Having beaten Portuguese champions Porto in the last round of the Champions League, Inter Milan returned to the Iberian Peninsula for their first leg of their quarterfinal tie against Benfica. Should they win the two-legged tie, Simone Inzaghi’s side will set up an all-Italian semifinal against Napoli or AC Milan.
BEN: Vladchodimos; Gilberto, Silva, Morato, Grimaldo; Florentino, Chiquinho; Mario, Rafa, Aursnes; Ramos
INT: Onana; Darmian, Bastoni, Acerbi; Dumfries, Barella, Mkhitaryan, Marcelo Brozovic, Di Marco; Dzeko, Martinez
Benfica’s 2-1 loss to title rivals Porto wasn’t ideal preparation for Roger Schmidt’s side, as they prepared to welcome Inter Milan to the Estadio da Luz on Tuesday. The German was forced into two defensive changes ahead of the clash, with Gilberto and Morato coming into defense for the injured Alexander Bah and suspended captain Nicolas Otamendi.
Since progressing to this stage of the Champions League, Inter have endured a rocky spell domestically – failing to win in their last four games. Under pressure to gain a result, Inter coach Simone Inzaghi chose to rotate from the side held by Salernitana on Friday night by bringing back rested top scorer Lautaro Martinez as one of five changes. Alessandro Bastoni came into defense, Federico Di Marco and Croatian international Marcelo Brozovic were preferred in midfield, whilst Edin Dzeko was chosen to partner Martinez in place of Romelu Lukaku.
In a competitive opening, both sides fought to win the midfield battle. Inter were keen to take the initial ascendancy, fashioning the first opening with Di Marco finding room on the left to whip a cross into veteran forward Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian connected with a header, but was unable to test Odyssseas Vlachodimos with the ball sailing wide of the post.
Benfica grew into the half and tested Andre Onana in the Inter goal for the first time as possession mounted. Alex Grimaldo found space on the left flank before sending a teasing ball onto the head of Portugal forward Goncalo Ramos, but Onana showed quick reactions to produce a fine stop to keep the effort at bay.
In front of a vocal crowd, the Eagles came close once more minutes later. Ramos once again won the aerial battle, this time looking to be the provider as he cushioned a header to ex-Inter winger João Mário who flashed a shot low across the face of the Inter goal.
Inter’s setup made it difficult for the home side to breach the visitors’ stubborn and well-organised defense. The three centre-halves held their position well, whilst the two wing-backs were protected also by Brozovic allowing them to demonstrate their energy and positional astuteness on the flanks in their defensive responsibilities.
The Nerazzurri picked their moments to venture forward well, and finished the half as the stronger of the two sides. Di Marco played a neat one-two with Martinez on the counter attack before teeing up Brozovic – though the Croatian’s shot lacked composure to test Onana, with the shot sailing over the crossbar.
Benfica started the second period with a sense of urgency in their play, looking to raise the tempo of the match. Mario was the instigator, finding space before teeing up Aursnes to fire an effort goalwards.
It was Inter though who would take the lead with a moment of rare quality, as Bastoni ventured forward on the left – overlapping Di Marco before sending a teasing cross into the Benfica penalty area. Barella timed his run to perfection to rise above his marker at the back post, nodding a header past a helpless Vladchodimos.
The home side almost responded immediately, with Mario getting the better of Di Marco and drifting inside the penalty area before squaring to Rafa. After a scramble inside the penalty area, the away side managed to clear their lines.
Inter’s quality and game management would show as they looked to counter the hosts in search of a crucial second goal. The fresh legs of substitutes Lukaku and Gosens were instrumental, as the former released Mkhitaryan to fire a powerful snapshot from an acute angle. Vladchodimos, tall in stature, was able to swat the effort over the crossbar.
Barella, looking for his second of the evening, was next to try his luck for the visitors flashing a long-range drive from 25 yards out inches wide of the post – as Inter looked the more likely to add to the scoreboard.
In an almost identical situation to the opening goal, Inter thought they had doubled their lead as Bastoni picked out Dumfries at the back post. The Dutchman’s header was on target, but the effort was saved brilliantly by Benfica’s Greek shot-stopper.
Then came what could be the decisive moment of the tie, as Dumfries this time turned provider – sending a ball into the Benfica penalty area that caught the raised arm of Mario. After consulting VAR, Michael Oliver awarded a penalty to Inzaghi’s side – and Romelu Lukaku comfortably sending his spot kick past Vladchodimos into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The visitors came close to pulling a goal back as the last few minutes were played out at a frenetic pace, with Neres’ majestic cross finding Grimaldo. The Spaniard’s first-time effort was powerfully flashing across the face of the goal.
Ultimately though, Inter held firm and were able to hold onto their two-goal advantage. They’ve managed to put one foot into the semifinals, as they prepare to defend their lead in next week’s return fixture.