Milan Skriniar bailed out goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and maintained Inter's winning run in a 2-1 victory at Hellas Verona to keep the pressure on title rivals Milan.
The Nerazzurri were made to work for their seventh straight Serie A success - a result that took them two points above their city neighbours, at least until the Rossoneri hosted Lazio later on Wednesday.
Skriniar's 69th-minute header proved decisive after Handanovic had gifted an equaliser to Ivan Ilic, cancelling out Lautaro Martinez's second-half opener.
The defender's first Serie A goal since February 2018 brought to a close a promising first section of the season for Antonio Conte's side, able to take in the Milan match and enjoy Christmas regardless, firmly back in the Scudetto hunt.
A stale first half did not produce a chance of note until the 26th minute when Federico Dimarco got in on the left but found Handanovic to be his equal from a tight angle.
Giangiacomo Magnani enjoyed his physical battle with Romelu Lukaku, but a slack pass set Inter away and the striker squared for Martinez to stab goalwards and draw a sharp save from Marco Silvestri.
Verona could not keep the Argentina international at bay again six minutes after half-time as he ran across Matteo Lovato to meet Achraf Hakimi's cross and aim a volley beyond the goalkeeper and in off the post.
3+3 - Achraf Hakimi is the only player in his first Serie A season so far to have already 3+ goals and 3+ assists in the Italian top-flight this season. Multitasking.#VeronaInter pic.twitter.com/dRkuqdaW44— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) December 23, 2020
An inexplicable error let the home side back into the match, however, as Handanovic dropped a simple Marco Faraoni centre and Ilic was alert enough to beat Skriniar to the loose ball inside the six-yard box.
If Handanovic looked to his centre-back to share the blame, Skriniar responded in impressive fashion with a towering header that left Silvestri rooted and restored an Inter lead they this time would not relinquish.
It was the visitors who looked most likely to add to the scoreline, with Lukaku heavily involved during the closing stages, only for an offside flag in the final second to deny him his goal.
What does it mean? Conte's stars on top of the tree... for now
Conte said on the eve of Wednesday's match his side were "trying to make a path that will lead to Inter at the top of the table". This may only be a temporary stay, with Milan given an immediate opportunity to restore their place at the summit, but the Nerazzurri continue to show signs of progress.
Not since November 2018 have Inter won seven in a row and they showed spirit to reach that mark against a Verona side who boasted the second-best defence in the league coming into this clash.
Sticking to their task, the leaders' past nine league goals have now been scored in the second half of matches.
Magnani looks after Lukaku
Defeat was harsh on Magnani. His wayward infield ball may have teed up Inter's best moment of the first half, but few defenders have handled Lukaku as effectively in his time in Serie A.
Lukaku won only 10 of his 26 total duels and waited until the 82nd minute for his first shot - although a late flurry followed - while Magnani came out on top in 15 of 24 duels and also weighed in with five interceptions, four tackles, three clearances and two blocks.
Martinez makes his mark
With Lukaku largely kept under Magnani's watchful eye, Inter needed their secondary striker to step up - and that he did.
Without a goal in just over a month, Martinez was lively throughout, firing in five shots and three on target - both game highs - including an excellent opener.
Key Opta Facts
- Inter scored 108 goals in all competitions in 2020, their joint-most in a single calendar year since 1929-30 (also 1961 and 2007).
- Their 34 in 14 Serie A games this season are their most at this stage of a campaign since netting the same number in 1960-61.
- Including both efforts at Verona, Inter have scored more second-half goals than any other side in Europe's 'top five' leagues this season (23).
- Ilic is now the youngest scorer in Serie A this season at 19 years and 281 days.
- Skriniar ended a 1033-day wait for his next Serie A goal, last finding the net against Benevento.
The two sides' Serie A action is over for 2020. Inter return at home to Crotone on January 3 - a week on Sunday - while Verona play again at Spezia later the same day.