After the terrible group-stage elimination from the UEFA Europa League and a similarly disastrous start to the Serie A season, Inter headed into Tuesday night’s Coppa Italia last 16 match against Bologna knowing that this competition represented their one and only chance left this season to end a trophy drought that spans all the way back to May 2011. With that in mind Stefano Pioli made just five changes to the XI that started Saturday’s victory over Chievo, as Mauro Icardi, Antonio Candreva and Samir Handanovic dropped to the substitutes’ bench while Ivan Perisic and Miranda missed out on the match-day squad due to minor physical issues. Roberto Gagliardini made his second start in just four days alongside Geoffrey Kondogbia in midfield, while Gary Medel made his long-awaited return to the team in defence after his injury sustained during the Milan derby, but the man everyone at San Siro had turned up to see was Gabriel Barbosa, who was finally awarded his full Inter debut some five months after arriving from Brazil.
With a lot of changes made in attack by Pioli it was perhaps to be expected that the match would start rather slowly, and that was what happened as Bologna protected themselves deep in their own half and waited for sporadic opportunities to spring forward on the counter-attack. Inter controlled possession from the word go but in the opening half-hour they were unable to create any truly dangerous chances, and so all the focus fell onto the man who was described by Rai Sport’s presenter in their pre-match show as ‘the highest-paid reserve on the planet’. Pioli in particular was keeping a close eye on the man everyone knows as ‘Gabigol’, instructing and encouraging our mysterious summer signing almost constantly in the opening 30 minutes as he tried to whip up an adoring crowd with various tricks and accelerations.
Dear Gabriel had probably dreamed of marking his full Inter debut with a spectacular goal that would have the entire crowd off its feet in amazement, but unfortunately for him that delight was to arrive from a much more unlikely source as the half proceeded without incident. Joao Mario swung a corner into the Bologna penalty area and up to meet the ball went Jeison Murillo, who co-ordinated himself to perfection and produced a truly outstanding overhead kick to give us the lead on 34 minutes. None of his teammates could quite believe what they had just seen and neither seemingly could the Colombian himself, scoring one of the most beautiful goals we have seen at this club for a very long time indeed and taking older supporters back to a similar masterpiece that was crafted by Youri Djorkaeff in 1997. Goodness me Jeison.
Unsurprisingly that stunning piece of skill was the moment that led the match to burst into life, with very little of note having occurred up to then, and indeed shortly after securing the lead Inter managed to make it 2-0 with a lovely counter-attacking move. Joao Mario slid a second assist in the space of five minutes through to an onrushing Rodrigo Palacio, who evaded Bologna’s offside trap and finished nicely across Angelo da Costa in the visitors’ goal. At that point the game looked all but over for Donadoni’s men with just a few minutes left until half-time, but they would head back into their dressing room with the deficit halved after Blerim Dzemaili scored his third goal in four games. After an unsuccessful back-heel from Gabigol in attack Inter were caught out on the break as Medel remained on the floor following a collision, and the Swiss international saw his shot diverted past Carrizo thanks to an unlucky deflection off Kondogbia. 2-1 it was at the break.
After grabbing themselves a foothold just before half-time it was Bologna who began the second half as the brighter team, and they almost completed their comeback straight from the restart as Donsah set up Dzemaili for a second chance, only for Gagliardini to snatch the ball off him at just the right time. The early let-off drew a response from Inter though and Joao Mario could have made it 3-1 a couple of minutes later, only for him to head wide from an Eder cross, and from then on we more or less regained control of proceedings after a risky spell. Palacio, Eder and Joao Mario all had big chances to restore our two-goal lead as Donadoni started making substitutes, but they all failed to convert them and the game remained in the balance.
With things still not put to bed as the final 20 minutes began Pioli turned to his own subs bench and brought Icardi and Candreva on for Palacio and Gabriel Barbosa, who gave the home fans some flashes of his boyish quality but also a couple of clues as to why he has only been entrusted with cameo roles in the league so far. Sadly, no sooner had they come on it was the away side who were celebrating again as Inter paid for their second serious defensive lapse in concentration of the night. Adam Masina got to the by-line and produced a nice cross to the far post where Godfred Donsah was arriving like a train, and the Ghanaian youngster took full advantage of Cristian Ansaldi falling asleep to power an impressive header past Carrizo. 2-0 had become 2-2, and while Bologna had not exactly been laying siege to our goal their revival did not feel like misfortune either. Ansaldi in particular will be hoping nobody ever shows him a DVD recording of this match ever again, because it’s hard to remember a single thing he got right all evening.
An indignant Inter reaction followed the equalizer and Icardi wasted a glorious chance to make it 3-2 straightaway, but as time passed it was Bologna who looked the more likely to snatch a winner after taking a lot of confidence from an excellent second-half display. The mentality of the team has been one of the clearest improvements we have seen since Pioli arrived, and we saw it as recently as the weekend when we coped very well with Chievo taking the lead out of the blue, but our defensive frailties seemed to shake the players and the result was a draw that forced us into an extra half-hour of football to decide who would progress.
At the beginning of extra-time it seemed as if nothing had changed from the end of the regular 90 minutes, but just after Pioli used his final substitution to replace Eder with Marcelo Brozovic we found the goal that would enable us to avoid an embarrassing upset and advance to the quarter-finals. Icardi crossed the ball into the box and it bounced through to Candreva at the far post, who seemed to mishit his shot but nevertheless found the back of the net from close range and went off to celebrate under the Curva. Bologna had gone very close just beforehand when Medel had been forced to clear a Federico Di Francesco cross, but we got away with it and killed the game with our next opportunity.
And thankfully, that was where things ended. Inter saw the game out 3-2 and ensured themselves a quarter-final tie with either Lazio or Genoa at San Siro on Tuesday 31 January, who will face each other on Wednesday evening to decide which team progresses. In terms of the performance this was a clear backwards step from the Chievo match, but with five changes we could perhaps have foreseen a few more difficulties (Miranda was missed badly tonight) and in the end we got the win, so I can live with the mistakes we made. What matters is that our hopes of a trophy this season remain alive – just.