Simone Inzaghi’s message as Inter prepared to go into the second half of the campaign, unbeaten in the league since October, was simple: “I hope the team can pick up from where we left off before Christmas.”
And in many ways, the reigning champions did just that.
A 2-1 victory at home to Lazio – the only Serie A club that beat Inter before they broke out the panettone – on Sunday evening, extended the Nerazzurri’s winning run to eight consecutive league matches. Three points moved Inzaghi’s side back above their city rivals Milan at the top of the table, with the cushion of a point and a game.
However, in an entertaining contest against Italy’s most erratic outfit, the cloak of invincibility that Inter’s blistering end to 2021 had begun to drape over their shoulders showed hints of slipping.
Although at first the two and a half week gap break seemed to have left the Nerazzurri well-rested rather than rusty.
Denied by VAR in the 17th minute, Lautaro Martinez forced a razor-sharp reaction save from Thomas Strakosha’s before Stefan de Vrij saw a corner slip off his forehead and wide as Inter piled on the pressure.
Alessandro Bastoni’s sweetly-struck sizzler nestled in the bottom corner to give the hosts a deserved first half lead, just like the one Ivan Perisic provided when the clubs met in October’s reverse fixture.
That autumn afternoon Inter retreated into a 5-3-2 shell, welcoming Lazio onto them – an invitation Maurizio Sarri’s side belatedly accepted to inflict the first, and so far only, domestic defeat since Inzaghi swapped the Eternal City for Inter in the summer.
Rather than a collective easing off on the weekend, Milan Skriniar and De Vrij’s brief blackout was enough to give Ciro Immobile the sliver of goal he needed to haul Lazio level. Despite largely impressive performances from the defensive pair, there were one or two shaky spurts of miscommunication between Inter’s parsimonious backline.
For instance, neither reacted as Danilo Cataldi feigned recycling possession from a drop ball, before swivelling his hips to tee up his ever-alert captain.
Inter were burned at a not too dissimilar moral crossroads in the reverse fixture as the Biancoceleste played on – and scored – while Federico Dimarco writhed on the floor in agony. Naturally, the protesting Inter players overlooked Lautaro’s attempted shot earlier in the same passage – with his teammate still prone – but tempers were certainly flared.
Inzaghi’s side never regained their composure at the Stadio Olimpico, instead imploding as they allowed the unmissable 6’4 Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to steam in and nod in a third.
Lazio’s trio of strikes took Inter’s tally to 11 conceded from their opening eight games of the season.
Immobile’s equaliser on Sunday in the reverse fixture was just the fifth they have conceded in the dozen matches since, breaking a run of 586 goalless minutes for Samir Handanovic.
However, even with this streak ended, Inter stroked the ball around with an unhurried swagger throughout the match, regardless of the scoreline. Soon enough their patience was rewarded through Skriniar’s 67-minute winner, provided by Bastoni, Inter’s 16th different scorer in the league this term (bottom side Salernitana have only scored 13 goals all season).
Lazio may have ended the contest with a misleading tally of five shots, but these efforts were invariably from threatening locations.
With Milan and Napoli keeping pace on Inter’s coattails, the Nerazzurri can’t afford too many slip ups in a title race that remains very much alive. As Inzaghi breathlessly reflected after the final whistle: “There’s no time to stop and think, we just have to keep winning.”