Antonio Conte muttered to himself and looked rather resigned as Arturo Vidal angrily gestured towards him while being replaced by Christian Eriksen on Tuesday. Perhaps he realised his errors had already done irreparable damage.
Juventus went on to put one foot in the Coppa Italia final with a 2-1 win at Inter in their semi-final first leg, with Conte seemingly made to rue a tactical set-up that invited pressure in the absence of talisman Romelu Lukaku.
While Inter’s second-half display in San Siro showed evidence of Conte wising up to his team’s problems, it was too little, too late as the Nerazzurri were unable to rescue a game lost in the first half.
A chief component of Inter’s struggles here was rooted in last week’s quarter-final win over bitter rivals Milan, as Lukaku’s much-discussed altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic resulted in a yellow card for the Belgian.
The pair went head-to-head in ugly scenes that were accentuated by the lack of a crowd, every word of Ibrahimovic’s questionable antagonising audible thanks to the television cameras and microphones.
61 & 40 – With Romelu #Lukaku on the field #Inter have won 61% of their games in all competitions since last season (47/77) – without the Belgian striker the Nerazzurri percentage of win is 40% (2/5). Challenge.#InterJuventus #CoppaItalia #InterJuve
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 2, 2021
Whether Lukaku’s reaction was justified is a discussion for another day, but beyond doubt is the fact he was sorely missed by Conte’s men, whose lack of an out-ball left them without options.
Alexis Sanchez, who ultimately remained with Inter at the end of the transfer window despite links to Roma, was the man chosen to partner Lautaro Martinez and the Chilean initially showed reason for optimism.
After holding the ball up admirably and working space on the break in the ninth minute, Sanchez fed Nicolo Barella up the right flank and his low cross was turned home by Martinez – his shot creeping under the hand of Gianluigi Buffon’s hand.
It wasn’t the ideal way to celebrate the 43-year-old’s 1,100th professional game, but the Inter defence ensured the spotlight wouldn’t be on Buffon’s error for long.
First, Ashley Young took centre stage a little over 15 minutes later, bizarrely opting to haul back Juan Cuadrado in the box despite Federico Bernardeschi’s cross always looking incapable of doing any damage, and Ronaldo slammed the resulting penalty right down the middle.
Ronaldo then capitalised on a mix-up between Alessandro Bastoni and Samir Handanovic, robbing the defender and slotting in from a tight angle outside of the box with the goalkeeper stranded.
Inter dug their own hole with their poor decision-making, and without Lukaku they were without the means to haul themselves out.
Neither Young nor Matteo Darmian on the flanks – the latter in for the absent Achraf Hakimi – could offer any kind of attacking support in the first half, with both failing to deliver a single cross before the interval.
Then, with Sanchez and Martinez largely unable to impose themselves against the physically dominant Merih Demiral and Matthijs de Ligt, Inter’s options when looking to move out from the back were minimal.
And that was another issue – in the first half, Inter were very deep and endured great difficulty trying to play through Juve’s press. It might have been effective with players potentially trying to get in behind the visitors’ defence, but Andrea Pirlo’s side subjugated their hosts virtually throughout the opening half.
Conte’s tweaks at the break saw Inter’s backline move further up the pitch and that certainly seemed to improve their standing in the match – Juve’s share of the possession going from 63 per cent in the first half to just 40 in the second.
8 – Cristiano #Ronaldo has scored the most braces in the top-5 European Leagues 2020/21 in all comps (8). Spatial.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 2, 2021
Similarly, Inter’s shot count rocketed from two at half-time to 11 at the end, and, to be fair, Sanchez should have taken one of those when his goal-bound effort was stopped on the line by Demiral.
Additionally, Buffon made amends for his first-half error by making a crucial stop to deny Darmian, but otherwise there were few moments when Juve looked especially worried defensively.
On another day perhaps Inter would have done enough to at least keep themselves on level terms ahead of the second leg, but Conte’s negative set-up left them at a disadvantage right from the off.
Lukaku will return for the next game, but Juve’s away goals advantage gives them a significant edge – Conte has much work to do.
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