Inter Milan, Finding a Way, Reaches Champions League Final

Simone Inzaghi has spent most of his season on the brink. His Inter Milan team had been sufficiently erratic that the club appeared of the mind to end Inzaghi’s tenure as manager if he failed to make it past the last 16 of the Champions League. He survived that. Most assumed it was simply delaying the inevitable. The ax would fall if — maybe when — Inter fell in the quarterfinals.

A month or so later, the shadow that has trailed Inzaghi for so long has disappeared, and there is nothing left but light. Over the course of two legs — both held at San Siro — his Inter team swept past its neighbor, rival and housemate, A.C. Milan, to reach its first Champions League final for 13 years. Its berth in the final — sealed with a 1-0 victory on Tuesday, and a 3-0 triumph on aggregate — marks not only the finest achievement of his career, but one of the most improbable adventures the competition has seen.

Inter will, of course, be seen as little more than cannon fodder for either Manchester City or Real Madrid, two very modern powerhouses, in the final. But even that underdog status does not quite capture the sheer improbability of the club’s presence in the biggest annual game in world soccer.

For years, Inter has been facing mounting financial problems. Its debts reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Its owner, the Chinese businessman Steven Zhang, has been seeking to sell the club for several seasons, even before the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Inter’s accounts.

Quite how desperate the situation has become was neatly illustrated by the club’s blank jerseys for both semifinals against Milan. Inter does not currently have a primary sponsor; the cryptocurrency firm that had occupied that prestigious advertising real estate having failed to make its payments earlier this year.

The straitened finances are manifested in the club’s squad, which lacks the star power of most Champions League finalists. Other than its captain, Lautaro Martínez, and the midfielder Nicolò Barella, Inter does not possess a slew of assets the rest of Europe’s giants would covet. Inzaghi, instead, has had to work with a selection of veterans, castoffs, hopefuls and journeymen.

And yet, against Milan, it produced a performance of remarkable poise and control. Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had effectively settled the tie last week, scoring two goals inside the first 11 minutes inside the same stadium, and Milan rarely threatened to mount a comeback in the return. Inter may lack glamour and flash, but few teams in Europe have quite so much grit and grizzle.

Martínez’s goal, late on, sparked wild celebrations among Inter’s fans, but in truth they might have started booking their flights to Istanbul long before it went in. None of them would have expected this to be how their season ended: a team seen as a makeweight, at least in Europe, thrust onto the greatest stage of all. Inzaghi, though, has taken them to the brink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *