After last weekend's routine home victory over Empoli, Inter had another must-win match in front of them on Sunday afternoon as they headed to the Renato Dall'Ara to take on Bologna. Given the positive performance his players had produced at San Siro seven days ago, despite a couple of important absentees, Stefano Pioli made just a single change to his starting XI as one man returning from suspension in Ivan Perisic replaced another man now serving his, or rather Geoffrey Kondogbia, with the team lining up in what looked like a 3-4-2-1 system. Joao Mario moved back into central midfield to play alongside Roberto Gagliardini while Eder got a second consecutive start up front behind Rodrigo Palacio, whose experience once again saw him preferred to Gabriel Barbosa in the absence of birthday boy Mauro Icardi. Bologna were without either of their first-choice centre-backs for this match as well as talisman and former Inter Primavera star Mattia Destro, but after three damaging and infuriating defeats in their last three games Roberto Donadoni's side had all the motivation they could need to put on a good showing, so there would be no excuse for underestimating our ostensibly modest opponents.
After a brief delay that was caused by some problems to Bologna keeper Angelo Da Costa's net, the game began at around 12:35 CET. Fortunately for the home side though, that was practically the last time their goal would be caught on camera for the next hour as a truly terrible first half ensued, in which Inter got almost everything wrong and gave us yet another reason to despise those neon 7-Up-style shirts. Pioli had made it clear in his press conference on Friday that we would need to approach this game with absolute concentration and play very precisely from a technical point of view, but his players must have been otherwise engaged when he was speaking to the media and thus put in one of the worst first-half displays we've seen all season, enabling Bologna to be as dangerous in front of goal as we were. Our tempo was slow, our passing was predictable and our individual talents were all unwilling to take responsibility and make up for our collective deficiencies (except Joao Mario), which made for a tremendously boring lunchtime spectacle beneath the afternoon sun.
Having said that, Inter could well have headed back into the dressing room in the lead had Palacio not wasted two very good chances early on. On both occasions it had looked easier for the Trenza to score, served first by Perisic and then by Antonio Candreva on the other side, but on both occasions he fluffed his lines and set the mood for the rest of the half, from which it was nigh-on impossible to extract any positives. It would be wrong to pin everything on Palacio being Palacio though, as the malaise ran through the entire team, with only Gagliardini able to draw a save out of Da Costa before the half drew to a close. Much more was therefore to be required in the second 45 if we wished to regain fourth place in the Serie A table, with the home team having shot on goal just as frequently as us (if not more).
Thankfully, at the beginning of the second half Inter did seem to have upped the anti and started creating a little more, but the all-important goal simply refused to arrive. Perisic had a good early chance as he failed to beat Da Costa from an inviting position, but we hadn't improved enough for Pioli's liking and so he quickly made his first change by replacing Murillo with Cristian Ansaldi. 3-4-2-1 became 4-2-3-1 and it succeeded in marginally increasing our attacking threat, but still we couldn't break through as Eder scuffed his shot from a great position and Perisic's missile flew just wide of the post. Things quite simply were not going well, and then with 25 minutes to go they got even worse as Miranda picked up the yellow card that will cause him to miss Inter-Roma next Sunday through suspension. A bad day was threatening to become a downright terrible one, and there was even the risk Bologna could nick all three points as they grew in confidence.
With 15 minutes to go the game was still drifting towards a frustrating goalless draw, which would have done us absolutely no good whatsoever, but it was at that moment that Pioli made two decisive substitutions and changed the course of the match. Palacio and Candreva, guilty of two highly insufficient performances, were belatedly removed and an opportunity was awarded to both Ever Banega and Gabriel Barbosa, as Bologna continued to give us the occasional scare with their speedy wingers on the counter-attack. Given how badly we were playing it was strange that those substitutions were not made slightly earlier, but soon enough everyone had forgotten about that, because after 80 minutes of torture it was time for the moment every Interista had been waiting for and dreaming about since the end of August.
As the clock reached the 81st minute, Banega picked up the ball on the edge of the Bologna penalty area and wriggled free of two opponents before getting his head up. D'Ambrosio made a clever run in behind his direct rival and received a perfectly-weighted pass, he squared the ball across the box and arriving at the far post was none other than Gabriel Barbosa, who couldn't miss from point-blank range and tapped Inter into the lead. After months of mysterious sufferance, during which time he had become the butt of practically everyone's jokes, our €30m man at last had something to smile about, and unsurprisingly he made the most of his moment by removing that ghastly third shirt and running over to celebrate with the away fans. Just like Ronaldo twenty years ago, his first goal for Inter had arrived in an away match against Bologna, and what an important goal it was both for him and for his team.
Despite having offered precious little throughout the match, Inter were able to protect their scarcely merited advantage reasonably comfortably during the last 10 minutes of normal time, before a big scare came along with practically the last kick of the match. Vasilis Torosidis escaped his marker at the far post and tried to slip the ball past Samir Handanovic at his near post, but Batman was not caught out and denied the Greek defender with yet another decisive intervention of his. Seconds later, Paolo Mazzoleni's whistle had blown and Pioli's boys were able to celebrate a very stodgy 1-0 victory.
This was by no means a performance that will live long in the memory; in fact, one could argue that this was our worst performance since Pioli arrived at the club, with both players and to some extent coach not performing to the high standards we have become accustomed to in recent weeks. But the important thing was to win, and win we did, making it 9 league victories out of 10 (along with 7 clean sheets) and re-overtaking Atalanta and Lazio following their victories on Saturday evening. This was a clear backwards step in terms of the quality of our football - at times it felt like we were watching Walter Mazzarri's Inter again, or perhaps Mancini's team that collected a series of unconvincing 1-0 wins in the first half of last season - but once again we managed to get the result with a goal right at the end, which has become a very welcome trademark of ours in recent weeks. The fact that Gabriel's tap-in was our 13th goal scored in the final 15 minutes of matches this season tells you that mentally we are becoming ever stronger, with the team refusing to accept defeat and even a draw regardless of how well they have played. And that is important, because we have not had resilience like that for a very long time. Perhaps a few months ago we would have struggled to pick up points without Icardi up front, but we've managed to win both of the games he was suspended for and that is also a good sign.
It goes without saying that we will have to improve if we wish to beat Roma next weekend - a game we will have to play definitely without Miranda, and possibly without Murillo too after he sustained a thigh problem that forced him to limp off the pitch early in the second half. But let's just be pleased that Sunday's supersfida will actually have meaning for us, because without the three points today it would have lost a lot of its significance in our desperate quest to make up ground in the Champions League race. As a wise man once said, a win is a win is a win, and today Inter got the win.
AND GABIGOL SCORED!