MILAN - Diego Milito's 15th goal in 27 games proved the difference as Inter defeated Fiorentina 1-0 in the first leg of their Tim Cup semi-final to make it eight home wins in a row.
José Mourinho brought in Muntari for Thiago Motta on the left side of midfield and Milito for Pandev in attack to face the Viola. Otherwise, the Nerazzurri were unchanged from the side that ousted Juventus in the quarter-finals last week.
After a slow start at the Giuseppe Meazza it was the visitors who had the first real chance when Montolivo latched on to Santana's pass and fired wide.
But Inter gradually slipped into gear and Maicon combined beautifully with Balotelli to rip open the Fiorentina defence before forcing a punched block from Frey with a first-time shot.
The goal came eleven minutes before the break when Santon played down the left to Balotelli who left Natali for dead and played low into the six-yard box where Milito was on hand to slot home.
Suddenly, Fiorentina had a game on their hands and Vargas sent his low drive wide after an inch-perfect pass from Gilardino.
More danger followed when Vargas' right-wing free kick dipped on target, but Toldo was alert to the threat and the veteran keeper tipped over.
Inter came back at the visitors and Balotelli was unlucky not to double his team's lead on the stroke of half time, his powerful header cleared off the line by Pasqual.
Fiorentina made their intentions clear at the start of the second half when Santana saw his shot saved by Toldo, but Inter matched their opponents blow for blow and had a goal ruled out on 57 minutes. Pandev saw his shot blocked by Frey and Milito pounced on the rebound and fired home, only for the flag to go up for offside.
Stevan Jovetic had plenty of chances for Prandelli's side after coming on as a substitute, but failed to deliver as the visitors produced a flurry of chances and Toldo made a series of saves.
Inter soaked up the pressure and went close with a trademark curling free kick that flew inches wide of Frey's right-hand post.
Latest signing MacDonald Mariga stepped out for his first few minutes in an Inter shirt in stoppage time, coming on for Sneijder who left the pitch to applause after another polished performance.
The show wasn't over as Pandev and Milito twice combined to devastating effect in the closing seconds, but a useful second goal didn't come.
The return leg at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence will take place on Wednesday 14 April.
Inter 1-0 Fiorentina (HT: 1-0)
Scorer: Milito 34.
Inter: 1 Toldo; 13 Maicon, 6 Lucio, 23 Materazzi, 39 Santon; 4 Zanetti, 19 Cambiasso, 11 Muntari (27 Pandev 46); 10 Sneijder (17 Mariga 90+2); 22 Milito, 45 Balotelli (8 Thiago Motta 68).
Subs not used: 21 Orlandoni, 2 Cordoba, 7 Quaresma, 15 Krhin, 17 Mariga.
Coach: José Mourinho.
Fiorentina: 1 Frey; 25 Comotto, 5 Gamberini, 14 Natali, 23 Pasqual (22 Ljajic 83); 24 Santana (32 Marchionni 75), 18 Montolivo, 28 Bolatti, 19 Gobbi (8 Jovetic 58); 6 Vargas; 11 Gilardino.
Subs not used: 35 Avramov, 16 Felipe, 21 Babacar, 29 De Silvestri.
Coach: Cesare Prandelli.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Terni).
Booked: Pasqual 68, Gamberini 69, Lucio 82.