While Inter’s starting XI has been so consistent in recent months that you barely need a reminder each week, Antonio Conte was forced into three changes from the Bologna match. Stefan de Vrij slotted in for Andrea Ranocchia, while the suspended Alessandro Bastoni and Marcelo Bozovic were replaced by Matteo Darmian and Roberto Gagliardini, respectively. Ivan Perisic remained injured. Roberto De Zerbi, on the other hand, was without eight players including Domenico Berardi, Francesco Caputo, and Manuel Locatelli.
The opening ten minutes were the Ashley Young show. Inter’s English wingback first sent a cross slicing through Sassuolo’s defense to Achraf Hakimi in the 6th minute, but the Moroccan’s header from the top of the six went wide. Young got his assist a few minutes later, however. The 35-year-old helped Romelu Lukaku to his 21st of the season in the 10th minute.
Lukaku has scored his 21st Serie A goal of the season pic.twitter.com/hT5dZLSLPA— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 7, 2021
After its opener, the Nerazzurri retreated into its half and conceded the ball to the visitors. Sassuolo even boasted 82% of possession at the twenty-minute mark. While that figure did decrease to 71% as the half wore on, the general theme remained the same. Inter’s deep defensive shape limited Sassuolo’s attacking movements. Though the Neroverdi dominated possession, Inter outshot it 5-4. Both teams could only put one effort on target and there were few chances outside of the first ten minutes. Sassuolo lacked the movements to break down Inter’s backline, while the Nerazzurri weren’t clinical enough on the counter-attack.
Sassuolo came out of the interval with increased urgency and fired off three shots at Samir Handanovic’s goal in quick succession. Eventually, however, the space left behind from Sassuolo’s attacks was exploited by the Nerazzurri. Lautaro and Lukaku combined once again to double Inter’s lead in the 67th minute, albeit after a penalty appeal from Sassuolo when de Vrij pulled Giacomo Raspadori’s shirt in the box. It appeared to be a rather risky play from the Dutchman but the referee made no call, and Inter received a boost of luck when VAR also decided not to step in.
Lukaku Lautaro— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 7, 2021
The perfect counter attack from Inter pic.twitter.com/LYkk8NYJI7
Inter was able to breathe easier with its newfound two-goal lead but Sassuolo wasn’t quite done yet. The visitors’ constant pressure on the Inter backline was finally rewarded when Hamad Junior Traore curled in a spectacular effort into the upper ninety from the top corner of the box in the 85th minute. Inter, however, managed to keep a feisty Sassuolo from finding an equalizer in the dying minutes and picked up its first win against the Neroverdi at the San Siro since 2014.
If the heatmap doesn’t show what type of ninety minutes Inter’s 2-1 win over Sassuolo was, I don’t know what will. The Nerazzurri boasted a mere 29% of possession, and yet still controlled how the play on the field panned out. Eighty-three percent of the action took place in the hosts’ defensive and middle third, while Inter was in the final third only 17% of the time. The eight players with the most touches were suited up in Sassuolo colors as well. But while Sassuolo enjoyed frequent lengthy spells of possession, Roberto De Zerbi’s side couldn’t make it count in regards to what matters; goals and scoring chances. Sassuolo outshot Inter 15-7, but could only put three on target. Sixty percent of the visitors’ shots came from outside the box, while 71% of Inter’s came from inside the penalty area. The Neroverdi also lost the expected goals battle, as the metric awarded them 0.87xg compared to Inter’s 1.28xg. Inter may have the best attack in Italy, but when it puts numbers behind the ball, it’s virtually unbreakable. The Nerazzurri don’t need the ball to dictate play when it can limit space so effectively and lie in wait for an opportunity to counter.
Handanovic - 6: Only had two saves to make but handled both with confidence. Also completed six long balls and 23 of 26 total passes.
Darmian - 7.5: Despite playing in the somewhat unfamiliar center-back role, Darmian looked at ease Wednesday. He made 4 clearances, 3 interceptions, had a passing accuracy of 97%, and 3 long balls in yet another excellent showing from Inter’s “utility man”.
de Vrij - 6.5: Shielded from Sassuolo’s wingers by his center-back partners, de Vrij was not called into action often. He made a crucial last-ditch tackle on Raspadori late in the second half, only for the offside flag to go up on the attacker.
Skriniar - 7: Made a block on a Jeremie Boga effort when the Ivorian snuck in behind in the first half. Blocked two other shots, made 3 long balls, and tallied a clearance and interception as well.
Young - 7.5: One of his best games yet in an Inter kit. Assisted Lukaku’s opener with a superb cross, made 6 clearances, 4 tackles, won 6 duels, made 2 key passes, and notched 3 long balls. Young also had the second most touches on Inter (56) and was an often recipient of passes to relieve pressure.
Gagliardini - 6: Another average showing from our favorite Inter midfielder. Was mainly a bystander with only 37 touches, and his passing accuracy was only 83%. Gagliardini did at least manage to win six duels, though his ten giveaways cancel that out.
Eriksen - 6: Eriksen was even less of a factor than Gagliardini. Had only 32 touches and struggled to make any sort of impact in Inter’s deeper setup.
Barella - 6.5: Barella was the most active of Inter’s midfield and led the team in touches with 61. He won 6 duels and made 4 long balls as well, but following in the footsteps of Brozovic and Bastoni, Barella will be suspended for Cagliari this weekend after picking up his fifth yellow of the season.
Hakimi - 5.5: The Moroccan’s final third product continues to suffer. He should have put Young’s early cross on target, while it was his giveaway that created the chance for Sassuolo’s sole goal. Even so, considering Ivan Perisic’s strides in mastering the wingback position under Conte, Hakimi still has a bright future in Milan.
Lautaro - 7.5: Lautaro’s transformation this season has been a joy to watch (usually because it involves a lot of goals from the Argentine), but he’s also become a much more complete player. He won 8 duels and put in a hefty shift of defensive work, while also conjuring a volleyed switch of play that opened space for Young to cross on Lukaku’s goal.
Lukaku - 8 (Man of the Match): While Young, Darmian, and Lautaro were star performers, Lukaku stands out. He notched a goal and an assist, and had a brace ruled out for a marginal offside. The Belgian also made 6 clearances and won 8 duels.
With its tenth straight win, Inter extends its lead at the top of the table to eleven over Milan, while it remains 12 ahead of Juventus after the Old Lady’s 2-1 win against Napoli. All three title contenders have nine games left to play and the Nerazzurri need a maximum of 16 points to clinch the title. Inter is next in action against Cagliari on Sunday with the lunchtime kickoff.