Two goals in three first-half minutes saw Simone Inzaghi’s disciplined Inter side seize a valuable cushion heading into next Tuesday’s second leg, as Edin Dzeko’s venomous volley and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s composed finish exposed Milan’s meek defending. The 220th Derby della Madonnina, and first in the Champions League since 2005, ultimately proved a happy one for the Nerazzurri.
Inter draw first blood in Champions League semi-final
- Dzeko nets 14th goal of the season across all competitions, while Mkhitaryan scores his fifth since departing Roma on a free last summer
- Ismael Bennacer (knee) limps off after 15 minutes, in another injury blow for the hosts after talisman Rafael Leao (muscle) wasn’t passed fit to play
- Milan’s nine-match home unbeaten run ends poorly, as they fail to score in three successive games against Inter for the first time since 1979-80
It’s only a two-goal deficit. It could easily be four or five. Milan were outsmarted, outfought, outrun by their arch-rivals in a painful Champions League semi-final defeat, only softened by the opportunity at redemption next week.
If they’re to do so, they can’t afford to start as sluggishly as they did here: captain Davide Calabria being used as an armrest to steady Edin Dzeko before he volleyed home, while their backline was all at sea and Mkhitaryan couldn’t believe his luck.
34-year-old Mkhitaryan, a playmaker by nature, had my commentators waxing lyrical about his startling level of defensive effort (four tackles) and off-the-ball running given how pedestrian he was out of possession at Manchester United and later Arsenal.
As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that he won the Man of the Match award despite coming off after 62 minutes – contributing more than just a well-taken goal, but effectively covering ground in midfield too while Rade Krunic was exposed in that vein.
The midfielder ghosted past Sandro Tonali and latched onto Federico Dimarco’s pass, afforded acres of space in the area before slotting past Mike Maignan to double their lead three minutes later. Hakan Calhanoglu hit the post shortly afterwards.
They had a penalty awarded after the half-hour mark, then overturned after referee Jesus Gil Manzano reviewed the incident at the pitchside monitor.
Lautaro Martinez was adjudged to manufacture contact – or at least exaggerate it – as Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori were caught in the Argentine’s web.
The chronology and speed of those big events alone, paint an uncomfortable picture for Milan fans to accept. Their team repeatedly split open at will, before their eyes.
Things improved without tangible reward early in the second-half. Milan had more sights of goal in the first few minutes after the restart than the previous 45 combined, as their levels of encouragement in the final third grew.
Theo Hernandez’s free-kick delivery evaded Junior Messias, Bennacer’s replacement, while Olivier Giroud missed an audacious acrobatic effort to latch onto the cross.
Better timing might’ve made him successful, before Brahim Diaz and Messias both curled wide with promising opportunities in quick succession.
Speaking of good chances, Dzeko had one to complete his brace after Milan welcomed ball-playing defender Alessandro Bastoni forward towards the edge of their area, watching him slide the Bosnian through on-goal.
Maignan produced an excellent point-blank save to keep the deficit at two, then Sandro Tonali – who set up Messias earlier – hit the post from distance himself.
The benefit of hindsight
Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but Stefano Pioli’s double substitution just before the hour mark felt long overdue.
None covered themselves in glory though Kjaer struggled defensively and the already-dependable Malick Thiaw replaced him, while Alexis Saelemaekers – covered ground but created little – made way for Divock Origi, providing fresh impetus.
Origi produced a few probing runs and made his presence felt, while Thiaw slotted in seamlessly as the left-sided central defender to shore up a shaky backline.
The 21-year-old was composed and made a big recovery before Roberto Gagliardini had a chance to shoot as Romelu Lukaku and a slaloming Nicolo Barella combined to set the midfielder through, almost punishing Tonali’s turnover in his own half.
If only his other teammates had the same urgency and awareness from minute one, this tie would have a different ring to it.
Instead, they have a tough task – whether Leao plays or not – and it’s difficult to envisage them completing the comeback without conceding at least one next week.
Picture source: Getty Images