Inter Milan certainly got the scoreline they would’ve desired ahead of their trip to Bulgaria.
In the end, a fine first goal for Christian Eriksen with twenty minutes remaining and a stoppage time Lukaku penalty gave Inter the victory. Had VAR not picked up on the late handball leading to Lukaku’s converted spot kick, however, it’s likely we’d be discussing how Inter didn’t show anywhere near enough of a cutting edge.
The lineup showed exactly what Conte was after from this game. He wanted not only to give Eriksen, Godin and Sanchez useful game time, but also to finish Ludogorets in one fell swoop with an undeniably strong team. After all, the last thing Inter would need is pressure ahead of the second leg in a competition of questionable significance given the recent turn for the worse in the Scudetto race.
The first half was woefully boring. While not necessarily dominating possession, Ludogorets were really minimised as an offensive threat. Biraghi probably showed the most desire to create; his work ethic stood out in this game and could’ve rewarded him with a goal when his low drive drew out a good save. Sanchez was the most intricate player, but had little to show for this come half time. Valero misplaced some passes that really shouldn’t trouble a player of his abilities, while Godin looked to venture forward in his return to the team. While it would be easy to criticise this display, the fact is that Inter never looked in much trouble at all.
The second half showed initial signs of repeating the dullness of the first. Biraghi and Moses both looked to stretch the play but few chances came from their efforts. Eriksen too couldn’t quite provide the ideal final ball into the box.
Before his night ended early, Lautaro Martinez provided his smartest moment of the night when his backheel in the box found Sanchez in space, who couldn’t quite shift the ball into a shooting position quick enough. Martinez was subbed just after the hour mark; you get the feeling this was always the plan regardless of the scoreline given the importance of Sunday’s fixture against Sampdoria.
In his place came Lukaku. The game changed instantly.
Lukaku, as we’ve come to realise from his time so far in Milan, is a versatile player. His hold-up play and superb short-passing abilities are matched only by the threat he poses when running in space through the heart of opposition defences. We’ve also seen his positional intelligence when drifting out to the right on occasion and pulling teams apart with his presence alone.
The thirty minutes that Lukaku enjoyed tonight is one of the finest examples of his tendency to create. Less than ten minutes after coming on, Lukaku found himself with the ball at his feet, facing away from goal just inside the Ludogorets box. After shrugging off his man, Lukaku teed up Eriksen whose low curling shot brushed the hand of keeper Iliev on its way into the far corner.
A lazy, stereotypical way of describing Lukaku’s role here would focus on sheer strength and power alone. Instead, go and watch how closely he keeps the ball to his feet, and the weight of the touch to Eriksen.
Immediately after taking the lead, Conte shook things up again by switching Moses for Barella. With this came a rare change in the defensive formation, forming a four-man defence in place of the signature three. This was yet another successful tactical change on Conte’s part. Moses and Biraghi had both put in praiseworthy efforts, but it was through the middle with Lukaku where the game was there for the taking now. Eriksen’s rattling of the crossbar shortly afterwards following smart build-up play exemplified this.
Sanchez and Lukaku showed promise as an attacking pair in these final stages of the game. Sanchez again probably could’ve finished the game on the scoresheet despite not really enjoying any clear-cut goal scoring chances. Lukaku, on the other hand, made a strong case for man-of-the-match despite only being on the pitch for less than a third of the game.
Late on in the game, D’Ambrosio was inches away from connecting with a looped cross that surely would have resulted in a second goal. Inter’s late second would indeed come from a cross, but not directly.
A stoppage-time corner went through the two sets of players before going out for a goal kick, despite some appeals for another corner. At this point, nobody thought anything of the incident and it looked as though the Nerazzurri would be taking only a narrow advantage back to Milan.
Even as the referee headed over to the pitchside VAR monitor, the commentators seemed perplexed as to what was being replayed. It didn’t take long for the official to make up his mind; handball by Ludogorets at the corner, penalty given. A reasonable decision, but probably one that would have stirred debates at a more crucial moment. Lukaku topped off his superb substitute appearance by calming slotting the ball in. 2-0 Inter, mission accomplished.
Let’s face it; this wasn’t a good game. Inter were lackluster in the first half particularly, but were made to look more comfortable by a poor Ludogorets who didn’t manage a shot on target in 90 minutes. Padelli will be grateful for a clean sheet, despite not really doing anything himself to bring this about. If Borja Valero was looking to bring his name back into contention for league appearances, he didn’t do much to achieve this end. While not necessarily a bad game for him, it’s clear that Brozovic and Sensi won’t feel threatened by his performance, especially in the first half.
In a more pragmatic, cynical sense, maybe this game couldn’t have gone better for Inter. No injuries, no need to really up the tempo and run players into the ground, yet a two-goal cushion leading into the home leg. Yet it’s difficult to look past that first half, especially when so much has been made of Inter’s squad depth coming out of the January window. Certain players really didn’t impose themselves at all in this game against a team that, with all due respect, were more than one level below. Wing backs are the exception here. Biraghi and Moses were both praiseworthy while D’Ambrosio once again proved his vital versatility at both centre-half and full back.
This is a result worth taking the positive that are available and swiftly moving on. Any lack of ruthlessness will surely not be repeated in the much more important league campaign, while Brozovic and Co. will greatly improve the midfield come Sunday.
We move forward.