On a night of exciting sensory overload, that’s it International left with the feeling that matters most: victory, and in the game that matters most. The fact that the San Siro was 2-0 after the most thrilling starts did something to end this Champions League semi-finals when it had barely started and brought Simone Inzaghi’s superb cup side to the brink of the greatest final in club football. It could have been a lot worse AC Milan, who sorely missed his best player in Rafael Leao. That meant they didn’t have an answer either back or front to Inter’s individual stars. Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan plundered flashes of early goals.
One of the few remaining hopes for Milan is that Leao’s return can spark a comeback that has had some glow this second half. Added to this was the almost irrational way Inter started the game, driven as much by the emotion of all that was happening as by any idea imposed.
The same can happen in the second leg, especially since Milan were the “home team” here. At least Stefano Pioli has to make them believe that. A lot of it came down to that, as the entire event evolved into something more than a sporting spectacle.
These two teams didn’t just come together for a historic derby in the most prestigious competitions. They came together for something bigger.
This was in truth both a deeply rich cultural event and a sporting event, with the profound history of the latter context enriching the former. It was also a truly sensual experience. The noise and color were from another plane, old sights and sounds like those huge Italian banners waving like battle flags amidst raucous chanting offered a new atmosphere. There’s something important about that.
These are two big clubs that had been largely left behind by the forces engulfing wider football, but were nonetheless scooped up by such interests. It was understandably cast as a semi-final held solely on the luck of the draw, with the prize for the winner being bad luck being beaten well the winner of the “real” final in the actual final. Even some of the players had a Europa League feel, a combination of Premier League has-beens and Premier League yet-to-bes.
And it’s still produced an event unlike anything the Champions League has seen in recent years. It was deafening. It was also entirely organic, befitting of something so sensual. The owners of big clubs – be they corporations, states or industrialists – may try to buy this, but that can only be deduced from history and context.
Imbued with that stadium-wide roar saluting the final ‘champions’ of the competition was their shared history of 10 European Cup victories each.
As for the present and who will enjoy the prize of the next Champions League final, it was Inter who initially attacked much better with that atmosphere. They went with the lively flow of it all and actually played in a way that arguably suited them better.
The two opening goals were an impressive example of this, and Milan seemed unable to stop a momentarily unstoppable force. For the first time, a Hakan-Calhanoglu corner was acrobatically turned in by Dzeko in what felt like an uninterrupted motion. For the second, the effervescent Federico Dimarco stormed through to set Mkhitaryan up for the finish of a fluid movement that seemed to be burning through Milan right now.
At this point, it looked like Inter would score with every attack, with the physical strength of their individual stars looking better equipped for the occasion than Milan’s more methodical system. This system was also often on the verge of collapse, for example when Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori got into the worst mess again in a Lauturo Martinez run. It was just as well that the Argentine decided to go down to ensure the penalty was ruled out and Milan weren’t out of the game just yet.
Mike Maignan did that well enough himself, producing at least two brilliant reactive saves.
However, the contrast between the approaches continued to influence the game and actually ensured that Inter weren’t out of sight too early. With Inzaghi’s side prepared to respond with individual attacks on Milan, it was no surprise that Pioli’s system prevailed in general play – even if it meant replacing Ismael Bennacer with Junior Messias. Brahim Diaz began refereeing the game. Sandro Tonali hit the post. Messiah fired when he should have passed.
Here they lacked their own star in Leao. The Milan crowd behind Andre Onana’s goal could feel something. They tried to draw with more sensory overload, the end demonically glowing with red flares, a firecracker that loudly exploded.
However, there was no late eruption from Milan. They stuck to the system without ever breaking it.
Her fans roared encouragement at the end. Inter’s players ran to theirs. This isn’t over yet. It may just take a while for anyone watching to get over it.