The word on the street in recent weeks has been that Inter Milan do not play “attractive” enough football to warrant a title. While there are plenty of ways to dispel this misconception, Inter affirmed the stereotype for their critics with a very cagey 1-0 win over Cagliari in Sunday’s early kickoff. It may not have been a barnstorming performance, but it preserves Inter’s 11 point lead at the top of Serie A and ensures the title race remains a one horse affair.
Antonio Conte opted for creativity over speed for his team in this match, debuting a midfield of Stefano Sensi, Marcelo Brozovic, and Christian Eriksen for the first time. Nicolo Barella sat out the match to serve his one match suspension for yellow card accumulation while Alessandro Bastoni and Brozovic returned from the same punishment in the match against Sassuolo. Ivan Perisic missed another match. Elsewhere in the team, Achraf Hakimi and Lautaro Martinez dropped to the bench for Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez.
The move for creativity over speed made sense, as Leonardo Semplici set his team up to defend deep in a 3-5-2 similar to Inter’s formation. These types of deep blocks have caused Hakimi fits lately, so the addition of Darmian on the right as well as a striker willing to drop deeper for the ball in Alexis Sanchez fit the tone of the game from the start.
INTER (3-5-2): Handanovic; Skriniar, de Vrij, Bastoni; Darmian, Eriksen, Brozovic, Sensi, Young; Lukaku, Alexis.
CAGLIARI (3-5-2): Vicario; Rugani, Godin, Carboni; Zappa, Marin, Nainggolan, Duncan, Nandez; Pavoletti, Joao Pedro.
The early stages of the first half passed with neither team seemingly able to even string a couple of passes together. Possession constantly changed hands with no real threat to either team. Cagliari sat deep for the most part, playing for a draw or to nick a goal on the counter when the opportunity arose, though it did not.
The visitor’s compact shape forced Inter out wide, usually through Ashley Young. Inter found their best chances of the half from distance through shots from Sensi and Eriksen. The Dane forced an acrobatic save out of Serie A debutant Guglielmo Vicario while Sensi lashed a shot just wide of goal. Cagliari also forced a save out of Samir Handanovic from distance through a shot from Radja Nainggolan. The strikers were quiet for Inter, with Lukaku never really factoring in. Alexis tried to play a through ball on a quick counter to Lukaku, but waited too long before making the pass, losing possession. He did create a chance late in the half for Darmian in the box, who saw his shot saved by Vicario. The sides went into the half scoreless, but with Inter having plenty of chances.
No changes were made at the half for either team. Inter came out again looking for a goal, but could still only manage chances from outside of the box. Sensi had another shot on Vicario, but the Cagliari keeper made another solid save to deny the midfielder. Eriksen had another chance from distance as well, but the shot stayed in the center of the goal, giving the keeper a clear line of sight to tip it over. Inter’s pressure continued though, this time from set pieces. After a free kick and a few corners, Eriksen was able to deliver a corner that fell directly onto the head of Stefan de Vrij, who hit the crossbar with his effort on Inter’s closest chance to a breakthrough to that point.
Noting their chances, but also realizing that changes were needed, Conte opted for two changes on 70 minutes. Hakimi and Lautaro were introduced to freshen up the attack and offer a bit more quickness from the flanks and through the middle alongside Lukaku. The change offered gratification nearly instantly. Five minutes after coming on, Hakimi linked with Lukaku, who played a quick ball back to the Moroccan as he beat his man into the box and played a square ball across the face of goal to fellow wingback Darmian who tapped the ball into an empty net to give Inter the long awaited breakthrough. The goal prompted celebrations that even included Conte storming the pitch to celebrate with his players.
Antonio Conte ran over to celebrate with his Inter players after Darmian's crucial goal pic.twitter.com/e8Ye3NEgAS— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 11, 2021
After the goal, Inter inevitably began to batten down the hatches. Darmian came off for Danilo D’Ambrosio while Roberto Gagliardini and Matias Vecino came on for Eriksen and Sensi. Cagliari forced through a few chances, but the Inter defense was equal to the challenge, seeing out yet another victory in the Nerazzurri’s march to the Scudetto.
Handanovic - 6.5: Not called upon much in defense or in possession, which is never a bad thing. He made the passes and saved he needed to make, can’t ask for much more in a match like this one.
Skriniar - 6: Quiet game for Skriniar as well. He got caught out in possession a couple of times in attack, but did not risk anything in defense. Solid but unspectacular work.
de Vrij - 6.5: Orchestrating the defense is always what he does best. Also could have had a goal with his header. Unlucky to hit the crossbar, but class in everything else.
Bastoni - 6.5: Back to being Inter’s best center back going forward. Passed well and pressed well in Cagliari’s half. The rest against Sassuolo did him well.
Darmain - 7.5 (MOTM): When he arrived during the summer, his transfer was one of the most unfashionable, but he has turned all of that doubt around this season. He is versatile enough to play both wings, as he did in this match, and he has found a bit of a scoring touch with two goals now in Serie A and one in the Champions League. The first half was quiet, but the second was class.
Sensi - 6.5: Finally match fit again. That can only be a positive for Inter. He clearly is not quite up to full match sharpness, but he looked very creative in the midfield with his passes and shots. Good to see him back on the right track.
Brozovic - 7: In a midfield focused on creativity, Brozovic had to be the one to bring a bit of muscle and grit to the midfield along with his creativity as the regista. Like Bastoni, that rest in the midweek was much needed.
Eriksen - 6.5: His performance was very similar to that of Sensi. Both players produced some dangerous shots while still handling their passing duties. They also did well in not getting overrun by the strength of Cagliari’s midfield. He really deserved a goal on one of those shots, but that’s football.
Young - 6: Ashley Young has proven that he can still do a job when he is not relied upon to start every match. Much of Inter’s attack went through him in the first half, but it did not quite come off for him. Solid performance, though.
Lukaku - 6: Very quiet match, especially for his standards. Cagliari focused their defensive efforts on keeping him quiet, but he still managed to get involved when it mattered to help Hakimi earn a much needed assist.
Alexis - 5.5: For everything good that he usually offers from the bench, he did not have much of it on show in this match. His passes were slow and his decision making overall was questionable. Getting him back into form will be important down the stretch.
Hakimi - 6.5: A much needed return to form for him off the bench. His speed and passing looked so much sharper than it has over the past few weeks. The assist was a classic piece of play from him. A step back may have been all that he needed to get going again.
Lautaro - 6.5: His linkup play with Lukaku is just so natural now. His inclusion took much of the pressure off of Lukaku that he had been dealing with by himself for most of the match while Alexis roamed all over.
Gagliardini/Vecino/D’Ambrosio - N/A
Conte - 6.5: The midfield selection was a fresh look for the Inter tactician, and one that would not normally be expected of him. One of Vecino or Gagliardini seemed destined to start, but Conte opted for creativity over physicality, something that kept Cagliari on their toes. Darmian from the start over Hakimi also seemed to benefit both of the two players and the team as a whole. The subs were timely and appropriate as well, though seeing Vecino and Gagliardini does give very Luciano Spaletti 2017 vibes.
Inter will now have a full week off to prepare for a bigger challenge than the past few matches as they face Napoli away next Sunday. With some key players finding form against Cagliari, this could be a good sign for the coming week.