Milito set the San Siro alight with a third-minute goal but Chelsea responded strongly and, after Didier Drogba had been denied by the crossbar, Salomon Kalou levelled six minutes into the second period. Cambiasso promptly put José Mourinho’s current club back in front against the Portuguese coach’s former employers and, despite some late pressure, Inter held firm for a first win in six matches against English opposition, with Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Čech limping off after jarring his knee midway through the second period.
Milito’s goal came in Inter’s first attack, when Samuel Eto’o ran at the centre of the visitors’ defence and poked a clever pass to Wesley Sneijder. The Dutchman allowed the ball to roll to the 30-year-old Milito, who struck with clinical precision, cutting inside John Terry before beating Čech right-footed at his near post. The hosts drew strength from their start with Javier Zanetti and Thiago Motta exuding authority, although Motta’s second foul on Ballack gave Drogba a shooting chance and only the underside of the Inter crossbar kept out the Ivorian’s thunderous free-kick from 30 metres.
Tackles began to fly as Chelsea sought a route back in the match, trying their luck through Drogba, whose shots missed their target, and Ballack, who drew a superb save from Júlio César with a deflected effort from long range. The Nerazzurri, perhaps wary of being caught on the counterattack, spent most of the half soaking up the pressure but should have scored again after a sweeping move on 32 minutes when Lucio won back possession deep in Chelsea territory. The defender found Sneijder with a raking crossfield pass and the Dutchman picked out Eto’o only for the striker to miskick from close range.
Chelsea continued to hammer away and drew level shortly after the break following an incisive break by Branislav Ivanović, who ran unchecked to the edge of the penalty area before laying the ball off to Kalou. The forward’s low, curling finish from the edge of the area proved too precise for César. Within four minutes though, Inter had restored their lead, Cambiasso scoring from 20 metres at the second attempt after his first shot had been blocked by Ivanović, following more good work from Sneijder. The match was opening up and César had to be at his best to keep out Frank Lampard after Nicolas Anelka squared from the left.
Chelsea were determined to find a crucial second equaliser but Inter battled hard to thwart their every attack. Lucio in particular stood out with his tigerish tackling to stop the powerful Drogba and his forays forward out of the Nerazzurri defence, with Cambiasso on hand to cover, helped to take the pressure off his side. Carlo Ancelotti’s charges were unable to find a way through and the tie is delicately poised for the return leg at Stamford Bridge on 16 March.