Playing in the Sunday night slot sometimes offers golden opportunities. For Inter Milan, their Valentine’s Day match against Lazio quickly turned into a date with destiny after both Juventus and AC Milan suffered defeats on Saturday. With the opportunity to climb to the top of the Serie A table and put more distance between them and Juventus, Antonio Conte’s men rose to the occasion, spurred on by a timely return to form for Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez.
Only one alteration was made to Inter’s starting lineup after the midweek draw with Juventus in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. Ivan Perisic made a return on the left side of the midfield five while Christian Eriksen did enough in recent weeks to earn a start in a big match over Roberto Gagliardini and Arturo Vidal, who is still sidelined with an injury.
Simone Inzaghi, like Conte, rarely deviates from his preferred 3-5-2 system. Lazio lined up with their 3-5-2, but were dealt a blow in the warmup as anticipated starter Stefan Radu picked up an injury and had to be replaced by Wesley Hoedt at the center of Inzaghi’s back three. In what seems to have been a tactical move, Francesco Acerbi moved to the left side of the back three to help deal with the threat offered by Achraf Hakimi. The rest of the Lazio team remained pretty similar to what they have put out all season, especially on their recent run of hot form.
INTER (3-5-2): Handanovic; Skriniar, de Vrij, Bastoni; Hakimi, Barella, Brozovic, Eriksen, Perisic; Lukaku, Lautaro.
LAZIO (3-5-2): Reina; Patric, Acerbi, Hoedt; Lazzari, Milinkovic-Savic, Leiva, Luis Alberto, Marusic; Correa, Immobile.
From the outset, Inter made it clear that the plan was to afford Lazio the majority of possession and hit them on the counter as Acerbi pushed up on the left in a role similar to that of Inter’s Alessandro Bastoni. The opening 20 minutes very much ebbed between sustained Lazio pressure, Inter counter-attacks and short periods of possession, and very stretched attacks for both teams. In one of Inter’s brief spells of possession, a great passage of play between Eriksen, Lukaku, and Lautaro put Inter’s number 10 in on goal with only Hoedt close to him. The trailing defender attempted a last-ditch tackle, but caught Lautaro with his trailing leg for a penalty to Inter. Lukaku continued his run of 13 consecutive penalty kicks scored by converting the Lautaro penalty, giving Inter an early lead.
After the goal, Lazio once again took over the possession game. The visitors put together numerous chances in Inter’s final third, one of which almost played in Luis Alberto, but a strong foot from Milan Skriniar picked the ball off of the midfielder’s foot in a very impressive tackle. Samir Hnadanovic also looked locked in from the beginning on his 500th career Serie A appearance, making a couple of saves and coming off his line to prevent a Lazio break in behind the Inter defense. The home side continued to hit on the counter when they gained possession. Eriksen and the front two continued to link up, as the Dane almost capped one dangerous counter off with an assist for Lautaro, but the final ball just made it to Pepe Reina in Lazio’s goal.
Inter’s press continued its impressive work in defending from the front as well, resulting in a second goal just before halftime. Reina was pressed and forced into making a bad pass out of the back which was picked off by Ivan Perisic. He played the ball to Lautaro, who eventually had the ball poked from him. The ball then rolled free until a sliding tackle from Marcelo Brozovic forced a deflection that fell at the feet of Lukaku, who made no mistake in free on Reina. The goal, initially called offside, was then rightly given, making it Lukaku’s 300th career goal, an impressive milestone at the age of just 27.
Lukaku's double in the first half has Inter at the top of the Serie A table pic.twitter.com/oHLBaTA4gc— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 14, 2021
Other than the substitutions of Lucas Leiva and Hoedt for Gonzalo Escalante and Marco Parolo at the half for Lazio, both teams came out again with their same game plans. Inter, two goals to the good, seemed content to challenge Lazio to score while leaving more gaps at the back for the home side to attack on the counter. This almost worked to perfection shortly into the half, as Lautaro and Hakimi broke forward, but Hakimi seemed hesitant to shoot and his effort was blocked behind by Parolo, who was playing as a makeshift center back.
The Hakimi miss on the break looked to be costly, as the wingback conceded a free kick on the edge of Inter’s penalty area shortly after the miss. The free kick, taken by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, took a wild deflection off of Escalante and sailed into the goal to cut Inter’s lead in half.
