When the great escape expert arrived, the task was impossible for him. Milan. Divock Origi had powered one. Champions League Semi-final comeback from 3-0 behind; but at 14 minutes and not against it Inter Milan. This time he was the one that came to mind later, his introduction Lautaro Martinez’s goal overshadowed; The goal sent Internazionale to Istanbul, taking the Nerazzurri 90 minutes away from the kind of victory that feels almost banned in the Champions League these days.
Inter is the European royal family – the fourth club to win its first-class competition, their name alluding to their international identity – but the faded brand of glory is the kind of aristocracy that makes them look like anachronisms in the new world of money and arrogant ambition.
Signing up for the European Super League felt like a desperate attempt to bring back past victories. Instead, it can happen in an altogether more laudable way. Old-timers with the old formula could bring Serie A back to the top of continental play for the first time since Inter won the Champions League in 2010.
Which, over the years, felt a success to shine Jose Mourinhoits reputation has grown even more; With Inter finishing seventh, eighth and ninth in Serie A, what seemed like the last big success for a club whose aspirations can now extend to rejoin the second tier of continental powers.
With the group stage draw this season, there was reason to believe that Inter were more likely to win the Europa League than the Champions League. They faced Barcelona and Bayern Munich and were perhaps only third favorites in their own pool. Instead, they will be strangers in the final.
Theirs wasn’t the toughest route – they beat Porto, Benfica and AC Milan in the spring – but that’s hardly Inter’s fault. They may owe their neighbors a debt of gratitude by knocking out Serie A’s standout team Napoli in the quarter-finals this season. Arguably their biggest scalper remains Barcelona, which they faced in October and eventually eliminated.
But here they are, the Champions League finalists shaping their futures by borrowing from their past. Simone Inzaghi is a former striker, but not-so-gentleman managers have managed Inter’s three European Cups. Back-to-back victories in the 1960s were overseen by Helenio Herrera, one of the catenaccio’s architects. He led the 5-3-2 formation, and while it may seem a little bit past sixty years later, Inzaghi may be reinvigorating him.
Inter did not concede five goals in their six knockout matches, despite being interrupted in a crazy 3-3 draw against Benfica. There have been exciting matches in the Champions League qualifiers in recent years, but Inter has followed a more traditional route up to the final.
The last time Inter defended this stage, it was a master class in playing off the ball. Mourinho’s team willingly gave up and managed to survive with 10 against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona at the Camp Nou in 2010. They won that semi-final and this final. It was a different kind of resistance; Rather than being a heroic act of back guard, it’s an exercise in letting time pass, and with it AC Milan’s hopes. When they felt Milan were about to celebrate a Brahim Diaz goal, they conceded a single shot into goal, even if Andre Onana’s early save came.
But for Inter, which still counts the cost of Antonio Conte’s expensive Scudetto, hiring Onana on a free transfer proved to be a feat. This defense was cheaply put together. Matteo Darmian cost just £1.8m. Francesco Acerbi has left Lazio on loan. They seem like throwbacks to the days of aging Italian defenders who could challenge both time and more skilled attackers with the necessary positional perception. Alessandro Bastoni, his assistant in the back trio, is surrounded by younger, more expensive, more talented and more valuable, but unpretentious former players.
There is a theory that teams can score too early. In a decided 11-minute draw – a disastrous 11 for Milan – Inter had 173 minutes to defend a lead and had a two-goal advantage, almost all of which could be unstable. They masterfully navigated and then added.
The other seemingly outdated element of Inzaghi’s system – and a 5-3-2 high-pressing game not easy to embrace – is the use of a strike partnership that seems almost outdated in this era.
And yet, each acting on the other, Edin Dzeko in the first game collected a dividend with Martinez in the second game. Romelu Lukaku got off the bench for Dzeko and poked Martinez with the ball. He took a shot and the club Inter, left behind by the passing of time and the change in the balance of power in football, are in the last two of Europe. Again.