Antonio Conte made numerous changes from midweek as fixture congestion starts to pile up. The 3-5-2 formation remained of course, but Ivan Perisic, Christian Eriksen, Matteo Darmian, and Alexis Sanchez were introduced to the XI. Arturo Vidal wasn’t fit enough for even the bench, but the rest of the changes were merely to keep fresh legs on the pitch.
Cagliari, meanwhile, lined up in Eusebio Di Francesco’s customary 4-2-3-1. Diego Godin was out with COVID-19, while Giovanni Simeone and Nahitan Nandez were fit enough for a substitute role.
The Nerazzurri didn’t take long to start testing the Cagliari goal, looking dangerous every time it went forward in the early stages. In the 10th minute, a splitting pass from Eriksen at the top of the box found a wide-open Lukaku inside the penalty area. The Belgian’s low drive was saved by Alessio Cragno, before Eriksen’s rebound was blocked. Crango was a busy man, saving another Lukaku shot from the corner of the six-yard box, while he was forced into a kick-save to keep a Sanchez header from close range out of the net.
Inter continued to see the majority of possession as the half wore on, but less and less of it came in the final third. Inter still seemed to be in control, but Cagliari had other ideas and found the opener against the run of play in the 42nd minute. A loose ball went looping up into the air in the box before Riccardo Sottil struck it on an exquisite volley, sending the ball past a frozen Handanovic and into the far post. The hosts came close to doubling its lead moments later when a sliding Leonardo Pavoletti sent a cross wide from point-blank range.
The goal was Cagliari’s first shot on target, compared to six from Inter. Cragno, though, somehow kept everything out. Along with shot attempts, Inter dominated possession as well, with 59% of the ball. Once again, though, Inter couldn’t capitalize off what it earned and was made to pay.
The Nerazzurri struggled in the second half. Cragno’s workload was significantly decreased as Inter looked out of ideas in attack, showing little urgency in the search for an equalizer. The visitors couldn’t put Cagliari’s backline under constant pressure so the Sardinians bent, but not broke. That is, until the 77th minute. A superb Barella volley finally beat Cragno and the game was on.
After getting the leveler, Inter threw everything forward to complete the comeback. It didn’t have to wait long to find a second. The master of back-post runs, the one and only Danilo D’Ambrosio, headed home a Barella corner for 2-1 in the 84th minute.
Cagliari 1-2 Inter (D'Ambrosio) pic.twitter.com/gD7zOYIx8i— InterVids (@VidsInter) December 13, 2020
It was Cagliari’s turn to chase a goal next, but Inter held on and eventually added a third late into stoppages. Cragno went up for a corner but was caught out, and Lukaku made sure to take advantage. Unsurprisingly, the chance was worth an expected goals of 0.98.
*Exhales again because once was definitely not enough*
Inter again made things a lot more difficult than they needed to, but once more, Conte’s side persevered and still came away with the three points. The Nerazzurri have won 10 points from losing positions so far, the most of any team in Serie A. The likes of Fiorentina, Parma, Torino, and now Cagliari have all seen leads against Inter crumble into nothing by the time the final whistle blows.
The match heatmap:
Inter had to wait to get on the scoresheet but it no doubt deserved to, spending 72% of the game in the middle and final thirds as it pressed for a goal. The Nerazzurri had 58% of the ball and outshot Cagliari 21 to 11. Inter, though, put 11 shots on target compared to the hosts’ 3. If not for Cragno’s ultimately futile heroics, Inter could have been up by 3 within 20 minutes. The Milan club got some luck of its own, though, as Cagliari had two clear chances that went begging, Pavoletti’s effort late in the first half and a Joao Pedro miss in the second period. In fact, Inter’s expected goals was barely any more than Cagliari’s (1.77 to 1.60) at least until Lukaku’s stoppage-time goal.
