Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Benfica 0-2 Inter Milan: Talking points as Barella and Lukaku give Nerazzurri advantage

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Inter Milan have done a lot work in their attempt to reach the Champions League semifinals. In the first leg of their quarterfinals clash against Benfica, played in Lisbon on Tuesday evening, the Serie A giants triumphed by 0-2, courtesy of a fine header from Nicolo Barella in the 51st minute, and a penalty successfully converted by Romelu Lukaku in the 82nd.

The game

Benfica entered this clash as mild favourites, with not only the bookies saying so, but also the respective runs of form of the two teams. Inter had lost plenty of ground in the top four race in the Serie A over the previous weeks, dropping from second to fifth place, while Benfica only lost to fierce rivals FC Porto a couple of days ago to end an excellent run of results.

Nonetheless, the Nerazzurri came to Lisbon extremely well prepared, most notably in the tactical sense. They sought to slow the pace of the game down and mostly succeeded, even if Benfica did have more possession and pushed forward in their usual, recognizable way.

The home side were a delight for the neutrals to watch, weaving passes and switching positions in a clockwork manner – until they reached the final third. There they were repeatedly stopped by Inter’s determination, and for the vast majority of the game, the likes of Goncalo Ramos, Rafa Silva and Joao Mario weren’t able to do much.

On the other hand, Inter have obviously perfected a couple of tactical tweaks, very familiar in the Italian top flight, with one of their three centre-backs always quick to leave the back line and carry the ball far up the pitch. In fact, the opening goal came in such a manner, as Alessandro Bastoni came far into the opposition half to help his attackers and took advantage of Edin Dzeko being the main object of attention for the defenders to find Barella on the far post with a pin-point cross. Though only 5’8”, the Italy midfielder guided his uncontested header skillfully into the net.

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An almost identical situation happened perhaps a minute before the second goal. Bastoni was again in the same position and delivered an identical cross to the far post, this time aiming for Denzel Dumfries, but Odysseas Vlachodimos in the Benfica goal made a fine save before Morato blocked the effort of the Dutch wing-back from the rebound.

Other than goals scored, Inter outdid the home side just in the number of shots on target (2-4), and the number of corners taken (4-6). Benifca had more possession (58%), took more shots overall (12-9), completed more passes (605-432) with a better accuracy percentage (87-83), but it was all in vain. The only real chance Roger Schmidt’s side to score came in the very last second of the game, but Andre Onana in the Inter goal got the better of Ramos as substitute David Neres threaded a fine pass through the opposition lines to set his striker up.

The penalty

Lukaku’s goal from the spot increased the size of the mountain Benfica have to try and climb in the second leg and has obviously put Inter within touching distance from a place in the semifinals. Just like the first one, it came practically as a reward for all hard work Inzaghi’s players have been putting in from the first whistle, first and foremost in front of their own goal, and then at the other end of the pitch as well.

There can be very little doubt about the legitimacy of the decision, even though referee Michael Oliver didn’t give the penalty at first.

Following Inter’s successful recycling of the attack which saw Dumfries’ header saved and rebound blocked, the Netherlands international found himself attacking from the right and as he went for a cross, Joao Mario leapt to block it. The ball grazed Mario’s head and then his raised hand. Oliver was contacted from the VAR room and advised to take a look for himself. From that moment, there was no real doubt that the English referee would point to the spot, and no real reason for anyone at Benfica to complain.

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Interestingly enough, though, Oliver refereed a game between Arsenal and Liverpool in the Premier League earlier this season, and there was a very similar moment when the ball struck Arsenal defender Gabriel Magalhaes’ raised hand. That was an even more obvious case for a penalty to be given – the hand was raised much higher and obviously made the Brazilian bigger in his attempt to block the cross which would’ve been certain to find an unmarked Liverpool player at six yards, but on that occasion, there was no call from the VAR room and nothing was given.

Luckily, the Champions League obviously demands higher standards from their officials than the Premier League.

Inzaghi momentarily relieved

Before this game, Inter failed to record a victory on six consecutive occasions, losing their place in the top four spots in the Serie A table, and such poor runs are rarely tolerated by club hierarchies at this level these days. Inzaghi had found himself under severe pressure to start delivering better results with his team or face the consequences, and this will have come as a most welcome relief for the former Lazio striker.

The question now is, can Inter regain some confidence and build up some kind of momentum on the basis of the Lisbon triumph?

Reaching the semifinals of the Champions League would indisputably represent a great success, but realistically speaking, the Nerazzurri still wouldn’t be considered among the main favourites to lift the prestigious trophy, and if they don’t qualify for next season’s edition of this competition, Inzaghi could still find himself walking down the lonely corridor towards the exit door soon.

With Serie A matches against top-four competitors Lazio, Roma and Atalanta, as well as runaway league leaders Napoli, still to come, Inter cannot afford not to beat Monza at home at the end of this week, or Empoli four days after the second leg against Benfica.

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Veselin Trajkovic

Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.



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