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Inter Milan must gamble on Mauro Icardi

Mauro Icardi's off-field antics may not be very endearing, but on the pitch he's proving to be one of Inter's most valuable assets.

Marco Luzzani

The well-documented off-field antics of Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi manifested themselves on the pitch for the first time last weekend, as the nerazzurri ran out 4-0 winners in a chaotic match against Sampdoria. The 21-year-old was snubbed in the pre-match handshakes by his girlfriend's ex-husband, Maxi López, who seemed unsurprisingly unimpressed by the boastful declarations of love plastered all over Icardi's Twitter page.

Icardi didn't emerge from the ordeal at all well, courting further controversy after celebrating by cupping his hands to his ears after netting during what has been dubbed the ‘Derby della Wanda' after his girlfriend -- and López's ex-wife -- Wanda Nara. But amid Icardi's distasteful public self-congratulation and the subsequent media storm, his impressive form on the pitch has been overlooked.

His brace against Samp brought up his eighth league goal of the season, making him Inter's second-top scorer behind Rodrigo Palacio. Having only made eight Serie A starts throughout an injury-marred campaign to date, it's not an unimpressive tally. A couple more goals in the final few games would see him equal the ten-goal haul he recorded while wearing the blue of Sampdoria last season, and which ultimately persuaded Inter to part with €6 million to acquire his services in the summer.

Initially it looked like an investment which wouldn't pay off, with the notoriously youth-averse Walter Mazzarri unwilling to put faith in the youngster after a string of injury problems. Instead he preferred playing Palacio in a lone attacking role, supported by either Ricky Álvarez or Fredy Guarín. Icardi looked set for a swift exit, with January moves to both England and Spain rumoured.

That was until run of barren form forced the coach into a tactical rethink; the result of which was a switch from a 3-5-1-1 to a 3-5-2 in February. It may seem a very minor tweak, but it has had significant benefits for both Icardi and Inter. The promising young talent we saw sparks of at Samp blossomed. "If he can keep this up and get some flaws out of his game, he can become a true great," commented his coach after the game in Genoa. "He has all the characteristics of a real striker."

With Inter's only other real prima punta, Diego Milito, now 34 years old and way past his physical peak, Icardi's emergence could scarcely come at a better time. He's a player with the potential to grow into a potent goalscoring force; a ready-made replacement for the fading Principe. Despite his age Icardi is a tall, powerful forward; capable in the air and an excellent finisher. His movement and runs are intelligent, and he's a willing worker without the ball. A modern attacking all-rounder.

All of this serves to make Inter's interest in Chelsea veteran Fernando Torres -- recently confirmed by director Marco Fassone -- all the more nonsensical. The nerazzurri have been in need of serious rebuilding for a while, having never really recovered from the mass exodus in the aftermath of their Champions League win under José Mourinho in 2010. The arrival of young talents like Icardi, defender Juan Jesus and playmaker Mateo Kovačić suggested they were moving in the right direction.

And yet, since the recent arrival of new owner Erick Thohir, Inter have regressed to the irrational decision-making that dragged them down from their position of European champions in the first place. Thohir seems far too interested in signing big names like Nemanja Vidić -- who will arrive from Manchester United in the summer -- and Torres; his eyes fixed solely on the short term. They would've been outstanding signings five years ago, but are now far past their best; incapable of leading Inter back to glory. If anything, they will actively harm Inter's chances of bouncing back to the top, threatening to push the likes of Juan Jesus and Icardi from the starting 11 to either rot on the bench or to be sold on at a cut-price fee.

Rather than buying in overly expensive, ageing players, it is in Thohir's interest to have patience with Inter's youngsters. How they handle Icardi and their attacking conundrum this summer will be extremely telling. The young Argentine is essentially a test case for the nerazzurri, who will either go for limited short-term reward -- if any reward at all -- and sign Torres, or take the more sensible option and put their faith in Icardi, perhaps bringing another talented young forward, Ishak Belfodil -- who is currently out on loan -- back into the squad as a backup. Both financially and technically, the latter would almost certainly be more rewarding.

Despite his off-field transgressions, Icardi is looking an excellent young striker. Sure, his arrogance hasn't exactly endeared him to anyone; not least his former club or Maxi López. But arrogance alone has never been a barrier to becoming a great footballer. His outstanding performance in the hostile atmosphere of the Marassi on the weekend demonstrated he has both the talent and the fearlessness to perform and even thrive under the spotlight. With the right guidance and regular football, he could be doing so for years to come.