The bright lights of the Champions League will shine on San Siro for the second week running on Wednesday night, as Inter Milan host Porto in the first leg of their last-16 tie.
Simone Inzaghi’s men finished second in Group C to set up a tie with the Portuguese champions, who took advantage of their adversaries’ slip-ups to finish first in Group B.
Seven days on from AC Milan gleaning a narrow advantage in their last-16 tie with Tottenham Hotspur, Inter will endeavour to make lightning strike twice for the Lombardy luminaries on the San Siro turf, having finished second in the fierce three-horse race to qualify from Group C.
With Viktoria Plzen written off before the first whistle and following the script by collecting zero points in the group, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Inter battled for continental supremacy, and the Nerazzurri would edge their Catalonian counterparts by three points to finish second behind a perfect Bayern.
Since confirming their place in the Champions League knockout stages for the second tournament running – last year’s path to glory ended at this stage to Liverpool – Inter have attempted to quell the Napoli juggernaut in Serie A, but the Nerazzurri’s attempts have proven futile so far.
Inzaghi’s side are the Partenopei’s closest challengers in second place in the table, but Napoli hold a mammoth 15-point lead over the 2020-21 champions, who saw off Udinese 3-1 at the weekend courtesy of strikes from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lautaro Martinez and a long-awaited goal for Romelu Lukaku in the black and blue – just his second of the Serie A season 189 days after his previous one.
Victory over Udinese marked Inter’s 12th win from their last 13 contests at San Siro – during which time they have conceded a mere four goals – but a 1-0 loss to Empoli on January 23 proves that the Nerazzurri are not invincible at the San Siro fortress.
A similar three-way fight for last-16 berths was seemingly on the cards when Porto, Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen were drawn alongside each other in Group B, but Club Brugge upset the apple cart and exploited the frailties of the Spanish and German giants.
Sergio Conceicao’s side were up against it after losing both of their opening games too – including that 4-0 humiliation at home to Brugge – but they proceeded to win each of their next four continental contests to progress as group winners ahead of the Belgian surprise package.
Domestically, the reigning Primeira Liga champions have been nothing short of faultless over the past several weeks – winning each of their last 10 games in all competitions – but they are incredibly still playing catch-up in the title race to Benfica, who sit two points clear at the top with a game in hand.
Braga also have just a two-point gap to make up to second-placed Porto, who edged Rio Ave 1-0 at the weekend thanks to a Toni Martinez effort, and the visitors’ own defensive acumen has seen them concede just one goal in their last eight matches.
The Dragons’ unbeaten run across all competitions stands at a whopping 22 games since defeat to Benfica in October, and they have managed to progress from their last two last-16 ties in 2018-19 and 2020-21, but the defence of their historic 2004 crown ended with a 4-2 aggregate loss to Inter at this stage.
Nearly blessed with a full complement of players, Inter coach Inzaghi should only be without thigh victim Joaquin Correa for the visit of Porto, but the Nerazzurri boss is facing quite the attacking quandary either way.
A well-rested Martinez can expect to return to the two-man strikeforce in Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 formation, and a reinvigorated Lukaku may just edge out Edin Dzeko, despite the latter’s three goals and assist in the group stage.
The trio of Hakan Calhanoglu, Milan Skriniar and goalkeeper Andre Onana should also come into the fray after being rested at the weekend, forcing Matteo Darmian, Mkhitaryan and wily veteran Samir Handanovic out of the XI.
In contrast, Porto manager Conceicao is working around a mini injury crisis for the trip to Italy, with all of Evanilson, Fabio Cardoso, Gabriel Veron and Francisco Meixedo expected to miss out.
Mateus Uribe and Galeno will need assessing but are also likely to make the absentee list, and to make matters worse, Saturday’s match-winner Martinez went down in the final few moments and had to be replaced.
The severity of Martinez’s issue is unclear, but Danny Namaso will be on standby, while the pair of Pepe’s – the 39-year-old centre-back and 25-year-old attacker – are both set to start.
Inter Milan possible starting lineup:
Onana; Skriniar, Bastoni, Acerbi; Dumfries, Barella, Calhanoglu, Brozovic, Dimarco; Lukaku, Martinez
Porto possible starting lineup:
Costa; Mario, Pepe, Carmo, Sanusi; Franco, Eustaquio, Grujic, Pepe; Taremi, Namaso