Still, three points in games like this are what can make or break a season. Though we would rather not see Inter trail for so long, the fact that there is another gear for Inter to turn on even when its’ played so many games in such a short time and everyone isn’t at their best is a bright sign.
Handanovic - 6: It’s hard to blame the veteran net-minder for Cagliari’s goal but when you sat through a half of Cragno standing on his head, it is a little disappointing that Handanovic wasn’t able to do better. His distribution was spotless, though, as the 36-year-old completed all but 1 of 24 passes.
Bastoni - 6.5: Bastoni put in a solid if unassuming performance. He came close to an early goal when he volleyed a corner over the bar but had just two of his characteristic long balls the rest of the match. The back three has started every match since the Torino one, so perhaps some rotation is needed sooner rather than later.
de Vrij - 7: The Dutchman was a presence at the back, making 9 clearances and 2 interceptions.
Skriniar - 7: Another classy showing from the 25-year-old. He had 3 interceptions while also finishing second on Inter in both touches (92) and successful passes (74/79).
Perisic - 6: Perisic elected to play hide-and-seek Sunday, except he was doing most of the hiding. The Croatian made just 64% of 11 pass attempts, contributing very little on both sides of the ball.
Eriksen - 6.5: In a very rare start, Eriksen had a very eventful opening twenty minutes and came close to a goal and an assist when he combined with Lukaku in the 10th minute. He started to fade after that and was frustrated to be subbed off for Sensi. It feels as though Eriksen is one elite performance away from being in contention to start, but that game doesn’t look close to reality as the clock ticks down to the January transfer window.
Brozovic - 6.5: The Croatian led Inter in touches (95) and accurate passes (78), but lacked an edge on Sunday. He was able to win four duels but seemed to be more of a passenger.
Barella - 8 (Man of the Match): Barella was on fire against his old club and ignited the comeback. He registering a goal and an assist even as he took a beating on the pitch which included one rolled ankle, one cut to his face, and plenty more knocks. And yet, he kept going at 110%. Simply superb from the Italian, who’s been in excellent form this season.
Darmian - 6.5: The veteran had an active first half before disappearing in the second and getting subbed off. Darmian was busy on both sides of the ball, completing 3 accurate crosses, 23 of 27 passes, and winning 4 duels before his exit.
Lukaku - 7.5: Lukaku didn’t have the most impactful game, making just 75% of his passes and having several shots saved by Cragno. He got his goal anyway, though, bringing his league tally up to 9 in 10 games.
Sanchez - 6.5: The Chilean doesn’t seem to have the same connection with Lukaku as with Lautaro. There wasn’t much interplay between the two strikers, though Sanchez still had 3 key passes and 87% of his 39 passes found their target.
Hakimi - 6.5: The Moroccan lasted just 38 minutes thanks to injury (that fortunately doesn’t seem too serious) after coming on at halftime. He made an impact in his limited time, though, playing 2 key passes.
Young - 6: Young had just 21 touches but made an immediate impact to the left flank when he was brought on in place of a tiring Darmian. His first few touches were on a driving run that culminated in a shot that wasn’t too far off.
Sensi - 6.5: Sensi’s road to full fitness is a long and rocky one, but at least he seems to be progressing. The Italian was on the pitch for a whopping (by his standards) 32 minutes, completing all 21 passes. He came close to a goal as well when a long-range effort was deflected narrowly wide.
D’Ambrosio - 7: You’d be hard-pressed to find someone better at the art of back-post runs as D’Ambrosio. He’s come up big in two games (Fiorentina, Cagliari) to grab late goals when the opponent is sleeping on corners.
Now that European football is over for the year, it’s Serie A’s turn to play three games a week. Inter returns to Milan next for a marquee Wednesday evening clash with 3rd-place Napoli, which is just a point behind Inter. Inter then hosts Spezia for the first time ever in the top-flight on Sunday. With so many head-to-head meetings between top teams in the coming days, this week has huge ramifications for the Scudetto race.