MILAN — Inter Milan took control of Wednesday’s all-Italian Champions League semifinal with a 2-0 win over rivals AC Milan at San Siro Stadium.
Simeone Inzaghi’s side were the ‘away’ team in a fearsome atmosphere but defied a hostile crowd to race into a two-goal lead after just 11 minutes, as Edin Dzeko opened the scoring with a stunning volley from Hakan Calhanoglu‘s corner before Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled their advantage.
Inter continued to run riot as Mkhitaryan hit the post before Ismael Bennacer was forced off through injury on 18 minutes. The Nerazzurri thought they had a penalty on 31 minutes as Lautaro Martinez went down under a challenge from Simon Kjaer. Spanish referee Jesus Gil Manzano initially awarded the spot-kick but overturned his decision on VAR review.
Milan improved after the restart as Braham Diaz curled a 20-yard shot just wide before substitute Junior Messias, on for Bennacer, flashed an effort off target from a promising position. Dzeko was denied at the other end by Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan before Sandro Tonali hit the post as Stefano Pioli’s side tried to reduce the deficit.
Instead, they were unable to register a shot on target until the 81st minute and are left with an uphill task as Inter are firmly in the ascendancy as they aim to reach a first Champions League Final since 2010.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
– Read on ESPN+: What next for Messi? Analysing his options
1. Inter take control on a majestic San Siro night
The talk pre-match was of a game which could buckle under the weight of its own history and importance. Milan are seven-time winners, Inter three-time champions. Both are steeped in the history of this competition, playing out a mouthwatering semifinal in one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums — their 236th meeting in 114 years but the first Milan derby in the Champions League since 2005.
And with both teams struggling in Serie A this year, neither could say with any certainty when they might be here again. After two years of holding the Scudetto — Inter in 2021, Milan last year — Napoli stole the limelight with their first Serie A title, but what a way to wrestle it back with a game of this magnitude.
Some expected it to be cagey as a result but in the end, the occasion only affected one team. Milan had conceded just one goal in their previous six Champions League matches but they were 2-0 down inside 11 minutes here. Their defensive solidity evaporated, exemplified by Inter’s second goal as Milan’s rearguard parted like the Red Sea to allow Mkhitaryan acres of space to find the net.
Inter had been in better recent form, winning their last five matches in all competitions, but that alone did not account for the gulf between these two sides, even if Milan improved somewhat in the second period.
Inter will have the advantage next Tuesday as the home side with the majority of the crowd pulling for them. Oddly, perhaps the raucous atmosphere inhibited Milan. Before their recent success, the locals used to talk about la maglia è pesante — the weight of the shirt. Perhaps it was just an off night. Or perhaps the Rossoneri felt that weight a little.
2. Dzeko-over-Lukaku gamble pays off
Along with whether to start Marcelo Brozovic or Hakan Calhanoglu in midfield, Inter coach Simone Inzaghi’s biggest selection dilemma was whether to start Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku alongside Lautaro Martinez in attack. Inzaghi opted for Dzeko and what a call it was.
In fact, Calhanoglu and Dzeko combined brilliantly for Inter’s opening goal, a sublime volley which made Dzeko the second oldest player to score in a Champions League semifinal (after Ryan Giggs for Manchester United) at age 37 years. 54 days.
Lukaku has a wealth of experience but Dzeko’s pedigree in this competition came to the fore — he has now scored in each of the three Champions League semifinals he has played in his career. The combination of Martinez and Dzeko was simply too much for Milan early on. By halftime, Inter had managed 11 shots — the highest number Milan had faced at San Siro since May 2017 against AS Roma, when Dzeko scored twice in the opening 45 minutes of a 4-1 win.
Dzeko missed a golden chance to kill the tie when put through eight minutes into the second half after Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan smartly made a save at his feet, but the Croatian’s overall impact went a long way to turning this tie in Inter’s favour.
