UEFA Champions League football was welcomed to the Slovakian capital for the first time with a roar on Tuesday as FC Artmedia Bratislava kicked off their inaugural group stage campaign against FC Internazionale Milano. The Italian side's greater experience was made to tell, however, as Julio Cruz's first-half strike earned last season's quarter-finalists a 1-0 victory in Group H.
Inter were in control until the dismissal of Juan Sebastián Verón ten minutes into the second half invited the home team back into the game. Artmedia looked to take advantage and pressed in search of the equaliser but the Nerazzurri maintained their shape and held on for an important three points.
Artmedia coach Vladimir Weiss, without suspended captain Balázs Borbély, included new signings Lukáš Hartig and Aleš Urbánek, the only two of his players with previous group-stage experience. Weiss had appeared relaxed in the build-up, Artmedia having surprised Slovakia and Europe by getting this far. In contrast, opposite number Roberto Mancini had had little to smile about. Cruz's two late goals had provided the sole positive from Saturday's 3-2 defeat by US Città de Palermo and earned the Argentinian a rare start alongside Adriano.
Stung by defeat
Clearly stung by that defeat, Mancini made wholesale changes. Pierre Womé and Walter Samuel bolstered the defence, while in midfield only Juan Sebastián Verón kept his place. The alterations had the desired effect as Inter took the game to Artmedia. Goalkeeper Juraj Čobej, hero of the penalty shoot-out victory against FK Partizan in the third qualifying round, brought the first cheer from the home support as he confidently came to punch away a Luís Figo cross. Artmedia's physical approach briefly disrupted Inter's rhythm and both Verón and Pavol Staňo were booked as the sides tussled for the upper hand in midfield.
Inter, though, were enjoying plenty of possession and broke through on 17 minutes. Adriano was sent clear on the left by Dejan Stanković and crossed low for the sliding Cruz to turn the ball in. Not until the 30th minute was Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar called on to make a save, dealing comfortably with Urbánek's cross-shot at the near post. Artmedia were making little headway in the Inter half and almost conceded a second when Adriano again picked out Cruz from the left, although this time the Argentinian delayed over his shot which allowed Čobej time to come out and block with his legs.
Inter's comfort zone vanished ten minutes after the restart, when Verón took a free-kick before referee Eric Poulat had given his go-ahead and the Inter playmaker was shown a second yellow card. Suddenly, thoughts of the heroic 5-0 demolition of Celtic FC in the second qualifying round were revived and Artmedia pushed forward with real threat and confidence for the first time. Urbánek's stinging drive was blocked by Marco Materazzi, then from the resulting corner Hartig sent a header just wide.
The match had opened up and Adriano almost doubled up for the visitors on 67 minutes when he thumped a free-kick off the post. Indeed, the Brazilian was a constant danger on the counterattack. Juraj Halenár went closest to levelling five minutes from time, but Cesar blocked his low effort to ensure that one goal was enough for Inter.