Giampaolo Pazzini scored two stoppage-time goals to earn Inter a 2-1 victory at Cesena and a Serie A title reprieve on Saturday.
With the 90 minutes up and the hosts leading 1-0 through Igor Budan’s 56th-minute goal, Inter faced the prospect of handing their bitter city rivals AC Milan the chance to win the title at the San Siro. Anything other than a win over Cesena would have meant a victory for Milan at home to Bologna would be enough to see the Rossoneri crowned league champions for the 18th time, but Inter have now closed the gap to five points, leaving Milan still needing four points to be crowned champions.
Substitute Pazzini claimed he was motivated by the desire to avoid handing Milan a gift.
“We didn’t want the others to win because we let them have it and then I also did it for my old friends at Sampdoria,” he told Sky Sports, referring to his former club’s involvement in the relegation battle alongside Cesena. “We want to win for ourselves and then we’ll see where we finish. The goals were my reply because people said I hadn’t scored for 40 days. It amused me to read that, but I enjoyed scoring even more.”
Inter coach Leonardo joked that their late show was just part of the plan.
“It was all calculated, it was organized from the first minute, everything went perfectly,” he said.
“We’re five points behind Milan so anything can happen,” Leonardo added, having laughed at a question regarding Inter’s title hopes.
It was more than Inter deserved after possibly their most listless performance this season in which they created almost nothing until the 90 minutes were up.
For Cesena it was deeply disappointing after they looked set to go five points clear of the relegation zone.
Cesena got the lead their industry deserved on 56 minutes, but it was in no small part thanks to some poor defending by Inter. The overlapping Luca Ceccarelli was allowed to run free down the right behind fullback Yuto Nagatomo and he sent over an inviting cross into the center of the box.
Lucio was drawn to the near post where his centerback partner Andrea Ranocchi already was and both missed the ball, allowing Budan to volley home unmarked from close range.
A mark of Inter’s ineptitude was highlighted by the fact they reached the 90 minute mark with only two half-hearted efforts from Lucio to show for their efforts, but what happened in stoppage-time was as unexpected as it was stunning.
Suddenly Samuel Eto’o sent an inswinging cross into the box and Pazzini got in front of his marker to poke home on the volley.
Then, moments later, he rose again in the box to head home Maicon’s cross from the right for the most dramatic of turnarounds.
Third-placed Napoli also managed to stay mathematically in the title hunt with a 1-0 home victory over Genoa.
The southerners didn’t leave it quite as late as Inter, though, as Slovakia attacking midfielder Marek Hamsik finished crisply with just seven minutes left.
It was richly deserved in a game in which Napoli had dominated and pushed relentlessly forward.
Perhaps more importantly than keeping their faint title hopes alive, though, the victory moved them eight points clear of fourth placed SS Lazio, meaning they need only five points from their final three games to ensure they move straight into next season’s Champions League group stages.