Antonio Conte kept the lineup almost identical to the one that beat Cagliari 3-1 and the sole changes were Ashley Young and Roberto Gagliardini instead of Ivan Perisic and Christian Eriksen, respectively. It was a more defensive outlook from Inter, with players like Eriksen, Hakimi, and Perisic all beginning on the bench. Napoli, meanwhile, dealt with the continued absence of Victor Osimhen by slotting Dries Mertens at striker, flanked by Lorenzo Insigne and Hirving Lozano.
The best chance of the half came in the 7th minute. Napoli tried playing out of the back, but it lead to disaster and Lautaro picked up a loose ball at the penalty spot. The Argentine’s low effort drilled narrowly wide.
Neither side got into its first, or even second, gear as the half wore on and it was no surprise to see the scoreline filled with zeros at the interval. Inter had the only shot on target of the half but Napoli outshot the Nerazzurri 8-2 and had 60% possession. Cagey is a bit of an understatement. Neither side fully exerted itself and instead looked more interested in avoiding a loss than winning.
The second half was more of the same. There were no breakthroughs at either end, though Napoli’s best chance of the game so far came in the 68th minute. Samir Handanovic, however, came up huge on Insigne with a fantastic reflex save.
Handanovic MOTM today— Uncle Sharma (@RSharmzz) December 16, 2020
This save on Insigne was so good! pic.twitter.com/1TjkpurZvU
That save proved even more important thanks to events two minutes later. Darmian received a ball in behind Napoli’’s backline, only to have his feet taken out by an out-of-control David Ospina. Things got even worse for Napoli when Insigne’s reactionary protests warranted him a straight red. Lukaku made no mistake from the spot and with Inter’s sole shot on target of the second period, brought himself level with Zlatan and Ronaldo on 10 goals for the Capocannoniere.
ROMELU LUKAKU 10 goals in Serie A for the season, and it's 1-0 to Inter! pic.twitter.com/H9lEkPPS7s— Condotti SMILEY (@Smiley_1932) December 16, 2020
Even down a man, Napoli took control of the game and went on the offensive. A mid-air Matteo Politano blast from the top of the box was pawed away by Handanovic before the Slovenian was forced into a kick-save on Lozano from inside the six-year-box. Andrea Petagna then sent a half-volley pinging off the outside of the post, but Inter did enough to hold on to the three points.
Inter has played some beautiful football this season, but that couldn't have been farther from the case Wednesday. With just 40% of the ball and 5 shots compared to Napoli’s 18 (yes, really!), the Nerazzurri were far from their best. There was little spark in midfield and Napoli was able to control the center of the pitch. Gennaro Gattuso’s trio of Demm, Bakayoko, and Zielinksi combined for 166 touches and 134 accurate passes compared to Inter’s midfield total of 147 touches and 86 accurate passes. But the Partenopei couldn’t convert that to quality chances throughout much of the game. While 47% of the match action took place in midfield, Inter and Napoli both spent almost identical time in the other’s defensive third (25% to 28%, respectively). The Azzurri were of course much more dangerous, as evidenced by its expected goals on 3.26xg versus Inter’s 1.32xg. Thanks to luck and some excellent Handanovic saves, Inter walked away with three points. I’d be lying if I said this one didn’t feel especially nice after all those points dropped in autumn thanks to unlucky finishing.
Handanovic - 8 (Man of the Match): This season hasn’t been the 36-year-old’s best, but yesterday we saw the form that earned him a Goalkeeper of the Year award in 18/19. Though Napoli had just three shots on target, each one posed big questions to the veteran shot-stopper, and he came up with the answers each time.
Bastoni - 7: Like many Inter players, the condolences schedule and six straight starts seem to be taking their toll on Bastoni. That didn’t stop him from putting in a complete performance against a daunting Napoli attack where he registered 97% of his passes, made 7 of 8 long balls, and won 3/5 duels.
de Vrij - 7: The Dutchmen also put in a solid shift on the San Siro pitch. He completed 71 of 73 passes, made two clearances, and blocked three shots. When he, Bastoni, and Skriniar all play together, Inter has conceded seven in eight games. The importance of that back three can’t be overstated.
Skriniar - 7: Skriniar was superb on the ball, leading Inter in touches (84) and successful passes (73). He was a bit shaky at the other end, winning just 2/7 duels and conceding several unnecessary fouls late on.
Young - 6: Started as a more defensive choice to protect against the threat posed by Lozano down the flank, Young had a non-descript game. He ended with 19 of his 26 passes finding their destination, though few came in the final third. Lozano, though, didn’t manage to end up on the scoresheet while Young was on the pitch.
Gagliardini - 6: The Italian put in a hefty workload off the ball, making 3 interceptions and 2 tackles. He didn’t offer much else, though, with the third-least touches of an outfielder and a mere 15 of 23 passes finding their mark.
Brozovic - 6.5: The Croatian exited with an injury on 67 minutes after a quiet but respectable showing. He made 89% of 53 passes, 2 interceptions, 2 blocks, but won just 2 of 6 duels.
Barella - 7: Barella once again took a beating on the pitch, dealing with both an ugly ankle roll and a crunching challenge on the other ankle in the first half. But he showed off an impressive pain tolerance, playing 3 key passes and being a constant presence in the middle of the park. Even so, the 23-year-old looks in desperate need of a rest.
Darmian - 7: Darmian continues to look like a sneaky pickup. He did excellently to find himself in a location to draw the penalty, while also completing all but 1 of 31 passes. He made his name known in defense as well, with 4 clearances and 3 interceptions.
Lautaro - 6: The Argentine drifted in and out of the game, albeit more often out. His 18 touches were the least of any starter and he had just two in the box. It’s hard to put too much blame on his shoulders, though, as service rarely came his way.
Lukaku - 7: Lukaku’s situation was quite similar to Lautaro’s, with the only exception being the Belgian is Inter’s primary penalty taker. With just 27 touches and 63% successful passes, he was largely marked out of the game by Koulibaly and Manolas. But what’s important is that Lukaku kept his cool in the big moment and calmly converted the game-winner.
Sensi/Hakimi/D’Ambrosio - NA
Conte - 7: The defensive starting eleven made sense, especially as players are beginning to look worn out from this hectic schedule. The midfield suffered the most, but Conte had few other options with Vidal and Sanchez still injured, while Sensi isn’t yet 100%. The Nerazzurri did seem to become more defensive (perhaps too defensive) after taking the lead, and taking off Lautaro for Hakimi seemed to invite more Napoli pressure. Those subs are understandable as well, and sending a clearly tiring Inter into parking the bus ended up paying off.
Other results conspired in the Nerazzurri’s favor, so Inter is now just one point short of Milan and with a three-point lead over Juventus in second. Conte’s side have two more matches before the winter break (which lasts a whole eleven days by the way), home to Spezia and away to giant-killer Hellas Verona. With most other teams in the top half facing head-to-head clashes in the next, there’s an opportunity for Inter to put some distance between it and the pack.