DÜSSELDORF - We’re staying in Düsseldorf. We’re staying because we want a bit more from this summer of football. We’re staying because this team is never found wanting in terms of fight, hard work, spectacle and sacrifice. We’re staying because, next Monday, we have a Europa League semi-final to play – against either FC Basel or Shakhtar Donetsk.
It’ll be a hot and tough summer semi-final, just like the quarter-final tie with Bayer Leverkusen. We’re through thanks to a 2-1 win, although it could have been a much more comfortable scoreline. Goals from Barella and Lukaku were deserved prizes for two players who went through fire and flames to get this victory. Leverkusen did damage almost by accident as we tried to extend our lead after the break. And then we practically finished the game with ten men as Sanchez pulled up injured, but the Chilean soldiered on. This team simply does not give up. We haven’t reached a European semi-final since 2009/10, so let’s enjoy it.
From Getafe to Bayer Leverkusen: there was a drastic change in our opponents’ approach, style of play and characteristics. Inter began the game with the same eleven that triumphed over the Spaniards in the round of 16 and looked to control matters early on. That was the weapon that would limit Bosz’s side from going about their usual business. Leverkusen started with a 4-2-3-1, with their starlet Kai Havertz on the right and without Sven Bender, who injured himself during the warm-up.
The Nerazzurri got on the front foot almost immediately with a swift attack down the right. D’Ambrosio was an important outlet on the wing, one which allowed the forwards to get into one-on-one situations with the central defenders.
Inter played, Leverkusen struggled. And, in the 15th minute, Inter scored the opening – and all-important –goal of the match. Young’s pass into Lukaku in the box was nothing short of sublime. The Belgian tried to turn, but Tah intervened and cleared. However, the ball ended up at Barella's feet. Inter’s number 23 was cool, calm and collected and, just as he did against Slavia Prague and Fiorentina, slotted it home. Hradecky didn’t have a chance.
The goal sparked the Nerazzurri into a forward momentum and, just a few minutes later, they doubled their lead. Only an outstretched leg denied Barella after some great work from Lautaro. But Inter pressed and Lukaku made it 2-0. The Belgian was being fouled, he was falling, he was under pressure, but he dug out a shot and found the net. It was Big Rom’s 31st goal of the season.
The game had everything. Lukaku could’ve put Inter out of sight in the 23rd minute, but Finnish goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky denied the Belgian with a brilliant save. One minute later, Inter’s lead was halved. After an exchange with Volland, Havertz forced it past Handanovic. It was perhaps an undeserved goal, but Inter would not be put off. The Nerazzurri were awarded a penalty in the 26th minute for a handball against Sinkgraven, with this then being rescinded after an on-field review. It was a rollercoaster ride and Inter began to shrink back into their shells. Leverkusen, meanwhile, were in the ascendency due in large part to Diaby’s skill down the left.
There were fewer bursts forward in the second half, but Inter continued to assert themselves well, despite the fact that Leverkusen maintained control of possession after having 66% of the ball in the first half. The Nerazzurri were breaking up play well, looking compact in defence and were able to get the ball forward to Lukaku and Lautaro quickly on a number of occasions. Inter’s front duo were a constant menace: while the Belgian excelled in his hold-up and link-up play, the Argentine was causing all sorts of problems for a static Bayer backline with his runs forward.
Conte’s men had numerous opportunities to put the game to bed, but luck seemed to be deserting them. The Inter Coach freshened up the Nerazzurri attack, bringing on Moses, Eriksen and Sanchez to cause further difficulties for Leverkusen’s central defenders. In the 66th minute, the Chilean had a great chance following Eriksen’s through ball, but his effort was too close to Hradecky. Moses then forced the same goalkeeper into action with 76 minutes on the clock. Inter had the upper hand over the Germans, who only threatened through inspired individual play: Diaby, Havertz and the substitute Bailey all tried to create something out of nothing.
Despite all their attempts, Inter hadn’t killed off the game, and an injury picked up by Sanchez caused more unease after the Nerazzurri had already made four substitutions over three blocks, meaning they weren’t allowed to make another one before full-time. In the 90th minute, it seemed as though Inter would have the chance to seal it from the penalty spot, with Eriksen having been fouled in the box. Although the referee reversed his decision for a handball by Barella in the build-up, it disrupted matters and stopped Bayer from gaining any rhythm. A final assault at the Nerazzurri goal never came.
Inter held firm in the seven minutes added on at the end, further proof of this team’s character. The man in the middle brought play to an end with the score at 2-1, but, in truth, the Nerazzurri could have won by a wider margin. Up next is another fixture in Düsseldorf next Monday, with Conte’s side now aiming to reach the Europa League final
INTER 2-1 BAYER LEVERKUSEN
INTER (3-5-2): 1 Handanovic; 2 Godin, 6 de Vrij, 95 Bastoni (37 Skriniar 84'); 33 D'Ambrosio (11 Moses 59'), 23 Barella, 77 Brozovic, 5 Gagliardini (24 Eriksen 59'), 15 Young; 9 Lukaku, 10 Lautaro (7 Sanchez 64').
Substitutes: 27 Padelli, 12 Sensi, 13 Ranocchia, 20 Valero, 30 Esposito, 32 Agoumé, 34 Biraghi, 87 Candreva.
Coach: Antonio Conte.
BAYER LEVERKUSEN (4-2-3-1): 1 Hradecky; 8 L. Bender (38 Bellarabi 86'), 4 Tah, 12 Tapsoba, 22 Sinkgraven (18 Wendell 68'); 25 Palacios (9 Bailey 59'), 15 Baumgartlinger (11 Amiri 68'); 29 Havertz, 10 Demirbay, 19 Diaby; 31 Volland (13 Alario 86').
Substitutes: 28 Özcan, 36 Lomb, 6 Dragovic, 23 Weiser, 27 Wirtz.
Coach: Peter Bosz.
Goalscorers: 15' Barella (I), 21' Lukaku (I), 24' Havertz (BL)
Bookings: D'Ambrosio (I), Sinkgraven (BL), L. Bender (BL), Eriksen (I), Tapsoba (BL), Barella (I)
Notes: Conte booked (I)
Added time: 1' - 6'.
Referee: Carlos del Cerro Grande (ESP).
Linesmen: Yuste, Alonso Fernandez.
Fourth Official: Gil Manzano.
VAR and Assistant VAR: Hernandez, Sanchez.