To say Inter dominated a good Bayer Leverkusen, is no exaggeration. Antonio Conte’s men booked their place in the Europa League semi-finals with a display that would send a message to the remaining teams in the competition. The game was not perfect, but it was one of the best examples they have produced of what the coach is trying to achieve. The on-field partnerships, the work rate and the technical side of the game are allowing the Nerazzurri to finish the season in a domineering manner and potentially with a trophy.
After the match Conte said he was ‘very satisfied’ with the performance and one can see why. They had gone 2-0 up early on thanks to the ever-improving Nicolò Barella and the fearsome Romelu Lukaku. It looked as though they would be out of sight, but this is Inter, after all. Nothing comes easy. Kai Havertz’s quick response meant that right until the end the German side were still in the game, somehow.
Before showering the well-deserved praise on the Milanese, there is a criticism. For months, Inter have failed to kill off games that they have dominated, and this was more of the same. The failure to do this meant that his team had to continue to play at breakneck speed, as whilst they have improved defensively too this season, there is still a question as to whether they can sit back and absorb pressure, especially from a team with quality in the offensive ranks like Leverkusen.
The format of this competition seems to fit with Conte’s way of playing. Rather than a tactical chess game over two legs, he can unleash his ‘Blitzkrieg’ approach and allow his players to try to kill the game early and over 90 minutes. Last night was an example. Had this been two legs and at San Siro, Inter would have gone 2-0 up and then conceded an away goal. Leverkusen would have not needed to panic in such circumstances and could have sat back and defended, trying to take the game and the away goal back to Germany. Instead they knew that they needed to equalise and so had to press forward, leaving them open for Inter’s blistering counters.
It should’ve been four or five goals for Inter, but that’s not including the two penalties that were quite rightly revoked after VAR on-field reviews. Take note, Champions League referees, that is how you use VAR when situations are not entirely clear.
Lukaku was simply unplayable at times, his strength batting away defenders like irritating insects, scoring the goal even after he’d been dragged to the ground by a blatant foul. That was a record-breaking goal too, as he became the first man ever to find the net in nine consecutive Europa League games, surpassing the eight set by Alan Shearer when it was still called the UEFA Cup. The Belgian was a huge expense last summer, but Conte deserves all the credit in the world for refusing to give in. The coach had already wanted to work with Lukaku at Chelsea, imaging how differently his career could’ve gone if the striker had united with Conte earlier…
It’s not just goals that Lukaku brings, because he is a true leader and the antithesis of the man he replaced, Mauro Icardi. While the Argentine vanished for most of the match until it came time to tap in, Lukaku is everywhere, defending, battling, attacking and combining. He even puts crosses in, for crying out loud. He arrived already speaking excellent Italian and was refreshingly magnanimous in his post-match interview, declaring teammate Barella ‘man of the match.’
It is true that the ex-Cagliari midfielder has been in majestic form of late. His ability to break up the play, his incredible range of passing, his work rate and his calmness under pressure has seen him become essential to this side. His ability to run from deep and the fact that he will not shy away from a long-range shot will have some Inter fans of a certain vintage remembering Lothar Matthaus.
Inter are in their first European semi-final since the Treble in 2010, but this is also easily the best chance an Italian club has ever had of winning the Europa League. This tournament was so often shunned for taking away valuable energy in the closing months of the Serie A season, so playing it as a standalone competition is finally allowing it to gain focus. FC Basel or Shakhtar Donetsk don’t seem more of a threat than Bayer Leverkusen were, but everyone is looking forward to a potential Final with a Manchester United side that needed extra time to beat FC Copenhagen. How fitting would that be for Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez to conclude their best seasons in years?