ROME, March 1 – Inter Milan survived a late scare and depleted resources to win 3-2 at Udinese and maintain their four-point lead at the top of Serie A on Sunday.
AC Milan beat Atalanta 3-1 at home thanks to a brace from Brazilian Pato to remain second but third-placed AS Roma dropped two points in a 2-2 draw at Napoli, despite having led 2-0.
Inter travelled to the north east with coach Jose Mourinho and four players suspended, forcing the Portuguese to play two midfielders in defence.
If ever Inter were going to be stopped this season, this match appeared to be their most likely banana skin, but Inter proved their resilience.
Due to their multiple suspensions, Inter sent director Marco Branca to speak to the press.
"What do we think about these decisions (the suspensions)? We’ve taken a practical approach," he said.
"Practical in the sense that we were missing four important players and we’ve had a difficult week physically and mentally.
"We especially felt these problems in the second half when the team couldn’t play as well as they did in the first."
Just 72 seconds in it seemed as if Inter were going to pay for their troubles as Udinese crafted an excellent goal with Serie A top scorer Antonio Di Natale’s clever little pass putting in Simone Pepe behind the make-shift defence to shoot past goalkeeper Julio Cesar – although it was regular right-back Maicon who was at fault in failing to track Pepe’s run.
If anyone thought Inter would be rocking, they would be sadly disappointed as on six minutes the champions were level when Mario Balotelli took a pass from Maicon and hit the bouncing ball from 22 yards as he slipped only to catch it sweetly, leaving Samir Handanovic unsighted in the Udinese goal.
Inter’s second was simply stunning as Maicon fed Diego Milito wide on the right and he played it inside to Goran Pandev who flicked the ball over the defence for Maicon to continue his charge into the area and lash home a fierce volley from eight yards into the top corner, giving Handanovic no chance.
On the stroke of half-time Inter left no doubt as to their dominance as Wesley Sneijder played the ball out to Balotelli on the left and his brilliant in-swinging cross found Milito running across the defence to glance home a header from seven yards.
Udinese pulled a goal back on 52 minutes through Di Natale from the spot but although they pushed hard they couldn’t find the equaliser.
They came closest with the last kick of the game but Swiss international Gokhan Inler’s deflected effort hit Julio Cesar’s bar.
Milan had a largely comfortable afternoon thanks to Pato’s two first half strikes.
On the half hour Ronaldinho’s back heel freed captain Massimo Ambrosini down the left and he crossed for Pato whose volley bounced over goalkeeper Andrea Consigli’s mis-timed dive.
Ronaldinho turned provider again as his delectable inswinging cross found Pato on the edge of the six yard box and as the young forward took the ball around Consigli, Thomas Manfredini slid in to tackle him only to clear the ball off the Brazilian’s knee and in.
Atalanta pulled a goal back from Valdes early in the second period but then Marco Borriello clinched the victory when he followed in Ronaldinho’s saved penalty.
Milan coach Leonardo complained that his team’s recent heavy schedule had affected their performance.
"We struggled at times today, we didn’t start well but then again we came into this match off the back of a tough period during which we expended a lot of energy," he said.
Roma went 2-0 up in Naples through a Julio Baptista penalty and a crisp Mirko Vucinic strike.
But their hosts hit back through a German Denis volley and then a Marek Hamsik penalty, awarded for a very dubious handball against Philippe Mexes, leaving Roma seven points behind Inter.
Palermo leapfrogged Juventus to go fourth after winning 2-0 away at their rivals thanks to goals from Fabrizio Miccoli and Igor Budan.
Miccoli curled home a sumptuous effort on the hour mark before making way for Budan, whose first touch was to pounce on a woeful Zdenek Grygera back pass, round goalkeeper Alex Manninger and slot home nine minutes from time.