Inter headed into their last game of 2016 knowing that they badly needed a win against Lazio to keep their hopes of Champions League qualification alive, which had been boosted slightly in recent weeks by consecutive wins over Genoa and Sassuolo. With Simone Inzaghi’s men seven points ahead of the Nerazzurri at the start of play on Wednesday night, this was a golden opportunity to recover some lost ground at the top of the table and send everyone off into the Christmas break in a good mood, but the three points were not going to come easily against a side who had only lost once away from home all season and had only suffered defeats against Juventus, Roma and Milan. With Felipe Melo and Joao Mario both missing through suspension Stefano Pioli made two changes to the XI he had selected for the Sassuolo game, with Geoffrey Kondogbia replacing the former and Ever Banega coming in for the latter, but confirmed both the rest of the team and the 4-2-3-1 system he employed on Sunday.
Despite our superb recent form at San Siro that had seen us win each of our last six home matches in all competitions, the first half did not make for particularly good viewing for the 37,000 or so Interisti packed into the stadium, and it became clear that that would be the case within thirty seconds of kick-off when Lazio created an important double opportunity. Felipe Anderson caused trouble with his very first run at the Inter defence and cut the ball back to an unmarked Ciro Immobile, whose shot was parried out by Samir Handanovic and fell to the feet of Senad Lulic, but the Bosnian's follow-up effort was blocked by Danilo D'Ambrosio and the home side cleared their lines. Despite the let-off the pattern of the opening 45 minutes had been set, as Lazio showed just why they had come into this match so far ahead of Inter in the table.
After 15 minutes of nerves and mistakes in which Inter struggled to string two passes together, Pioli’s men began to settle and pushed the visitors back into their own half more permanently, but against a very well-organised defence they struggled to find any space to exploit and could only create one chance before the half-hour was up, as Perisic headed a Candreva cross wide of goal. Despite no longer dominating like they had right at the start, Lazio seemed to have far less trouble getting themselves clear-cut opportunities and were the far more likely to open the scoring, creating three glorious chances in the space of ten minutes that were thankfully all wasted. Immobile went close but was again thwarted by Handanovic, in an almost identical move to the one Lazio had put together in the first minute, before Felipe Anderson slalomed past a series of black and blue statues to find himself through on goal, only to scuff his shot at the vital moment, and then from the resulting corner Sergej Milinkovic-Savic headed a whisker over the bar, to let Inter off the hook once again. Inzaghi's worried face on the sidelines said it all: he knew his team could not afford to be spurning opportunities like those.
While Inter grew slowly as the first half went on, they gave the impression of being far more vulnerable than the Biancoceleste and were fortunate to head back into the dressing room with the scoreline still at 0-0, having conceded quite a lot and created precious little. The only two saves Federico Marchetti had been forced to make were both elementary stops, as Banega and Marcelo Brozovic both tried their luck from outside the Lazio penalty area, so an improvement was certainly required after the break if we were to overcome one of the revelations of the season so far.
Thankfully, an improvement was exactly what we got. And what an improvement it was.
Once again it was Lazio who started the brighter as the second half got under way, with two timid appeals for a penalty turned down by referee Paolo Mazzoleni, but in contrast with the first half Inter reacted well and were soon on top themselves, creating by far our best chance of the night when Icardi - a spectator up to this point - failed to turn an inviting Candreva cross towards goal. Maurito needn't have worried about his missed opportunity though, because within three minutes the game was practically won.
After a sustained period of pressure on Marchetti's goal, the breakthrough arrived on 54 minutes as Banega shrugged off Milinkovic-Savic in front of the box and smashed a right-footed shot into the top corner. It was the Argentine's second goal since arriving from Sevilla in the summer and came at a crucial moment in the match, when Inter needed to make sure they didn't make the same mistake Lazio had made in the first half, or rather not capitalising on the period in which they were on top. But if that had given the San Siro crowd a lift then the stadium was practically in ecstasy less than 120 seconds later, as Icardi doubled the lead almost immediately by darting to the near post and heading D'Ambrosio's cross into the far corner. Yes, you read that correctly: D'Ambrosio provided a cross and it was a good one. If that isn't proof of Christmas miracles existing then I don't know what is.
Lazio were stunned by the rapid one-two they had just been hit with, having been the better side up until that point, and happily they were unable to react for the rest of the game as Inter took firm control. The troubles of the first half were but a distant memory, as Pioli encouraged the team to keep going and look for the goal that would finish the contest, which almost arrived on the hour mark as Icardi back-heeled another Candreva cross against Stefan De Vrij's leg.
In an attempt to revive his team Inzaghi removed full-back Patric and sent on pacey winger Keita Balde, and he nearly received an instant response as the Spaniard wriggled into the box and got a shot away, but Handanovic saved with his legs and our two-goal advantage remained intact - and that soon turned out to be Lazio's last chance to get back into the match, as two minutes later it was 3-0. Immobile shoved Miranda to the floor on the wing and gave us a dangerously placed free-kick, from which Banega cut the ball back to Icardi and Icardi drilled the ball through a crowd of bodies and into the net, with Marchetti unable to stop it passing underneath his right hand. In twelve second-half minutes, Inter had demolished one of Serie A's most in-form teams and secured themselves a victory of enormous importance in their quest to salvage their season.
For the final 25 minutes it was just a case of administering the healthy lead we had built up, and with Lazio still incapable of rallying themselves after Banega's goal that proved relatively straightforward. If anything we should have made the scoreline even more emphatic, as the only chances created from that point onwards came from us, with Icardi going very close to sealing a hat-trick on two occasions (hitting the bar on the second of those) and Candreva failing to turn Ivan Perisic's cross in at the near post. A low shot from Cristiano Lombardi was the only save Handanovic had to make in the entire second half, and in fact our lead was so comfortable that Pioli even allowed Gabriel Barbosa to make an appearance for the final five minutes, allowing Brozovic to receive the standing ovation from the crowd that his stupendous performance deserved.
Eventually Mazzoleni blew his whistle and confirmed a terrific 3-0 victory for Inter that cuts the gap with Lazio to just four points, which was certainly not on the cards at half-time but in the end was absolutely deserved. For intensity, stamina and tactical discipline the second 45 minutes was the best display we've seen out of these players all season, and enables us to head into the Christmas and New Year period with smiles on our faces, which I wouldn't have believed possible considering how horrid a year 2016 has been for us. With this win we have notched up three consecutive Serie A victories for the first time since the early stages of last season, but more impressively it means that we've won five home league games for the first time since January 2011, when Leonardo was in charge.
In addition to the two statistics above, Pioli will be delighted that we have now kept three consecutive clean sheets for the first time since November 2015, but perhaps what will make him happiest of all are the response he received from certain individuals tonight. In particular, the performances of two men who have been linked with moves away from the club in January - the two men who wouldn’t even have been in the team had Joao Mario and Melo been available - were encouraging to see: Kondogbia was excellent and finally looked like the player we'd all admired at Monaco two years ago, while Banega responded to the critics he has been receiving with a splendid performance that combined style and substance.
367 days ago we lost this exact same fixture and it signalled the beginning of the end for our season, as we were never able to recover from that defeat and collapsed in the second half of the campaign. Tonight I wonder if we may just have witnessed the exact opposite. The season is long, and we still have a lot of work to do to repair the damage we've caused since August, but at last I get the feeling that we are heading in the right direction. Will we look back on 21 December as the night everything changed?