Inzaghi has long developed a reputation as something of a cup specialist and this intelligent Inter performance will only enhance it.
3. Leao’s spark was missed as Milan struggled
Rafael Leao was ruled out with a muscular problem but the club tried to invoke his spirit by announcing just a few hours before kick-off that the Portugal star had ended months of speculation by signing a new five-year contract. Alexis Saelemaekers was given the difficult task of replacing Leao, who has registered 13 goals and 10 assists in all competitions this season.
There was a moment just before halftime which encapsulated Saelemaekers’ performance. Picking up the ball on the left flank, he drove infield, jinking one way and then the other but at the point he needed to produce an end product, he lost the ball to Denzel Dumfries. The groans in the stands said it all. Leao was pictured with his head in his hands on the touchline at one point during a torrid first half in which Milan struggled to create any sustained attacking threat.
Although they improved in the second half, hitting the post through Sandro Tonali just after the hour mark, Saelemaekers was already substituted by that point. The lack of flair was not solely his fault but this showing only underlined — if it was necessary — how desperate Milan will be to ensure Leao is fit for next week’s second leg.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Edin Dzeko, FW, Inter Milan
Superbly-taken opening goal set Inter on their way and looked dangerous all evening.
BEST: Lautaro Martinez, FW, Inter Milan
A constant bundle of energy, causing problems in possession and pressing hard without it — his five tackles was a game-high.
BEST: Alessandro Bastoni, DF, Inter Milan
Composed presence at the back and had one excellent foray forward, laying on a good chance for Dzeko.
WORST: Fikayo Tomori, DF, AC Milan
Beaten by Dzeko and Martinez with embarrassing ease in the opening half an hour and never recovered his poise.
WORST: Alexis Saelemaekers, FW, AC Milan
Completed just 11 of 20 passes and replaced by Divock Origi just before the hour mark.
WORST: Olivier Giroud, FW, AC Milan
Didn’t get much service in fairness but won only 46.7% of his duels and completed nine of 15 passes.
Highlights and notable moments
The San Siro looked unbelieveable ahead of Wednesday’s marquee match.
The San Siro is ready. pic.twitter.com/29Uy4DV6Uu
— James Olley (@JamesOlley) May 10, 2023
Edin Dzeko, at age 37, once again silencing the Curva Sud just eight minutes with this acrobatic effort.
“A GOAL WORTHY OF THE MOMENT!”
37-year-old Edin Džeko with a stunning finish. 🍷 pic.twitter.com/RpbKtJiTcS
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) May 10, 2023
Another veteran star with 34-year-old Henrikh Mkhitaryan giving Inter a commanding lead with this smooth finish.
TWO GOALS IN THREE MINUTES.
INTER ARE FLYING. 💥 pic.twitter.com/9K6yD4wZsu
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) May 10, 2023
After the match: What the managers and players said
Inter Milan’s Edin Dzeko, to BT Sport: “It feels very good, especially because it’s a derby. We played away on paper. It’s a great result for us.”
AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori, to BT Sport: “It took us a while to get back in the game. There was a bit of anxiety in the team. In a game like this you can’t do that.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
– Inter Milan now has three straight victories over AC Milan via shutout for the first time since 1979-80. Wednesday is Inter’s first win over their rivals in a European competition (1W-2L-2D).
– Edin Dzeko has scored in all three Champions League semifinal matches he has played: On Wednesday vs. Milan, as well as once in each leg of the 2018 matchup against Liverpool.
– Milan conceded multiple goals in the first 15 minutes of a Champions League match for the second time ever and the first since the 2010-11 group stage in a road game against Real Madrid.
AC Milan: Fifth in the Serie A table, they’re at Spezia on Saturday looking to stay in the hunt for a top four spot. Back at the San Siro as visitors on Tuesday for the second leg against Inter.
Inter Milan: Holding onto fourth place in the Serie A table, they host Sassuolo on Saturday in league action before next Tuesday’s decider vs. the Rossoneri.