Inter took a huge step towards the 2023 Champions League final with a dominating display over crosstown rivals AC Milan in the semi-final first leg, as veteran duo Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan fired the Nerazzurri into an early two-goal lead during a high octane start at the San Siro on Wednesday night.
Had the referee not consulted VAR after awarding a penalty to Lautaro Martinez midway through the first half, it could have been even worse for the Rossoneri, but the official eventually decided there was not enough contact on the Argentine to give the Nerazzurri a chance to extend their lead.
While Milan regrouped at half-time and were much more competitive in the second period, the damage had been done during a calamitous start and they continued to lack any attacking impetus without the injured Rafael Leao, and are probably thankful that the game only finished 2-0.
Inter riding a wave of optimism
Since defeating Benfica 5-3 on aggregate in the quarter-final, the Nerazzurri have been transformed domestically, defeating top four rivals Lazio and AS Roma and dumping Juventus out of the Coppa Italia semi-final, and taking that form and confidence into continental competition.
The Inter squad suddenly look like the side that many expected to be challenging for the Scudetto this term and, while Champions League qualification still looks in the balance, coach Simone Inzaghi could yet end the campaign taking the Milanese giants to another two trophies, which would be a phenomenal achievement given their struggles earlier in the season.
AC Milan desperate for Leao return
After being forced off early during the victory over Lazio, many Milan fans feared the loss of Rafael Leao for this fixture, as the Portugal international had been in fine form for the Rossoneri in their quarter-final tie with Napoli and had four assists in ten Champions League games this season. News that he is set to sign a new five-year deal softened the blow of him watching on from the sidelines.
Even the inclusion of the 23-year-old would have done little to improve the Rossoneri failings on the night, though, with some amateurish defender first allowing Dzeko to volley home a corner kick almost at knee height and just moments later allowing Mkhitaryan to stroll into the box and place the ball beyond goalkeeper Mike Maignan.
With just six days to complete his recovery before the second leg, coach Stefano Pioli is unlikely to risk the former Lille attacker against Spezia at the weekend, despite Champions League qualification via Serie A still uncertain.
Could this be third time lucky for Inter?
Having failed to overcome Milan during their previous two Champions League encounters – although the 2004/05 clash ended with crowd trouble that saw the match abandoned and a 3-0 win handed to the Rossoneri – the Nerazzurri may have finally ended their rivals’ stranglehold over them in the competition.
Although Milan won the first domestic fixture this season 3-2, Inter coach Simone Inzaghi has had the upper hand over counterpart Pioli in 2023, lifting the Supercoppa Italiana in Saudi Arabia with a 3-0 win in January and winning their last match with a solitary goal from Martinez a few weeks later at the Meazza.
Inter took the confidence from those victories into the game and were aggressive and determined in the attack, and were rewarded by the early goals of Dzeko and Mkhitaryan, but will have to put the ghosts of past exits out of their minds when they meet again in a weeks time.