Inter strengthened their grip on third place, as Keita Balde’s lone marker in the 72nd minute was enough to secure a 1-0 victory over Empoli on Saturday.
With Lazio being held by Torino at home, it was the former Biancoceleste forward who turned the Nerazzurri’s possession into three points with a shot from distance that managed to find a way past Ivan Provedel.
As a result, Inter now hold a seven-point advantage for third spot – a welcome position for Luciano Spalletti’s men as they head into 2019.
Chances were few and far between during the opening frame, as neither side were capable of pushing the pace.
It took until 30th minute for a chance to arise, with the home side getting the chance on goal. Manuel Pasqual fired in a corner that found Miha Zajc’s head, but he fired it over the bar.
Inter responded minutes later via Matteo Politano. The former Sassuolo man forced Provedel into a save with a stinging shot from distance, while Joao Mario was flagged offside when going for the rebound.
After a lacklustre first half, the opening minutes of the restart were full of action. Zajc looked to be in on goal, but Samir Handanovic did well to come off his line and stop the danger.
Handanovic was alert and caught Francesco Caputo’s attempted chip, while former Inter man Matias Silvestre slid in to break up a pass that looked destined for Keita Balde and the back of the net.
Lautaro Martinez entered the fray and immediately saw a touch from close range saved on the line, and it was a sign of things to come for Inter as they took the lead soon after.
Keita Balde connected with a Sime Vrsaljko cross, and the Senegalese international’s scuffed finish from just inside the penalty area clipped the bar and went into the back of the net to the relief of the Nerazzurri faithful.
The goal seemed to boost Inter’s confidence, as Politano fired high from in close and Mauro Icardi stung Provedel’s gloves.
Empoli were unable to mount a light fightback, allowing the Nerazzurri to secure a vital three points in their push for a place in the Champions League.
Time for Lautaro to start
With Inter struggling to make in roads, the Argentine made an immediate impact after coming on for Borja Valero.
Given Radja Nainggolan’s struggles on and off the pitch, it may be time for Il Toro to be handed a regular starting shirt.
Keita Balde finally coming good
Fans and pundits alike were beginning to wonder when the former Lazio man would come good at Inter, and Keita Balde is finally starting to show his quality.
The forward has played a part in five of Inter’s last nine goals in Serie A – four assists and one goal – and with Ivan Perisic struggling, Luciano Spalletti may be wise to give more playing time to the 23-year-old.