Lazio, fueled by their newfound sense of belief in the match, pushed forward harder in search of an equalizer. However, their attacking pressure left them exposed at the back again and allowed Inter’s two strikers in behind again just a few minutes after the goal. This time, it was Lukaku running at Parolo, a natural midfielder playing at center back. Lukkaku exposed the out of position defender and pushed past him with his strength and pace. He then rolled a simple ball across the Lazio box that Lautaro simply tapped in to put the game back out of reach at 3-1.
Despite the two goal deficit and the substitution of most of their key attackers, Lazio continued to push for a second goal. Inter also continued to counter, with Lukaku being denied his first Inter hat trick by multiple defensive stops from Lazio. From there, the match slowly died down and the final whistle capped a professional performance from the now league-leading Inter, who will head into a massive derby against Milan next Sunday on top of the table.
Handanovic - 7: The captain seemed fired up for his 500th appearance in Serie A. He made the saves he needed to make and even came off his line. Nothing anyone could do for the Lazio goal. He’s now only the second foreign player to reach that mark in Serie A, the first being another Inter captain, Javier Zanetti.
Skriniar - 8: Rock solid performance on the right side of the back three. Made at least two massive stops including the one on Correa. It’s crazy to think this time last year there were question marks around his ability to adapt to a back three, now he’s one of the first names on the team sheet once again.
de Vrij - 7.5: Found himself pressed quite a bit by the Lazio attackers but handled it with ease. Also always there to stop any moves coming directly down the middle, which isn’t easy against someone like Ciro Immobile.
Bastoni - 7: Great performance, but usually the most likely of the back three to get caught in possession or slightly out of position. His defending and passing skills are still way ahead of his age, though. The rest will come with experience.
Hakimi - 5.5: Not a great day at the office for Inter’s number two. He ran up and down the flank with his signature speed, but could not get things going on either side of the ball. Missed a big chance and then gave up the foul that resulted in the Lazio goal. A full week’s rest will do him some good before he has to go up against Theo Hernandez next Sunday.
Barella - 7: The Barella show continues. With Vidal out, much of the midfield dirty work has fallen back to the Italian. He continues to boss the defensive phase and make himself a nuisance to the opposition in the attack.
Brozovic - 7.5: Lazio tried to nullify Brozovic with man-marking in the same way Juventus did in the Coppa Italia. It did not go to plan and he managed to have a very impressive performance. Top class distribution from the regista.
Eriksen - 7: It only took a year, but it now looks like Eriksen fits into the Inter team. His presence as a creator takes a lot of pressure off of Brozovic in creativity and in the fact that the opposition have to worry about all three of Inter’s central midfielders in buildup and attack. His renaissance is invaluable to this team.
Perisic- 7: After a few months without a defined position, he is quietly making a name for himself at left wingback. Matched up against a real danger in Lazzari and kept him quiet for almost the entire match. Also won the ball that resulted in Inter’s second goal. Really solid performance.
Lukaku - 9 (MOTM): As Lukaku goes, Inter goes too. A resounding return to form was needed and provided. Composed penalty, a very heads up second goal, and absolutely unstoppable in assisting Lautaro. If this Lukaku stays for the rest of the season, Inter will surely stay at the top of the table.
Lautaro - 8: When the flicks and tricks are off, it can be frustrating. When they’re on like they were for this match, it is poetry in motion. His work in the press, runs, and touches were all inch perfect. Won the penalty and capped off the scoring. This is a glimpse at what he can really be.
Gagliardini- 6: Slight surprise not seeing him start, but it seems that Eriksen has jumped ahead of him in the pecking order. Did not have much to do when he came on but did not mess up.
Alexis- 6: Almost always does the right thing when he comes on late tasked with holding the ball up and keeping it away from the opposition. Should have been given a dangerous free kick, but was not.
D’Ambrosio/Darmian/Pinamonti - N/A
Conte - 8: The plan of sitting back and countering worked perfectly in this match. His defense was well drilled and prepared for everything Immobile and company threw at them. The team selection was spot on and the development of Eriksen has been wonderful.
The high flying Nerazzurri will be back in action next Sunday against Milan in this season’s third and final Derby della Madonnina. Inter will be hoping to solidify their position at the top of the table by taking all three points from their city rivals.
Have a great derby week everyone. Forza Inter!