Inter played hosts to Empoli today looking to bounce back from a disappointing loss in their last match as well as a contentious week off the pitch. Achieving the goal of a return to the Champions League required a victory in this match and though Stefano Pioli was missing Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, and Ever Banega the fans (and manager) fully expected a win. The team was able to pull it off due to goals from Eder and Antonio Candreva in a dominant performance from the home side.
Pioli stuck with the same back three from last weekend of Jeison Murillo, Gary Medel, and Miranda in front of Samir Handanovic. Antonio Candreva and Danilo D’Ambrosio were the fullbacks with Roberto Gagliardini and Geoffrey Kondogbia sandwiched between them in midfield. Up front Rodrigo Palacio was supported by Eder and Joao Mario.
It was clear from the beginning that the Inter players were focused and hungry for a win. In the 10th minute Joao Mario sent in a free kick and Palacio leaped for a powerful header but somehow Lukasz Skorupski was able to make the save. Inter were not to be denied though and 4 minutes later the home side took the lead. Eder switched the play to Candreva and the winger sent in a deflected cross that Palacio was able to get a backwards flicked header on at the near post for Eder at the far post to chest in from point blank range. Handanovic was forced into action for the first time in the 25th minute when Omar El Kaddouri sent in a low cross/shot that the keeper had to punch clear. Inter had a penalty appeal when Assane Dioussé pushed Eder over in the box but the attacker made the most out of the shove and I think the referee made the right call in not pointing to the spot. In the 32nd minute Skorupski came up big again after Palacio let a D’Ambrosio cutback roll through his legs to allow Gagliardini the shot in the center of the box but again the keeper was able to make a great stop. The only other event of note in the first half was Kondogbia picking up a yellow card in stoppage time. This was his 5th of the campaign which means he’ll miss the trip to Bologna through suspension.
Watching Inter’s performance in the first half was great stuff. Kondogbia and Gagliardini seemed to be everywhere tackling, pressing, and passing. Both of the midfielders were passing the ball intelligently and Pioli had clearly instructed his men to look to switch the play across the field quickly, a tactic that worked out well especially to set up the first goal. For all the criticism I have given him Palacio was tracking back and defending, making smart runs out wide, linking up with his teammates in attack and creating dangerous opportunities. When the Argentine made his trademark wide runs Eder or Joao Mario would occupy the space Palacio left in the center of the attack, making sure there was always an option for the cross. Speaking of crosses, Candreva finally seems to understand that he has a left foot that can send in decent crosses from time to time, and his versatility is making him much more unpredictable.
Pioli made a change at the break, replacing D’Ambrosio with Cristian Ansaldi. Once again Inter started the half looking for a goal and the first chance of the second half fell to the same man the last change of the first half was presented to: Gagliardini. Eder found space in the box in the 51st minute and cut the ball back but the Italian midfielder was only able to get a toe poke to it and sent it high over the bar. Two minutes later the visitors had a good opportunity to level up the match. There was some quick interplay between Rade Krunic and Manuel Pucciarelli that resulted in Krunic being 1 on 1 against Handanovic but the Inter keeper was able to deny Bosnian with his knee. A minute later the home side doubled their advantage. Eder sent in a wonderful outside of the boot cross and when Inter loanee Federico Dimarco wasn’t able to get a header on the ball Candreva was at the far post to volley into the back of the net.
At this point the game was more or less finished. Inter had long spells of possession, passing the ball between themselves always finding an open man to the applause of the watching fans. The applause turned into a standing ovation and cries of joy when Pioli made his second switch of the game, sending on Gabriel Barbosa for Palacio. The eldest Nerazzurri attacker deserved his ovation for an impressive performance that justified his spot in the starting lineup, while the crowd was more than eager to see the young Brazilian get some more minutes in front of his fans. They had a bit of a fright in the 77th minute when Daniele Croce snapped off a volley seemingly out of nothing, but Handanovic was equal to the effort. 3 minutes later Pioli made his last switch in replacing Eder with Andrea Pinamonti. Play was pretty broken up at this point with Inter not really stringing together long spells of passing and possession like they had before and Empoli not really able to keep the ball long enough to threaten the home side either. The last events of the game saw Skorupski deny Gagliardini, Miranda, and Pinamonti before the final whistle was blown and Inter walked away with all 3 points.
Even without Icardi, Perisic, and Brozovic Inter were able to put in one of their best displays of the season. The passing was crisp, the pressing was smart, and everybody knew their roles and played them well. I honestly can’t pick out one Inter player who had a bad performance. Gabriel Barbosa was much more disciplined when he came on and he linked up well with Joao Mario plus he made a few smart runs. Pinamonti was quite composed when he was on the ball. The young striker made intelligent passes and never tried to force a shot but just kept things simple. Looking at Kondogbia now, I can’t believe a few months ago he was so confused and out of form. The midfielder is in the form of his Inter career playing under Stefano Pioli and the double pivot of him and Gagliardini has been truly inspired, a partnership that could be cultivated for years to come at Inter. The only think that could be seen as a negative in this game was the finishing, especially from Gagliardini. Inter had 19 shots but only 8 were on target, and if Gagliardini is going to keep making these runs and finding himself in the box he needs to work on his finishing. If he can start putting the ball in the back of the net, he could become Inter’s perfect box to box midfielder.
Up next Inter takes on Bologna on the 19th.