Lopez 74, Mascara (pen) 82, Martinez 90
The ability to make game-changing substitutions is something that separates great Coaches from the merely good ones. There can be no doubt that on Friday evening, Inter made a change that had a profound impact on the result.
However, followers of the Nerazzurri will hope next time the change affects things for the better rather than the collective kamikaze mission inspired by the all-too-brief cameo of Sulley Muntari. The problem with what happened in Sicily is that attention will focus solely on 85 seconds that saw the Ghanaian commit a rash foul within 15 seconds of taking the field and then indulge in some impromptu basketball from the resulting free-kick. Those 85 seconds actually included a whole minute while the set piece was being lined up and the wall’s 10 yards was being verified. Such attention is understandable, but will be a blanket over another limp display from Inter whose lead could be cut to a single point if Milan can overcome Chievo on Sunday. It is also unfair on the hosts, who played without fear and ultimately were good value for their victory.
Sinisa Mihajlovic has done superbly to breathe some life into a side that looked bankable relegation candidates earlier in the season. He promised that his Rossazzurri side would take the game to their illustrious opponents and they did not disappoint. Inter’s selection of Marco Materazzi at centre-half indicated firstly where their minds were (Chelsea next week) and secondly their opinion of their opponents last night. Both messages seemed to have found the subconscious of players who were sluggish and did not really seem up for what was never going to be an easy game. Catania, by contrast, were wired, pressing every white shirt that touched the ball and attacking in a fashion that was direct and purposeful. Adrian Ricchiuti had the two best chances of the first half. One was superbly saved by Julio Cesar with the visitors scrambling the ball clear by pure chance. The other was deflected wide for a corner when the goal was gaping. For the second successive game, Jose Mourinho came down from the stand knowing his side were somewhat fortunate to be goalless at the break.
The impact of the Special One on his players may explain why Inter have underperformed during his touchline ban. Whatever words he said to them at half-time lifted them as they controlled the game for the next half hour. The introduction of Ricardo Quaresma seemed to give them the purpose they had lacked up to that point, and their reward came 10 minutes into the second half. Some Catania defenders stepped up and some did not. Samuel Eto’o got away from a static back-line and selflessly rolled it across. Diego Milito could not miss. Wesley Schneider hit the side netting a minute later and you got the feeling the slump was over. But give Catania credit – they may have had reason to feel hard done by but instead they came through the spell of Inter dominance and out the other side. Although their equaliser was against the run of play, it was perhaps justice for their earlier unrewarded work. Pablo Alvarez got away down the right and slid a great ball across the six-yard line. Maxi Lopez anticipated it better than anyone in white and it was game on again.
Muntari’s substitution for Esteban Cambiasso was a strange move in itself as Inter always play better when the Argentine is there to give the midfield balance and presence. His handball not only earned a rapid-fire second yellow but gave Catania a penalty from which Giuseppe Mascara showed great composure to chip the ball up the centre. He would have been forgiven under such pressure for putting his head down and sticking the laces through the ball. To execute the kick the way he did showed fantastic mental strength as well as technique. Inter disintegrated in the last 10 minutes and a third goal capped a miserable night. Wonderful skill from Jorge Martinez down the left took him away from Lucio, whose attempted scythe may have been for the ball or a player some 10 yards away. He drew Julio Cesar, waited for the Brazilian to commit himself, then slid the ball in with aplomb. Although the platform for the victory may have been based on passion and drive, it would be patronising to say anything other than the obvious. For the majority of the game, Catania played Inter off the pitch. It was due in no small way to their skill allied to endeavour that the Nerazzurri imploded in such volcanic fashion.
The return of Mourinho to the touchline cannot come soon enough. Even by their own recent standards, this was a shockingly poor Inter performance. Credit again to the side that made them play poorly, but the Chelsea scouts at this game will be reporting back to London the midweek tie is theirs for the taking. More to the point, they may enquire as to whether it was the same team that beat them in the home leg. The real Inter had better start turning up again as failure to do so will equal failure on all fronts.