EMPOLI - Inter came up against a brick wall at Empoli as they failed in their bid to build on last Sunday's win over Genoa with another three points in Tuscany. The hosts played a good game and not even a second-half debut appearance for Xherdan Shaqiri was enough to force an opener. No goals and a point apiece.
With Wednesday's Coppa Italia tie in mind, Roberto Mancini left predicted starters Kovacic and Shaqiri out of his initial XI. The coach opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Handanovic between the sticks, Campagnaro, Vidic, Ranocchia and D'Ambrosio lining up across the backline, Guarin and Medel as the double pivot and Palacio, Hernanes and Podolski in support of frontman Icardi.
The Tuscan outfit have made the Stadio Castellani something of a stronghold this season and despite the dearth of goals here in recent months the ground was packed to the rafters. Sarri's men soon showed why as they put Inter under pressure with a high defensive line and good ball circulation. Hysaj fired off an early shot, Handanovic smartly turning his 20-yarder around the post.
Inter had a chance when Palacio very nearly got on the end of Podolski's corner, then in the 23rd minute Hernanes cut in from the flank and took aim but failed to trouble Sepe with this effort. The Nerazzurri carved out another opening on 36 minutes as Palacio nipped in behind the Empoli rearguard before laying off for Guarin, who shot wide however.
Ranocchia was forced to withdraw from the fray during the interval after twisting his knee, with Andreolli coming out in his place for the restart.
Seven minutes into the second period came the clearest-cut chance of the match. Podolski's corner was delivered to the far post, Vidic rose well beating Sepe to the ball but his downwards header bounced inches wide of the upright.
Five minutes later the game burst into life with two good chances in quick succession. Hernanes picked out Palacio's run with a dinked ball into the box, El Trenza found himself all alone but could only nod beyond Sepe's far post. There was hardly time to curse that missed opportunity before Pucciarelli called Handanovic into making a fine save down the other end.
Mancini shook things up by bringing on Kovacic for Icardi, with Palacio moving up to spearhead the attack.
Just as Inter seemed to be in control of things, Empoli almost went and scored following a poor clearance from Handanovic: Mchedlidze beat the keeper but Andreolli was on hand to hack away before it reached the line.
Empoli upped the tempo and increasingly put pressure on the Nerazzurri backline while Shaqiri came on for his Inter debut midway through the half, replacing Podolski and slotting in alongside Palacio with Kovacic just in behind in a 4-3-1-2.
The hosts waned towards the end allowing Inter more time on the ball but Mancini's men were unable to find a winner for what would have been three big points.
Attentions now turn to Sampdoria and the Coppa Italia last-16 meeting on Wednesday, when goals and a return to winning ways will be the order of the day.
Empoli 0-0 Inter
Empoli: Sepe; Barba, Tonelli, Rugani, Hysaj; Vecino, Valdifiori, Croce; Verdi (Zielinski 65); Pucciarelli (Tavano 84), Mchedlidze (Maccarone 71).
Subs not used: Pugliesi, Bassi, Laurini, Bianchetti, Moro, Rovini, Laxalt, Signorelli.
Coach: Maurizio Sarri.
Inter: Handanovic; Campagnaro, Ranocchia (Andreolli 46), Vidic, D'Ambrosio; Medel, Guarin; Hernanes, Palacio, Podolski (Shaqiri 74); Icardi (Kovacic 60).
Subs not used: Carrizo, Berni, Kuzmanovic, Obi, Dodò, Mbaye, Krhin, Donkor, Bonazzoli.
Coach: Roberto Mancini.
Booked: Mchedlidze, Vidic, Medel.
Assistants: Cariolato, Fiorito.
4th official: Giallatini.
Additional assistants: Orsato, Pairetto.