STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome): With just days to go until Inter play their biggest Champions League match since the 2010 Treble, the Nerazzurri took a huge step towards qualifying for the competition again next season.
Goals from Federico Dimarco and Romelu Lukaku either side of the break sealed a 2-0 win at the Olimpico in a stop-start match where tempers frayed more often than chances were created.
The result has big implications for the top-four race. AC Milan’s win over Lazio earlier in the day put pressure on both these teams to keep pace, and Inter’s victory restored them to fourth place, two points above their rivals.
AS Roma, beset by injuries and with a European semi-final of their own to come against Bayer Leverkusen on Thursday in the Europa League, are seventh and five points behind Inter.
It was the perfect warm-up for Inter ahead of their first-leg clash with Milan on Wednesday, extending their winning run to five matches and crucially giving them a head-to-head (3-2 agg.) advantage over Roma should the two sides end the season on level points.
Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, will be left scratching his head. His side are missing several players, but another toothless performance and a run of four games without victory has left their league campaign at risk of ending with a whimper.
Dimarco ends the doziness
With a scorching spring sun baring down on the Roman turf, the match got off to a dozy start as both sides engaged in an arm wrestle for control of a congested midfield.
Roma skipper Lorenzo Pellegrini was the most ambitious attacking player on the pitch early on as he curled one shot wide before a deflected effort required a sharp fingertip save from Andre Onana.
Just as Inter began to suggest they were gaining a foothold in the game, they struck with lightning speed.
A wonderfully weighted Marcelo Brozovic pass found Denzel Dumfries free on the right wing and the Netherlands’ cross was fizzed all the way through to his opposite wing-back Dimarco at the back post for a close-range finish.
It was the Italian’s sixth goal of the season and his haul of six assists to go with it makes him one of only two defenders in Europe’s top five leagues to exceed five in both metrics – the other being Jeremie Frimpong of Bayer Leverkusen.
Lukaku profits on Ibanez howler
Roma players were vocal in their demands for a penalty early in the second half after the ball struck Matteo Darmian’s arm as he made a challenge, but replays showed it hit two other parts of his body first and the VAR wasn’t interested.
From the resulting corner, Roma found their best chance of the game so far as the ball broke loose to Roger Ibanez in the box and his whipped effort was superbly palmed over by Onana.
The home crowd roared with optimism when Paulo Dybala, lacking match fitness, was brought on for the final 20 minutes, but it was the visiting contingent who were soon celebrating the next goal.
Ibanez cut out a long ball but then lost possession to Lautaro Martinez, who played Lukaku clean through on goal and left the Belgian with time and space to fire a well-placed shot into the bottom corner.
The goal took the air out of Roma’s lungs and the wound Lupi fans had to watch through their fingers as Martinez’s curling strike late on shuddered the crossbar and Mady Camara blasted over a decent chance to pull one back.