Inter Milan opened up a nine point lead at the top of Serie A after battling to a 2-1 victory at lowly Bologna. It was the perfect warm-up for coach Jose Mourinho's men ahead of Tuesday's crucial UEFA Champions League round of 16, first leg clash against Manchester United. But despite the European encounter three days away, Mourinho resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes to his starting lineup, bringing in Brazilian Maxwell for Serbian Dejan Stankovic in midfield and handing Colombian centre-back Nelson Rivas a rare start in place of Argentinian Nicolas Burdisso.
And Mourinho was rewarded for fielding a strong line-up, as teenage forward Mario Balotelli hit the winner direct from a free-kick from wide on the left eight minutes from time to secure the three points. It enabled Inter to temporarily extend their lead at the top to 12 points, until second-placed Juventus soon thereafter earned three points of their own in a 2-0 win at Palermo. Even so, Mourinho refused to start popping the champagne corks.
"Is the title race over? We still need another 30 points, it's still too early," he said. "I want my players to take great pleasure in playing in the match against Manchester United without fear of going out in the second round. I have great faith that we'll do just that. They're a very dangerous team, especially from dead balls. I expect a great match."
The Italian champions will arrive at Tuesday's match at the San Siro in optimal form physically and mentally for what has been dubbed the tie of the round against the reigning world and European champions. In Bologna, Inter dominated from the off with Sweden forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic as influential as ever. He forced an early save from Francesco Antonioli with a strike from 20 yards and on 20 minutes was inches away from heading home a Maicon cross. Moments after that he played Muntari Sulley into the box, but the Ghana midfielder could not keep his shot down.
Bologna created little at the other end, but Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar had to be alert to dash out and beat Serie A top goalscorer Marco Di Vaio to a cross from the right. Inter finally got the lead their domination deserved on 57 minutes when Adriano headed down Maicon's corner to Esteban Cambiasso, who was left unmarked to calmly control the ball on his thigh and then rifle it into the roof of the net.
Bologna started putting up more of a fight in the last quarter of an hour and Julio Cesar made a double save in the space of a minute, tipping a heavily deflected shot over the bar and then somewhat fortuitously deflecting Massimo Mutarelli's goal-bound shot over the bar with his fist. But on 79 minutes Miguel Britos rose highest to meet a corner and glanced his header in off the far post, despite Cambiasso standing next to the upright.
Mourinho threw young striker Balotelli into the fray and he proved the match-winner with his late free-kick, although serious questions need to be asked of Antonioli's positioning. Balotelli was trying to cross into the box, but everyone missed the ball and Antonioli watched on helplessly as it bounced in off the far post. Di Vaio could have snatched a draw for Bologna in the last minute, but Julio Cesar made a finger-tip save from his close-range header.