Inter Milan could leave Manchester City or Real Madrid black and blue

Inter Milan's Argentinian forward Lautaro Martinez celebrates after opening the scoring during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg - Getty Images/Gabriel Bouys

There was a little glance from Francesco Acerbi at his opponent and what came next was an enduring image of this clash between the great Milan rivals. The veteran Italian defender’s studs came crushing down on the bridge of Sandro Tonali’s foot and left him in agony.

Acerbi, 35, is well practised in the dark arts and his arms were held aloft.  A pure accident, he was telling referee Clément Turpin, who was fooled by a centre-back who takes pride in flirting with illegality with his defending. To every observer at the San Siro, he had got away with one. On another occasion it could easily have been a red card.

So this is what Manchester City will face in a few weeks time at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, should they defeat Real Madrid. Acerbi will be at the heart of a three-man defence who relish the confrontation. When Acerbi blocked a cross from Rafael Leao, it was cheered by the crowd as if he had scored a goal.

Whoever faces Inter Milan on June 10 will have to battle their way to get past this team, who will be underdogs for the final but will fancy their chances. Their centre-backs play a hard and physical game, yet their attackers also have pace. Leading 2-0 from the first leg, it was Lautaro Martínez who took the tie out of AC Milan’s reach with a goal 17 minutes from full-time.

His strike was set up by Romelu Lukaku, who came off the bench but must be pushing for a start in the final, even though his rival for a place is Edin Dzeko, who knows City so well from his time at the club and is looking evergreen at 37.

Where else will the threats come from? Denzel Dumfries is dynamic at right wing-back and attacks with intelligence. It is no wonder that Premier League clubs believe he can make an impact in England. And in Hakan Calhanoglu and Nicolò Barella they have central midfielders who can find space and passes in the most important areas.

After missing the first leg with a muscle injury, Milan could welcome back Leao to give their attacks a different edge, adding pace from the wide areas and a service line to Olivier Giroud. They looked like a different team, too, with their early waves of attacks as they looked for a way back into the tie.

They were too nervous a week ago, gripped by the magnitude of the occasion, which allowed their great rivals to seize control of the semi-final with their two goals. Here they looked more fluent, with Sandro Tonali sitting deep but breaking lines with his runs. When one of his dribbles resulted in a cut-back to Brahim Díaz, it was only Onana reading the finish correctly that prevented an early goal.

Giroud was a handful for Inter’s grizzled defenders, pulling himself away to the far post and looking to use his frame as he did with Arsenal and Chelsea. They were trying anything for their breakthrough. Theo Hernandez's tactic was to stun: a long ranger that only just went over when others were expecting a cross.

Leao eventually got his clear cut chance in the first half, muscling his way past Matteo Darmian and finding himself in front of goal. With just Onana to beat, his shot was low towards the far corner but was dragged just wide of the post.

Inter’s threat came on the counter-attack. They also posed a threat from set-pieces and Çalhanoglu fizzed a free-kick into a dangerous area that Martinez headed on, forcing an excellent save from Mike Maignan. Henrikh Mkhitaryan found himself in promising positions between midfield and the forward line, but injury ended his evening early as he hobbled off just before the break, forcing Inter into a rethink.

Lautaro's goal came after Inter had sucked belief out of their rivals with their dogged defence. Lukaku held the ball up well and waited to pick a pass for his team-mate, who finished at the near post.