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Inter Milan dispatch of lowly Empoli, 1-0

Keita Balde scores late for Nerazzurri win.

Empoli v FC Internazionale - Serie A
Miha Zajc of Empoli FC battles for the ball with Joao Mario of FC Internazionale during the Serie A match between Empoli and FC Internazionale at Stadio Carlo Castellani on December 29, 2018 in Empoli, Italy.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

It wasn’t the strongest of deliveries but Inter Milan will take it as Monaco loanee Keita Balde continued to make a case for the squad to purchase him at year’s end with a goal in the 72nd minute to lift Inter to a 1-0 win at Empoli Saturday.

The win kept the Nerazzurri in third place in Serie A, five points back of second-place Napoli. Coupled with Lazio’s 1-1 draw with Torino, Inter moved seven points clear of the capital club.

“These are games where you can easily slip up if you don’t have the right mentality,” said Inter manager Luciano Spalletti, in his post-match news conference.

It was Inter’s third 1-0 win in their last four Serie A matches and it moved Empoli down to 17th place — just a point out of the relegation zone.

Inter sputtered in the first half, despite controlling possession for most of the first 45 minutes. The Nerazzurri didn’t get their first quality shot on goal until Matteo Politano tried a shot in the 28th minute that was saved by Empoli goalkeeper Ivan Provedel.

Midfielder Joao Mario had a shot blocked away eight minutes later and that was the extent of the Inter offense in the first half.

Empoli, on the other hand, a couple of shots — from Hamed Junior Traore and Miha Zajc — pushed aside in the half.

The Nerazzurri came out a bit stronger in the second half, but it was Zajc who had the first real chance at goal in the 46th minute. Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic was on the spot and was able to clear out the danger.

Midfielder Radja Nainggolan made his first appearance on the pitch since being suspended by the team earlier in the week for disciplinary reasons. He came on for Matias Vecino in the 57th minute.

He immediately made an impact as he found Balde in the area for a shot in the 58th minute that was blocked away.

“I put him on because we were lacking bursts of energy – he has the the right qualities to get on top of his opponents and win lost balls,” Spalletti said. “I thought he’d be able to help me out, and he did just that.”

Handanovic was called back into action in the 66th minute when Zajc tried a right-footed shot that was saved from the top left corner of the goal.

Lautaro Martinez, who scored the late winner midweek against Napoli, came on for Borja Valero in the 67th minute and had a shot saved in the 71st.

A minute later, Balde received a pass from Sime Vrsaljko just left of the goal and put in an effort that appeared to be easy to clear by Provedel, but the save was weak and the attempt found the back of the net to put Inter up 1-0.

Keita is an absolutely fantastic guy, he’s always lively and likes to have fun with his teammates. We have some great individuals in our squad, meaning we’re a very strong team,” Spalletti said. “Unfortunately, our strikers can’t all play at the same time. We have to alternate between them and get the best out of them, like we’ve done in the last two games with Keita and Lautaro.”

Inter continued to take shots at goal with Balde, Politano, Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi each taking attempts in a span of six minutes, but none were successful.

Inter closed the match with 10 shots — five of which were on target. They controlled 63 percent of the possession for the match.

Now, the Nerazzurri will take two weeks off before returning to action in the Coppa Italia where they will take on Benevento on Jan. 13.

“We have to do well in the league, and the Coppa Italia and Europa League are also set to begin. We have to work hard in order win trophies,” Spalletti said. “We’re in contention to win two competitions, and if we want to win we have to improve: we were caught out on the break at times today after losing the ball too easily, while we also weren’t able to finish off the match despite having a number of chances.”

Inter get back to Serie A play on Jan. 19 when they host Sassuolo.

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