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Can Rafinha become the sidekick Icardi desperately needs at Inter Milan?

COMMENT: Things haven't quite gone according to plan for Rafinha in recent years. The Brazilian returned to Barcelona after a successful loan spell with Celta Vigo in 2014 in the belief that regular football awaited him at Camp Nou.

However, in the four years that followed, he struggled to establish himself due to consistent rotation and serious injury problems.

Having been utilised wide in a variety of systems by Luis Enrique last term, he spent the first half of 2017/18 out with a knee injury.

After returning to training, he made one cameo appearance in Spanish Cup action against Espanyol before once again being sent out loan, this time to Inter Milan. Now the challenge is not to return to Catalonia a better, more mature player, but to assert himself upon the Italian giants' first team.

Rafinha will be hoping to fill a void that has existed for the Nerazzurri since Wesley Sneijder departed five years ago.

The Dutch playmaker wore the club's No.10 shirt well, acting as their playmaker and helping them to the famous treble of Serie A, Champions League and Coppa Italia in 2009/10. Those that have attempted to follow in his footsteps simply have not been up to the task.

Mateo Kovacic never quite realised his best position, with debate raging over whether he was a deep-lying playmaker, a box-to-box type or an attacking midfielder throughout his time in Milan.

Stevan Jovetic took the No.10 shirt when the Croatian left for Real Madrid, though again he too never quite found his ideal role. Others such as Ricky Alvarez, Adam Ljajic, Gabriel Barbosa and Joao Mario didn't wear the shirt, but they were expected to provide much-needed creativity. They didn't.

Thus, the pressure on Rafinha is twofold. On a personal level, this move is an opportunity for him to revive a fading career. However, Inter fans also want him to be the No.10 they have needed for half a decade.

Should he achieve, or threaten to achieve, those two goals inside the next few months, there is an option for the Milanese club to buy him permanently for a fee of just over £30 million when the summer transfer window opens.

Perhaps the most important tactical question for the 25-year-old to answer in this loan spell will be how he fits in alongside Mauro Icardi, the club's top scorer and captain.

The Argentine is one of the most clinical finishers in football today, and Inter's play in the final third is heavily based around his movement and penalty box instincts.

Rafinha will need to form a working relationship with the hitman if he is to succeed at San Siro. While Kovacic, Jovetic and countless others were unable to do this, he may have an advantage thanks to his previous experience playing in the same team as Icardi.

In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, Rafinha spoke of his understanding with the striker, saying: "Having spent several years together in Barcelona's youth system I spoke with him before accepting the move here. He helped me out during my first few days as an Interista; even though he's still young he's a great captain. A real leader of this group. Being in sync with another person helps you do better on the pitch as well."

Inter have often relied on utilising their wingers – Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perisic – to attack the flanks and supply Icardi with dangerous crosses in and around the opposition 18-yard box. But this style will have to change if Rafinha's talents in the hole are to be maximised.

In his six Serie A outings so far he has appeared mostly as a linkman between central midfield and the lone striker in Luciano Spalletti's 4-2-3-1, a role that could open up some exciting possibilities.

Firstly, his presence there will enable Borja Valero to operate deeper, improving Inter's build-up out from the back.

Secondly, he will offer his deeper team-mates a penetrative pass through the centre, helping them to break through opposition midfields.

And, finally, his movement in the final third could take attention away from Icardi, allowing the forward to focus on what he does best: making dangerous runs behind back lines.

There have been some promising signs for Rafinha during his short time in Serie A so far. While he has only picked up one assist, he has averaged two dribbles – more than any other Inter player – and a respectable 0.8 key passes per game.

Due to Icardi's recent spell out the pair have only played together once – in a goalless draw with Napoli last weekend – but they are likely to combine more often in the coming weeks.

Having shown glimpses of class on the ball, Rafinha is gradually easing himself into life at Inter. He doesn't have much time to prove himself, but he has made his intentions clear. "I haven't come here just to regain fitness and then go back to Barcelona," he told Gazzetta dello Sport. "I want to stay here."

Blair Newman
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Blair Newman

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