MILAN, Italy– Inter Milan booked their ticket to the Europa League last 16 on Thursday with a 2-1 win on the night and 4-1 on aggregate over Bulgarian club Ludogorets to deafening silence and a surreal atmosphere behind closed doors of their San Siro Stadium.
The Italian government ordered the game be played in front of an empty stadium because of the spread of coronavirus, which has particularly hit the northern Lombardy region of which Milan is the capital.
Italy has the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe with 650 people infected and 17 deaths.
The game was closed to the public and journalists with only broadcasters allowed into the 80,000-seater San Siro.
“It’s certainly a surreal situation,” said Inter director Giuseppe Marotta before the match which had just a few hundred people present.
“The public is a fundamental component of football, without the audience emotions are diminished.
“But the protection of citizens must be safeguarded. We accept, albeit reluctantly, these decisions.”
Ludogorets’ players and staff arrived at the stadium wearing protective facemasks, some also wearing gloves.
Despite the tension there were smiles from the players from both teams as the Europa League anthem resounded around the empty stadium at full blast.
The reigning eight-time Bulgarian league winners settled in and went ahead after 26 minutes through Brazilian midfielder Cauly Oliveira.
Cristiano Biraghi pulled Inter level six minutes later finishing off a Cristian Eriksen through ball with Romelu Lukaku adding a second just before the break.
The Belgian striker picked up Alexis Sanchez’s cross but his header bounced off Ludogoret’s goalkeeper, before striking Lukaku’s head as he lay on the ground and into the net.
“It had already happened to me with the national team,” said Inter coach Antonio Conte of playing in an empty stadium.
“The atmosphere is certainly strange, it’s not easy. The sensations seem those of the Thursday training.
“But I congratulate the lads, we conceded a goal but then immediately cleared things up.
“The postponement with Sampdoria gave us the opportunity to try something new, situations that we have tried to put in place tonight.”
Inter’s Serie A game against Sampdoria last weekend was postponed because of the virus outbreak.
Conte’s side will also play next Sunday’s Serie A game against title-rivals Juventus behind closed doors at the Allianz Stadium in Turin.