FC Internazionale Milano could afford to miss a penalty and still defeat Rangers FC at an empty San Siro as David Pizarro fired the Italian side to maximum points and sole tenancy of pole position in Group H.
With three points already chalked up following the 1-0 win at FC Artmedia Bratislava and Sunday's 'derby d'Italia' with Juventus FC looming large, Inter coach Roberto Mancini opted to omit Adriano and partner the in-form Julio Cruz with Obafemi Martins up front. The absence of the Brazilian's name on the opposing team sheet no doubt gave Rangers manager Alex McLeish something to smile about as his team arrived at the San Siro with a string of injuries. Leading scorer Nacho Novo was among the absentees, creating a spot for Thomas Buffel alongside Dado Pršo in attack.
The sight of 80,000 empty seats - punishment for misdemeanours last season - did not appear to unsettle the Nerazzurri, and the home side passed crisply and defended with composure in the early stages. Pizarro, deputising for the suspended Juan Sebastián Verón in midfield, acted as the main provider and consistently attempted to pick holes in the Rangers defence with precise long ball. However, the Scottish champions were equally positive and worked the first clear chance after ten minutes. Buffel, constantly active on the right wing, delivered a telling cross for Denmark winger Peter Løvenkrands, who misfired when well placed in front of goal.
Surprisingly, it took another 25 minutes before Inter carved a significant opening of their own after Martins released Cruz in the Rangers area. The Argentinian beat the offside trap and was on the verge of side-stepping Ronald Waterreus before the goalkeeper clipped his heels to concede a penalty and earn a yellow card. Cruz picked himself up and sent the Dutchman the wrong way, only to see his spot-kick ricochet to safety off the base of the post.
Undeterred, Inter continued to push forward and had two presentable opportunities from which to break the deadlock as half-time approached. The first fell to Martins who dribbled and danced free on the left of the area before unleashing a drive which only troubled the side-netting. Rangers were then thankful to defender Olivier Bernard as the Frenchman lunged to prevent Luís Figo scoring his first Inter goal.
Martins started the second half as he had ended the first and two minutes in, he outstripped Fernando Ricksen and again played in Cruz who this time was denied by Sotirios Kyrgiakos's superbly-timed challenge. In the 48th minute, Ian Murray resorted to illegal means to stop the Nigerian, resulting in the free-kick from which Pizarro opened the scoring. The Chilean's set-piece clipped the wall and took another deflection off a Rangers player to loop over the bemused Waterreus.
Rangers' forays were scarce, although captain Barry Ferguson did rise highest and flick Bernard's cross wide when a fuller contact could have resulted in the equaliser. Hamed Namouchi also snatched a shot when well placed but it was Inter who looked the more likely scorers. Cruz, a willing worker all night, nodded over in the 82nd minute following a swift counterattack down the left, by which time Santiago Solari had conspired to mis-control the ball with the goal gaping after substitute Alvaro Recoba had rolled it into his path.
The last time these clubs met in Europe's most prestigious competition, in the quarter-finals of the 1964/65 edition, Inter defeated Rangers on the way to winning the tournament. Mancini will hope that proves a lucky omen over half a century on.