Mauro Icardi proves enough as Inter Milan edge Empoli
Inter Milan held onto top spot in Serie A as Mauro Icardi’s goal earned a slender 1-0 victory at Empoli.
The league leaders at Christmas were briefly deposed by Fiorentina, who beat Palermo earlier on Wednesday, while Juventus had managed to draw level on 36 points with their home victory over Hellas Verona.
But Inter – far from convincing against a plucky Empoli side – are again one point clear of La Viola following Icardi’s first-half stoppage-time strike at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.
Despite Inter’s situation it was Empoli who took the initiative, with Massimo Maccarone and Riccardo Saponara putting the Nerazzurri on the back foot with their clever link-up play.
When Maccarone sent Samir Handanovic sprawling with a powerful free-kick in the 17th minute, Inter were looking shaky.
But they rallied, briefly, with Ivan Perisic unlucky not to open the scoring when his screamer from the edge of the area took a deflection and missed the target.
Empoli were not rattled and got Handanovic, who signed a new long-term contract on Tuesday, working again when Marcel Buchel took aim from distance after Gary Medel made a sloppy mistake in midfield.
Perisic blasted just over the bar with half-time fast approaching and it looked like the stalemate would remain in place over the break.
That all changed deep into stoppage time, though. A rapid Inter raid allowed Perisic to slip the ball into the six-yard box from the left and Icardi stepped in front of his marker to convert his eighth goal of the season.
Nevertheless Empoli were quickly back on the attack when play resumed. Manuel Pucciarelli danced past Yuto Nagatomo before setting up Saponara, whose first-time shot was punched round a post by Handanovic.
Perisic pulled the strings for Adem Ljajic to supply Marcelo Brozovic in the 54th minute but the in-demand Croatian could only clip over.
Geoffrey Kondogbia’s daisy-cutter veered inches wide as Inter pushed hard for the second goal that would secure the points.
But as time ticked away Roberto Mancini realised a patient game was safer and his players began keeping the ball while Empoli threw bodies forward in pursuit of a leveller.
Five minutes of stoppage time failed to change the outcome of the match and Inter duly retained their grip on first place ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Sassuolo.
Empoli, meanwhile, are eighth after watching their four-game winning streak ended by the Scudetto favourites.