The opening minutes were end-to-end. A corner in the first 60 seconds came out to Diego Milito, who flashed over. Juan Jesus then headed wide from an Antonio Cassano free-kick. At the other end, Nene volleyed an angled shot straight at Samir Handanovic.
Inter opened the scoring on ten minutes. Cassano looped the ball into the box and Palacio got in between his two markers to head home. It's now five games on the bounce that the prolific frontman has netted in. He's scored in all bar one of Inter's last eight games.
Rather than give up the ghost, Cagliari came out fighting and took the game to the hosts. Poor decision making from Radja Nainggolan led to a weak shot straight at Handanovic when the better option would have been to play Nene in.
On the half hour mark, Astori flicked on a Daniele Conti corner which Handanovic had to claw off the line.
The visitors kept on pushing. Danilo Avelar turned Javier Zanetti inside out and his cross from the byline found Nene, who rose above Nagatomo and Juan Jesus only to see his header parried over. During the attack, Nene and Juan Jesus clashed heads. Both were bandaged up, but Nene had to be stretchered off and replaced by Mauricio Pinilla.
Four minutes before the break, Juan Jesus sent Francesco Pisano crashing into the advertising boards. The Cagliari defender yelled out in pain and clutched his knee, but play continued. The ten men poured forward, Andrea Cossu crossed a beautiful diagonal ball, and Sau slid in to equalise with a half volley. The frontman was borderline offside, but it was no more than the away side deserved.
Inter woke up and Milito volleyed straight at Michael Agazzi with the final chance of the half, as Pisano rejoined the action.
Milito saw his first shot of the second half charged down and blocked in the box. The Argentine then conspired to blaze over from two yards out, when Yuto Nagatomo put the ball on a plate for him on 54 minutes.
Cossu flicked on for Sau, who got behind Samuel only to stab a stretched shot over the bar. On the hour mark, Milito brought the ball down to fire wide from 20 yards, while Cossu ballooned over from the edge of the box. Cassano fluffed a header over from close range when he should have worked Agazzi.
Cagliari took a deserved lead halfway through the second period. Pinilla acrobatically sent an overhead kick past Handanovic, the ball hit the far post and fell to Sau. The frontman's timely slip deceived two Inter defenders and Handanovic into going to ground. Sau quickly recovered to turn and slot the ball into the net for his fourth goal in five starts.
A pigeon took a bird's eye view of the game in one of the nets, as both teams made substitutions. Cagliari comfortably repelled Inter as they continually tried to attack through the middle of the park.
Inter needed some inspiration. The introduction of Ricky Alvarez with eight minutes to play gave them just that. With his first touch of the ball, an inviting cross from out wide was turned into the net by the unlucky Astori.
Now it was Inter's turn to press. From a corner, Palacio's header hit Milito and came back out to Ranocchia, who forced a fine point blank stop out of Agazzi. Samuel volleyed a shot into the ground, forcing Agazzi to palm it clear.
In stoppage time, Alvarez put in another cross which evaded everyone, when all it needed was a touch. Ranocchia was fouled by Astori right on the edge of the box, but play was waved on. Inter were incensed and Stramaccioni was sent into the stands for dissent.
Inter: Handanovic; Ranocchia, Samuel, Juan Jesus; (Coutinho 73) Zanetti, Gargano, Cambiasso, Nagatomo; Palacio, Milito, Cassano (Alvarez 82)
Cagliari: Agazzi; Pisano, Rossettini, Astori, Avelar; Ekdal, Conti, Nainggolan; Cossu; (Dessena 68) Nene, (Pinilla 38) Sau (Ibarbo 74)
Goals: Palacio 10 (I), Sau 43, 66 (C), Astori og 82 (I)