Inter Milan’s first match against Spezia since August of 1989 ended in a sixth consecutive Serie A win for Antonio Conte’s Nerazzurri. Sunday’s win came on short rest after last Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Napoli and featured a second successive penalty goal for Romelu Lukaku, which was preceded by a marvelous goal from Achraf Hakimi. Inter’s start to the match may have been slow, but a solid second half proved to be enough for the home team to take all three points against a surprisingly respectable Spezia team.
Despite the quick turnaround from Wednesday, Antonio Conte opted to make only one change to the team that defeated Napoli. Matteo Darmian dropped down to the bench to make room for Hakimi on the right flank. Arturo Vidal and Stefano Sensi have made strides towards being fit from the first minute, but the midfield trio of Roberto Gagliardini, Marcelo Brozovic, and Nicolo Barella made a second consecutive start.
With an eye on their possible relegation six pointer against Genoa on Wednesday, Spezia manager Vincenzo Italiano rotated much of his squad from their 2-2 draw with Bologna. Of that eleven against Bologna, only goalkeeper Ivan Provedel, winger Emmanuel Gyasi, and striker M’Bala Nzola remained to face Inter. Among those dropped was Inter loanee Lucien Agoume, who has had a very turbulent spell with the newly promoted club.
INTER (3-5-2): Handanovic; Skriniar, de Vrij, A. Bastoni; Hakimi, Barella, Brozovic, Gagliardini, Young; Lukaku, Lautaro
SPEZIA (4-3-3): Provedel; Vignali, Terzi, Mora, S. Bastoni; Acampora, Ricci, Deiola; Gyasi, Nzola, Ismajli
Inter started the match sluggishly, spending most of the first half without the ball and struggling to put together waves of sustained pressure to test the Spezia defense when they did have it. The home team did manage to produce a fine chance from a wonderful Ashley Young dribble past two defenders that forced a save from Provedel. Another half chance came from a free kick that found the head of Lautaro Martinez, but his effort flew well over the bar.
Spezia enjoyed the majority of possession throughout the match, with Inter sitting back. This was mostly a tactical choice by Antonio Conte, as Spezia have demonstrated that they are a team that likes to hold onto the ball this season. It also mitigated much of the risk of being hit on the counter for Inter. While it may not have been pretty, it proved to be effective. For all of their possession, Spezia did not manage a shot on target in the first half. Inter’s midfield and defense successfully stifled any kind of final ball from the visitors, leaving club’s top scorer Nzola lacking crucial service from teammates.
In a rare halftime substitution, Conte took off Robert Gagliardini in favor of the more creative Stefano Sensi. The change resulted in the long-absent midfielder making a positive difference for a second consecutive game as a substitute in his gradual reintroduction to the squad. His vertical running and passing makes a huge difference to the Inter attack. However, it was Ashley Young, Romelu Lukaku, and Lautaro linking up six minutes into the second half to play Hakimi into space on the right wing for a blistering counterattack that ended with the Moroccan blowing past backtracking Spezia midfielder Luca Mora and slotting the ball past Provedel to break the deadlock.
Inter’s second goal came 20 minutes later, after a slight scare on a Spezia corner that Nzola headed over Samir Handanovic’s bar. A short series of triangular passes between Nicolo Barella, Hakimi, and Sensi to the right of Speia’s penalty area found the halftime substitute in space to cross. The subsequent cross struck the outstretched arm of Nzola for a handball, which was given as a penalty by referee Michael Fabbri after a VAR review. The penalty was calmly dispatched of by Lukaku, who has become quite the penalty taker since joining Inter.
At 2-0, the match seemed dusted and it looked like Inter would hold a second consecutive clean sheet. However, a switch-off at the back from the Inter defense allowed a slow rolling cross into the Inter box by Simone Bastoni (no relation to Inter’s Alessandro) to roll across the face of goal, which was lashed in from close range by substitute Roberto Piccoli for 2-1. The late goal had no effect on the result, but did dampen the mood around the victory slightly.
Handanovic - 5.5: One shot on goal, one goal. It is a concerning pattern that we have seen all season. While it did not cost the team, it is a sign that there is still something to work on between the defense and goalkeeper, who all have to hold some blame.
Skriniar - 6.5: The organization showed by the back three would have been worthy of an extra half point had the late goal not come. However, it is still better to have Skriniar at right center back than some of the alternatives we have seen.
de Vrij - 6.5: He directed traffic well in the middle of the back three as usual. Also distributed the ball well. Shame the late goal squandered the clean sheet.
Bastoni - 6: Lost a few duels, but distributed the ball well as per usual. Pretty quiet match individually, but still a decent performance.
Hakimi - 7 (MOTM tie): Great goal, also seems to be improving defensively. If his teammates cam continue to find him with space to run into on the attack, he can surely break some scoring and assist records for Inter defenders.
Barella - 6: Typical hardworking performance from him. Cutting out opposition passing lanes and moving the ball well. Still scary every time he goes down holding that right ankle.
Brozovic - 5.5: Quiet match for Brozo. Looked a bit sluggish in defense and attack. Getting a fresher body in Vidal on for him in the second half was a smart move.
Gagliardini - 6: While he usually enjoys his matches against weaker opposition, it was not his match. Looked to be chasing shadows before coming off at halftime. A couple of interceptions did make his performance look a bit better in his 45 minutes.
Young - 6.5: Perhaps his best match so far this season. He looked confident in attack and almost scored a worldie at the end of that dribble past two Spezia defenders. He also started the counter that led to Hakimi’s goal.
Lukaku - 6.5: Spezia’s defense did well to neutralize Inter’s main man for large stretches of the match. However, his touch to get the ball to Lautaro on Hakimi’s goal was class. His penalty was also class. Even in quiet matches, the best players find ways to affect the match.
Lautaro - 6.5: The goal still eludes the Argentine, but his assist was very clever for Hakimi. Hopefully he can find the goal soon.
Sensi - 7 (MOTM tie): His substitution at the half made a huge difference. While he has not achieved peak fitness yet, he has helped in winning important penalties in two consecutive matches. He looks to be on the road back to his best, meaning the goals and assists should not be too far off.
Vidal - 6: Also on the mend from an injury, he slotted well into the defensive midfield role in the place of Brozovic. He brings a different profile to the role, but he did it well in his own style.
Perisic, Darmian, D’Ambrosio - N/A
Conte - 6.5: Hard to complain about eight unbeaten matches and six consecutive wins, in Serie A of course. He set the team up and let them go, even though they played in a lower gear for much of the match. Sitting deep neutralized Spezia well and subbing on Sensi at halftime was proactive.
The final fixture of 2020 will be on Wednesday against Verona. Hopefully the boys can see out the year in style!