When the great escape artist came on, AC Milan’s mission was already impossible. Divock Origi made a comeback in the Champions League semifinals from a 3-0 deficit; but not in 14 minutes and not against this Inter Milan. This time he was the latecomer, his introduction marred by Lautaro Martinez’s goal; The goal sent Internazionale to Istanbul, leaving the Nerazzurri 90 minutes from a triumph that seemed almost forbidden in the Champions League these days.
Inter are European royalty – only the fourth club ever to win their first club competition, and the very name betrays their international identity – but the kind of aristocracy whose faded greatness they see in a world of new money and swaggering ambition can appear as anachronisms.
Signing up for the European Super League felt like a desperate attempt to recapture past successes. Instead, it can be done in an altogether more commendable way. The old-timers with the old formula could bring Serie A back to the top of the continental game for the first time since Inter won the Champions League in 2010.
What has felt like a feat over the years, bolstering Jose Mourinho’s reputation even further; As Inter finished seventh, eighth and ninth in Serie A, it looked to be one last major success for a club whose ambitions now seemed to be only to return to the second division of the continental powers.
When this season’s group stage was drawn, there was reason to believe that Inter would rather win the Europa League than the Champions League. Against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, they may have been just the third favorite in their pool. Instead, they will be underdogs in the final.
Their path hasn’t been the most challenging – they beat Porto, Benfica and AC Milan in the spring – but that’s hardly Inter’s fault. They may have their neighbors to thank for knocking out Napoli, the standout side in Serie A this season, in the quarter-finals. Arguably their biggest scandal remains Barcelona, who they faced in October and eventually eliminated.
But here they are, Champions League finalists shaping their future by borrowing from their past. Simone Inzaghi is a former striker, but Inter’s three European Cups have been managed by coaches who have few cavalier skills. Two consecutive triumphs in the 1960s were overseen by Helenio Herrera, one of the architects of the Catenaccio. He was one of the pioneers of the 5-3-2 formation and if it seems a bit dated six decades later, Inzaghi could revive it.
Inter have kept five clean sheets in six knockout games, interrupted by a frenetic 3-3 draw with Benfica. There have been thrilling matches in the Champions League knockout stages in recent years, but Inter took a more traditional route to the final.
The last time Inter defended through this phase, it was a feat off the ball. Mourinho’s side gave it up willingly, surviving with 10 men at the Nou Camp against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2010. They prevailed in both this semi-final and this one. This was a different kind of resistance; less a heroic rearguard action than an exercise in letting time, and with it AC Milan’s hopes, pass by. They conceded a single shot on target, although Andre Onana’s early save came when it looked like Milan would be delighted with a Brahim Diaz goal.
But for Inter, still factoring in the cost of Antonio Conte’s expensive Scudetto, Onana’s free transfer has proved to be a masterstroke. This defense was put together inexpensively. Matteo Darmian cost just £1.8million. Francesco Acerbi is on loan from Lazio. They seem to be a throwback to the days of aging Italian defenders who, with the positional instincts they needed, could defy both time and more talented attackers. Her mate in the back three, Alessandro Bastoni, is younger, more expensive, more talented and more valuable, but surrounded by the lackluster veterans.
There is a theory that teams can score too early. In a tie decided in 11 minutes – a disastrous 11 for Milan – Inter had 173 minutes to defend their lead, almost all of it by a two-goal advantage that could have been precarious. They expertly navigated it and then added to it.
The other seemingly outdated element of Inzaghi’s system – and it’s hardly easy to take on a high-pressing game in a 5-3-2 form – is the use of a forward partnership, which seems almost outdated in this age.
And yet it paid off as both developed in relation to each other: Edin Dzeko scored in the first leg, Martinez in the second. Romelu Lukaku came on for Dzeko and carried the ball to Martinez. He practiced a shot and Inter, the club who appear to have lagged behind with the passage of time and the shift in football’s balance of power, are in Europe’s bottom two groups. Once again.