In the summer of 1997 a certain Ronaldo joined Inter Milan. His first season in the Nerazzurri shirt was sensational. ‘Il Fenomeno’ – as he soon came to be known – scored 34 goals, the last of them capping a brilliant performance in the UEFA Cup final to seal a 3-0 win against Lazio. Twenty-two years on and history could be about to repeat itself. Step forward Romelu Lukaku, who in his first season with Inter has scored 33 times with one game to play – the final against Sevilla.
The Belgian has struck in his past seven European matches and has set a Europa League record by scoring in ten successive games, a run that stretches back to the 2014/15 season. But it is not just his goals that make Lukaku the face of this Inter side. The powerful 27-year-old will always make that extra run; he works hard for his team-mates and is quick to share credit for success in the impressive Italian he has already picked up in Milan. All qualities the famously workaholic Antonio Conte was looking for in a striker when he was appointed Inter coach last summer.
Conte has built his Inter team around a 3-5-2 formation, with two dynamic midfielders ahead of a holding player (Marcelo Brozović) and two attacking wing-backs out wide. Play starts from the back, inviting opponents on to press and then looking to hit the forwards with long balls out of defence. Lukaku is key to the system – able to defend the ball with his body, create space and, as he showed against Shakhtar Donetsk in the semi- finals, make incisive runs and provide the finishing touch himself.
But it has not been all wine and roses this season. Inter started the campaign in the Champions League and would have reached the knockout stage had they beaten a weakened Barcelona on Matchday 6. Lukaku scored once, but missed other chances and the Nerazzurri were made to pay. In Serie A too, Inter suffered from inconsistency.
Despite a strong finish that brought just one defeat in their last 13 matches, they came up short, just one point behind Juventus in second, as Conte looked to find a settled side. Ashley Young has had a significant impact, scoring four times and providing five assists since arriving from Manchester United in January. Fellow winter arrival Christian Eriksen, though, has found things tougher. Conte tried to accommodate the Dane in a 3-4-1-2 formation but soon switched back to 3-5-2 and hasn’t changed a player in his starting XI since beating Getafe in the Europa League round of 16.
One of those regulars is veteran Diego Godín – twice a Europa League winner with Atlético de Madrid. The former Rojiblancos captain was expected to become a cornerstone of the Nerazzurri defence when he joined last summer, but things didn’t go to plan and he lost his place to the exciting youngster Alessandro Bastoni. Godín never complained, he just set about winning it back.
“It was a challenge for me to understand what Antonio Conte wanted,” the 34-year- old said after the quarter-final win against Leverkusen. “It’s totally different to the way I had played and moved for 15 to 20 years. I had to change mentally and also physically; change the way I looked at football. I’ve learned so much from the coach. He is so incredibly demanding and I just realised that I had to work as hard as I could.”
Young too has been struck by Conte’s drive. “He demands everything, not just in matches, in training as well. You can tell he’s a winner. He wants to win, and he demands that from all the players, a winning mentality.” The example set by the work ethic of the likes of Lukaku, Godín and Young has filtered through the team.
“When you play with top players and a great coach, it becomes easier to develop,” 23-year-old Nicolò Barella explains. “This was the start of a new era for us; it wasn’t easy to be in fine form from the very start. I had to make mistakes and learn from them. Conte has improved my mentality, the way I play. I use my mind a lot more now. I was pure instinct before.”
Inter have shone before on the European stage. Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter twice won the European Champion Clubs’ Cup in the Sixties; the ‘German Inter’ of Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann won the first of three UEFA Cups in the Nineties, then José Mourinho led Inter to the famous treble in 2010, completing the hat-trick with victory against Bayern München in the Champions League final. Is it Conte’s turn next?
“We worked really hard in the little training camp that we had before this tournament,” Lukaku said after beating Shakhtar. “It was tough, but I think we’re now seeing the results of the hard work. Physically and tactically, everybody is at 100 per cent and we can keep going.” All that effort could be about to pay off.
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