for all my life,” he said afterwards. “Scoring four goals in Serie A doesn’t happen often. I dedicate them to the President.”
“I don’t know why I keep getting roped in with football’s ‘bad boys’. I really don’t care either. The unhappy people are those who listen to others. I never listened to anyone and I’m very happy.”
He would add another goal in a win over Roma and then seal another win over Juventus on the final day of the 2012-13 season, by which time it had already been revealed he would join Inter. Icardi has continued to deliver in the same vein for the Nerazzurri over the past 18 months, netting 27 goals in just 52 appearances for the club, including two more strikes that have taken points from an otherwise dominant Juventus.
He has now scored five goals in four games against the Bianconeri, but has had problems in Milan, accused of being anonymous when the side struggle. He and Pablo Osvaldo had a major on-field spat back in January, when Icardi opted to shoot, rather than pass to his compatriot, and the fiery on-loan Southampton striker attempted to physically confront his team-mate. The younger man admitted he had “messed up,” but Osvaldo was deemed the guilty party by Roberto Mancini and has since been released by the club.
While Inter have struggled this term – currently sitting in 10th place – Icardi has been in fine form, a brace against Palermo last week taking his tally to 15 in all competitions, averaging a goal every 131 minutes. While his work-rate when the Nerazzurri are not in possession must improve, on the ball he is a wonderfully talented player worthy of a place at any of Europe’s biggest clubs.
He is a genuine threat in front of goal, and would provide Manchester United with an ideal replacement for either Falcao or Robin van Persie, who make a similarly minimal contribution to build-up play but come alive when the ball is in the opposition penalty area. According to statistics from WhoScored.com, Icardi averages just 15.9 passes per game, numbers similar to the aforementioned duo, who make 18.4 and 20.0 per game respectively.
That he has more goals than the two combined is obviously the most telling statistic however, and Celtic are certain to struggle to contain him over the two legs. Manchester United sent scouts to watch him last week, and Icardi has proven to be a consistent threat as he now scores with alarming regularity. That he could soon be doing so for the Old Trafford Club should worry defences across the Premier League and beyond.