ROME: Inter Milan warmed up for their Champions League semifinal showdown with AC Milan with an entertaining 4-2 win over Sassuolo on Saturday while their city rivals floundered 2-0 at Serie A strugglers Spezia.
A Romelu Lukaku brace on his 30th birthday, a further strike from Lautaro Martinez and an unfortunate Ruan Tressoldi own goal were enough for Inter to claim a seventh straight win in all competitions and move level on 66 points with second-placed Juventus.
“The coach told us the game was a match-point for the top four, and we’re in good shape as we’ve been winning a lot of games recently,” said Lukaku to Sky Sport.
“We can still win two trophies and on Tuesday we have a very difficult match against the team that won the league last season.”
Inter hold a 2-0 lead over Milan ahead of Tuesday’s second leg and Simone Inzaghi’s side look almost certain to reach their first Champions League final since they last won it in 2010.
Their chances of qualifying for next season’s edition of Europe’s top club competition were also greatly improved by Saturday’s win, which came after top four rivals Lazio, Milan and Atalanta all dropped points.
Inter are five points ahead of fifth-placed Milan but after looking like they were going to cruise to the win they didn’t end up having it their own way.
Lukaku put Inter ahead with a rasping effort shortly before the break after both Domenico Berardi and Joaquin Correa both had goals ruled out for offside.
Ten minutes after the restart Tressoldi headed Raoul Bellanova’s cross into his own net and the match seemed over three minutes later when Martinez’s effort was deflected in again by Tressoldi.
Headers from Matheus Henrique and Davide Frattesi pulled Sassuolo back into the game until Lukaku finally sealed the points with a fine low finish with two minutes remaining.
Przemyslaw Wisniewski and Salvatore Esposito struck their first Serie A goals in the final 15 minutes to sink Milan and give Spezia their first win in two months.
Leonardo Semplici’s team are still in the relegation zone but Saturday’s win moves them level on 30 points with Verona, who sit one place above the bottom three and host Torino on Sunday.
Next weekend Spezia travel to Lecce who are just two points above the drop zone in 16th following their 2-2 draw at Lazio on Friday night.
“It’s a goal I’ve dreamed about since I was a child, I used to talk to a good friend of mine who is a big Milan fan and I’d always tell him that I’d score against them,” said Esposito to DAZN.
“These are big points for Spezia… we never lost faith, otherwise you’d never see performances like the one today.”
Stefano Pioli’s Milan team have won three times in their last 11 league matches and Saturday’s defeat was their 10th of a strange season in which their league title defense was de facto over by February.
“Tonight was not good enough… Tuesday we have another battle. We’ve had a lot of trouble with these kinds of matches and it’s difficult to explain why,” said Milan defender Simon Kjaer.
“In our line of work you need to mentally separate the matches you play because the match we played on Wednesday and today’s were completely different. We need to remove this one from our minds and get back to work.”
Spezia’s win means Salernitana will have to wait for mathematical safety, although they should stay up after Antonio Candreva shot them to a 1-0 win over Atalanta in the day’s early game.
Under a torrential downpour in southern Italy Candreva won the match for Salernitana in the 93rd minute with a powerful low drive from the edge of the area.
Salernitana are eight points above Spezia with three games remaining in the season, while Atalanta are seventh and seven points from the Champions League positions.