Rodrigo Palacio
Rodrigo Palacio celebrates scoring the late winner for Inter against Milan. Reuters

Rodrigo Palacio’s moment of invention four minutes from time secured Internazionale local bragging rights and a most welcome three points with a 1-0 victory over their bitter rivals AC Milan. In a game sorely lacking in the quality of Milan derbies past, Palacio produced a rare moment of genuine class to take the spoils for his side and keep them in contention for a spot in the Champions League as Serie A heads into its winter break.

Milan, the designated away side at the San Siro, had had the better of the first half against an extraordinarily passive Inter, who played as if in opposition to some of the great Rossoneri sides of old. But Max Allegri’s men share little but the team’s colors with Mila vintages of recent past and failed to take advantage of their greater possession.

The tide turned midway through the second half and, helped by Walter Mazzarri’s positive substitutions, Inter were putting their opponents under increasing pressure late on. They finally got their reward when Palacio flicked the ball into the net late on. Milan’s frustration boiled over in the closing minutes and Sulley Muntari was sent off for charging Zdravko Kuzmanovic to the ground.

Having snapped a streak of four matches in Serie A without a win, Inter now move back to within five points of Napoli in the third and final Champions League place. Meanwhile, Milan remain in 13th place, a full 17 points behind Napoli. Despite their huge turnaround last season, it is increasingly difficult to envisage Milan even being in the running for a Champions League berth this time around.

Inter had actually got off to a bright start in the opening 10 minutes, with Palacio striking the first effort on target. But they soon, perhaps reflecting a lack of confidence following their poor recent run, dropped increasingly deep.

Milan were repeatedly encouraged onto their opponents, whose creatively lacking midfield trio sat almost on top of their defense. It was all too easy for Milan to get possession up to the edge of the Inter box, as they did when Kaka hit a low effort from 20 yards that Samir Handanovic failed to hold and Mario Balotelli came close to pouncing on the rebound.

Milan’s best chance of the contest came after half-an-hour. Handanovic again failed to cover himself in glory as he came and failed to get to a corner and the ball broke to Andrea Poli, who should have done a lot better than blast harmlessly over the bar.

As it was, despite contributing little, Inter could and perhaps should have gone into the half-time break in front. Palacio looked to receive Guarin’s low cross with his back to goal but was prevented from doing so as Cristian Zapata came in with a challenge from behind that went right through the striker. It was difficult to understand the officials’ decision not to award a penalty.

Milan had another chance to take the lead shortly after the interval. Balotelli’s curled shot toward the far corner of the goal was well parried by Handanovic and Riccardo Saponara was prevented from getting to the rebound by Yuto Nagatomo, with the suspicion of an arm involved in doing so.

Yet for all their possession, Milan had done precious little. Kaka produced occasional flashes, as did the attacking midfielder alongside him, Saponara, who was making his first league start for the Rosonerri. A midfield trio of Muntari, Nigel de Jong and Andrea Poli offered little invention, though, while left-back Kevin Constant was again poor before being withdrawn at the break with an injury.

The decisive moment in the match came when Mazzarri made the decision to replace the ineffective Saphir Taider with Mateo Kovacic just prior to the hour mark. The 19-year-old Croatian added some much-needed creativity to Inter’s side and instigated the increased drive that saw the Nerazzurri get on top.

Palacio might have done better when turning Daniele Bonera before producing a weak finish, but Inter were looking increasingly threatening. Both managers made positive changes late on with Mauro Icardi providing a second striker for Inter and Giampaolo Pazzini doing likewise for Milan. It was Inter, though, that had the ability to make their good spell count.

Guarin’s driven cross was behind Palacio at the near post, but the rat-tailed Argentine had the awareness and the skill to flick the ball with his heel and take it into corner past Christian Abbiati to the delight of the majority of the fans inside the Giuseppe Meazza.

Rodrigo Palacio goal inter milan 1-0 ac