MILAN – It’s going to be an uphill battle to qualify for the Coppa Italia final. Inter suffered their third home defeat this season this evening as Napoli ran out 1-0 winners in the first-leg clash between the sides. Fabian Ruiz’s precise left-footed strike ultimately proved to be enough for Gattuso’s men to secure an advantage in the two-legged showdown. It was a match which was played at a low tempo by both sides, with Inter struggling to threaten as much as they have typically done throughout the season. Not even Eriksen playing behind three strikers in the closing stages was enough to change the result. The Nerazzurri will now have to turn things around at the San Paolo on 5 March in the return leg.
The buzz following the Derby win could still be felt in the stands of San Siro tonight, but the work that the players had to put in on Sunday evening undoubtedly had an effect on their energy levels. Conte decided to play Lautaro next to Lukaku up front, while Sensi was selected alongside Brozovic and Barella in the centre of the park. Meanwhile, Gattuso shaked things up following Napoli’s defeat to Lecce: the Partenopei Coach opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation with Demme playing in front of the defence and Elmas and Callejon starting out wide. Napoli’s balls forward were aimed towards Mertens, who was deployed in the false No.9 position and was tasked with putting pressure on the Nerazzurri’s defence. The first half was played at a low tempo. Few bursts forward, few chances, a lot of passing in the middle of the park. The only time the strikers really got on the ball was when mistakes were made in the build-up. Inter did have efforts from distance, but Ospina wasn’t really troubled by either Brozovic or Lautaro’s strikes. The Nerazzurri’s best move of the opening period came in the 17th minute: de Vrij played it forward, Biraghi produced a great cross and Lautaro headed over. As for Napoli, they threatened most when they were able to play quick triangles along the floor. Elmas looked particularly lively on the left flank up against Moses, while Zielinski was pushing up to try to provide Mertens with support up front. And it was the Polish man who had the biggest chance of the half in added time as an outrushing Padelli did extremely well to thwart him following a quick Napoli break.
Inter raised the intensity at the start of the second half, pushing forwards and forcing the Napoli defence even further into their own half. Gattuso’s side however held their shape, barely giving the Nerazzurri an inch of space to work with in attack. Lukaku, kept in line all night by Napoli’s centre-backs, did break free in the 50th minute, forcing Ospina into a good save after his glancing header. The away side were unfazed by this chance, instead creating something of their own down the other end. It was here that Napoli found the goal to decide the game, Fabian Ruiz cutting inside on to his left and curling one right into the top corner of the Nerazzurri net.
There was a reaction from Inter, but nothing near as incisive as they would have been hoping for. Conte changed the shape to a 4-3-3, throwing on Sanchez and Eriksen in search of a moment to change the game. Lautaro broke free with a sublime roulette down the left, crossing the ball in for a goalmouth scramble which saw Lukaku’s toe-poke cleared off the line. San Siro then came alive as the Nerazzurri came close to goal on a handful of occasions, but Napoli’s defence held until the last moment of the match, as Lukaku played D’Ambrosio through on goal but our defender was only just kept out by the onrushing Ospina.
That was the final chance of the game, and thus it was Napoli who ran away winners as Inter failed to score for just the second time this season. The second leg will see Inter travel to the San Paolo on 5 March, those 90 minutes deciding which team progresses to the final of the Coppa Italia.
INTER 0-1 NAPOLI
INTER (3-5-2): 27 Padelli; 37 Skriniar (33 D'Ambrosio 46'), 6 de Vrij, 95 Bastoni; 11 Moses (7 Sanchez 74'), 23 Barella, 77 Brozovic, 12 Sensi (24 Eriksen 67'), 34 Biraghi; 9 Lukaku, 10 Lautaro.
Bench: 1 Handanovic, 35 Stankovic, 46 Berni, 2 Godin, 8 Vecino, 13 Ranocchia, 15 Young, 20 Borja Valero, 87 Candreva.
Coach: Antonio Conte.
NAPOLI (4-1-4-1): 25 Ospina; 22 Di Lorenzo, 44 Manolas, 19 Maksimovic, 6 Mario Rui; 4 Demme; 12 Elmas, 20 Zielinski (5 Allan 83'), 8 Fabian Ruiz, 7 Callejon (21 Politano 78'); 14 Mertens (99 Milik 73').
Bench: 1 Meret, 27 Karnezis, 9 Llorente, 11 Lozano, 13 Luperto, 24 Insigne, 26 Koulibaly, 68 Lobotka.
Coach: Gennaro Gattuso.
Scorer: 57' Fabian Ruiz (N)
Bookings: Skriniar (I), Manolas (N), Mario Rui (N), Ospina (N)
Notes: Antonio Conte (I) booked
Added time: 2', 4'.
Assistants: Ranghetti, Longo.
Fourth Official: La Penna.
VAR and VAR Assistant: Mariani, Paganessi.