There are two sports that I watch regularly: soccer and American football. I follow both college and professional football in the US. The college team I follow closely (my Alma Mater), USC, had an interesting season with a high-powered offense and a dreadful defense. Their defense this season was making opposing back-up and third-string quarterbacks look like All Americans. In the first half tonight, Inter Milan made an average ex-player, Joao Mario, look like a Portuguese legend comparable to Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yes, the result this evening does not matter, and Inzaghi smartly gave most of his starters a rest ahead of the important weekend clash in Naples, but such a dreadful first-half performance must have shocked him as much as it shocked us.
The second half was a completely different story. I was happy to see Inzaghi not make any lineup changes at the half, and whatever he told the team worked. They looked like a top European club again as they roared back to draw level and nearly won it in stoppage time.
This game had it all:
- Two goals were initially ruled offsides, but overturned by VAR
- A penalty that was contested, but rightly awarded
- A red card for a terrible foul
- Inter came back from three down to level it and nearly won it in the 95th minute as Barella’s shot hit the post
While Inter remain level with Real Sociedad on points, they will need to win the match at the San Siro if they are to finish first, as the Spaniards have a better goal differential.
Schmidt continued utilizing the same 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought him success over the past month, also maintaining the same lineup.
With qualification already secured, Inzaghi’s starting lineup may be considered the ‘B’ team, as nine of the players are not typically on the pitch at kickoff. Audero made his first team appearance, while Bisseck, Klaassen, Arnautovic, and Sanchez made rare starts.
With all the lineup changes, you expected Inter to be a bit sluggish at the start of the game. The smooth, flowing play we are accustomed to, was not there, as these specific players are not used to being on the pitch together. Benfica opened the scoring in the fifth minute as de Vrij left Tengstedt onside and then was in no man’s land as Tengsted passed the ball to Joao Mario, who shot from about eight yards out, beating a slow-reacting Audero. In the 13th minute, Benfica doubled their lead. A bad Asllani giveaway just outside the box led to another sloppy goal, as Bisseck’s weak clearance ricocheted off a Benfica player right to Joao Mario who slotted in his second.
While Inter showed some life after the second goal, Joao Mario completed his hat trick in the 34th minute as once again, Inter’s inability to clear resulted in conceding another goal with both Bisseck and Frattesi ball-watching. After four minutes of stoppage time, a dreadful first half finally came to an end.
Whatever Inzaghi said in the locker room at the break, clearly worked as a different team came out in the second half. He kept the same lineup, but they played a completely different match. From the outset, the Nerazzuri had their foot on the gas pedal. In the 49th minute, Carlos Augusto’s near post shot required a good save from Trubin. Two minutes later, a Sanchez free kick was easily saved by Trubin. On an ensuing corner kick, Bisseck headed the ball toward goal, and Arnautovic was quick to get to it and score his first goal of the season. Initially ruled offside (like Joao Mario’s first goal), VAR showed that it was a legitimate goal.
Seven minutes later Inter scored their second. A great cross from Acerbi was met near the penalty spot by Frattesi, whose great finish made the score 3 - 2. Inter kept attacking, but it was great defensive play by Bisseck, who chased down Tengstedt to deflect this shot for a corner kick in the 64th minute, that kept Inter in the game. Then, in the 69th minute, Inter was awarded a penalty as Thuram, having just come in, was fouled by Otamendi in the box. The Benfica players, especially Otamendi, protested, but the replay showed he stepped/kicked Thuram’s right foot. After the protest, and a check of a possible foul in the Inter box leading up to the action, Sachez calmly scored the penalty, giving Inter the equalizer.
At this point, the game opened up. In the 83rd minute, Audero made a great save on a shot from outside the box by Di Maria. This was followed up by a harsh foul by Antonio Silva on Barella that was reviewed by VAR and led to his red card. Looking at the replay, Barella is lucky not to suffer a serious injury. The action continued with Rafa having a breakaway in the 89th minute, but Bisseck got in the way (with a slight deflection), and the ball went wide. In the 90th minute, Lautaro shot from outside the box, but it was deflected for a corner. Inter’s best chance to win the game came in the 95th minute, but Barella’s shot hit the post.
For several players, I am providing ratings for the two halves, as they played differently in the second half.
Audero – 4 / 6: Not at the level of Sommer, as he seems slow to react to shots. Maybe due to his lack of playing time? Had two saves and a 94% pass success rate, but should have stopped at least one of the goals.
Bisseck – 5 / 8: Should have done better for Benfica’s second and third goals, but otherwise had a very strong performance. Led the team with 115 touches, won all five of his duels, three clearances, and a key blocked shot on a breakaway. Connected on 91% of his passes.
de Vrij – 5 / 8: Was at fault for the first goal both keeping Tengstedt onside and then not marking him afterwards. Otherwise, he was rock solid with 99 touches, winning all four of his duels, three clearances, two interceptions, and two tackles. Offensively, he had a 99% pass accuracy rate including three for three on long balls.
Acerbi – 5.5 / 8: Had a beautiful assist with his cross to Frattesi, and a 94% pass accuracy rate. Defensively, he won three out of his five duels, two clearances, one interception, and two tackles.
Darmian – 5: Only one rating, as his overall performance was poor. 82% pass accuracy rate, one of five duels won, and only one clearance.
Frattesi – 4.5 / 8.5: Kept forgetting he was on the pitch in the first half, except when Inter conceded the third goal. Came alive in the second half, scoring a wonderful goal and being much more aggressive both defensively and in attack. While he only had an 80% pass success rate, he created one big chance and had one successful long ball, to go along with two clearances and three tackles.
Asllani – 4 / 8: His giveaway in the first half that led to Benfica’s second goal was bad. Very poor decision by him to try and dribble out of that area of the pitch. But you do see his quality in passing and dictating play. He had a 96% pass success rate, including two of four long balls, and only lost possession seven times (unfortunately one led to the second Benfica goal).
Klaassen – 4.5: Like Darmian, only one rating as his performance was poor. He only had 25 touches, an 86% pass accuracy rate, and lost all three of his duels. Unless he plays better, I cannot see him getting many minutes.
Carlos Augusto – 5.5: He was not much of a factor in the game. 68 touches, 50% duel win rate, 89% pass accuracy rate, and four tackles. He seems to have a stronger impact coming off the bench.
Sanchez – 6: Alexis scored the penalty, but otherwise did not threaten the Benfica goal. He was very active but unable to create any scoring chances. His 86% pass accuracy rate and three out of seven duels won, pretty much sum up his night. I was surprised that he was not substituted earlier.
Arnautovic - 7: Marko was a much bigger presence in attack for Inter than Sanchez. While he only had 20 touches, he connected on eight of his nine passes, won three out of five duels, and was alert to pounce on Bisseck’s header and start Inter’s comeback!
Inzaghi - 9: This rating may surprise some, but I think Inzaghi did an excellent job in this match. He was right to do a heavy rotation as this game was sandwiched between road games against Juventus and Napoli. With the team down by three goals at the break, he did not panic and kept the starting 11 on the field, and only substituted once the team cut the Benfica lead to one goal. Finally, whatever he did to motivate the team at the break was masterful! While we are still early in the season, it seems that Inzaghi is taking his coaching/leadership to a new level.
The road does not get any easier for Inter Milan, as they have a crucial game at Napoli this weekend, and then another six December games including the important UCL match with Real Sociedad, and the Coppa Italia match against Bologna.