Inter take a strong lead to Romania in the second leg of their Europa League knockout tie with Cluj, but lost star striker Diego Milito to injury early in the first half to sour the Italian side’s jubilation.
Two goals either side of half time from Rodrigo Palacio helped Andrea Strammacioni’s side to their second win in as many games in all competitions, with recent young signing Mateo Kovacic gaining his first team debut.
Despite being the visitors, Cluj started positively, and in the fourth minute Robert Maah fired a sweetly-caught half volley towards goal, which curled wide of Samir Handanovic’s post. Moments later, Inter faced an early injury setback, as Diego Milito lay in agony following an awkward fall.
Inter started sluggishly but almost took the lead in the 16th minute. After breaking quickly, Antonio Cassano carried the ball infield before looping a well-weighted cross to the back post in search of Esteban Cambiasso. The Argentine controlled the ball well, but was seemingly hesitant to shoot from a good position with Felgueiras standing tall, as his lame attempt at a cross flew harmlessly out of play.
Four minutes later, frustration within the stadium turned to joy, as substitute Rodrigo Palacio raced through on goal following a Fredy Guarin pass, before calmly lofting the ball over the Cluj goalkeeper and into the net. The Argentine’s goal was a result of an unforced Cluj error, as the Romanian side generally fared better in the tentative first half.
The hosts fortunate lead was almost cancelled out on 22 minutes, however, as Cluj should have levelled from a Laszlo Sepsi cross. The pacey delivery from the left skidded across Inter’s six yard box, with Rui Pedro unable to get a finishing touch.
On 36 minutes, Palacio was slipped through on goal once again, but this time Felgueiras raced out quickly and made himself big to deny the goalscorer. Seconds later, Cassano similarly got in behind the Cluj defence, but Ricardo Cadu recovered well to deny the diminutive maestro a shot on goal.
Deep into first half stoppage time, however, Handanovic was called into action for the hosts, diving low to his right to palm away a Rui Pedro free-kick, which on reflection would have given Cluj a deserved equaliser.
Both sides began slowly in the second half, with Cluj continuing to shade possession but have limited chances. Goals seemed to be reliant on individual mistakes, with only Cassano and Guarin for Inter visibly possessing the tools to unlock the opposition defence.
Inter’s first signifcant chance came on 62 minutes, where Cassano was presented with the chance to double his side’s lead, as a deep cross was directed in his direction by a Guarin header. The 30-year-old was set to lash the ball past the helpless Cluj keeper from seven yards, but failed to get any true contact on the ball.
Palacio raced through after receiving a channel ball in the next attack, but the goalscorer saw his effort rebound off a defender and to safety.
Play devolved into a sloppy midfield battle in the later stages, as both sides struggled to enjoy a decent spell of possession. Cluj dropped deeper, seemingly happy with a one-goal deficit for their home leg, allowing Inter to have more of the ball in advanced positions.
After the substition of Cassano for Ricky Alvarez in the 73rd minute, Inter lacked the quality to trouble the Cluj defence, who stood resilient in their path.
The best chance of the second half for the visitors came in the 83rd minute, as the ball was worked out to the left flank to Sepsi, following a mistake from the home side. The Romanian couldn’t find a teammate with his centred ball however, as his cross looped out of the 18 yard box.
Three minutes later, Inter doubled their lead, courtesy of the same man who grabbed their opener, Rodrigo Palacio. The Argentine raced through on goal after a defence splitting through ball, taking what seemed to be a poor touch as it tightened his angles from which to score from. This didn’t trouble him however, as he chipped Felgueiras with a delightful lob, to seal a solid home win for his side.
Despite not playing their best, Inter will march to Romania with a two goal cushion, and Stramaccioni will feel that if Nerazzurri can grab an early away goal in Cluj, the tie may well be theirs.