After Atalanta’s heart-wrenching elimination, Inter are the only Italian team still standing in Europe. That is largely down to Romelu Lukaku, who has been absolutely brilliant in his first season with the Nerazzurri.
The burly Belgian has silenced his critics with aplomb, but his contribution to this Inter side goes far beyond the impressive goals-to-games ratio. His commitment to the cause stands in stark contrast with the final stages of Mauro Icardi’s stay in Milan and symbolises just how far the club has come in the last year.
In the dying embers of last summer’s transfer window, bad-boy Icardi was finally shipped off to PSG on loan. The Argentine international had tested the patience of fans, teammates, and directors on various occasions, with the situation coming to a head when the striker was stripped of the captaincy after refusing to travel for a Europa League match against Rapid Vienna in February 2019.
Although Icardi’s antics ultimately precipitated his exit from San Siro, his quality on the field was undeniable. Lukaku had big boots to fill, and there were reasons to doubt whether he would be up to the task. Even though the Belgian was an established Premier League hitman, his best years were in the blue of mid-table Everton and not the famed red of Manchester United. After being weighed down by the astronomical fee the Red Devils forked over for his services, how would Lukaku handle the pressure of being the most expensive signing in Inter’s history?
Yet, the 27-year old has more than lived up to the sky-high expectations. He found the back of the net twice in his first two outings and has only gotten stronger since. His 23 Serie A goals were only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo and Ciro Immobile, and he has forged a telepathic understanding with Lautaro Martinez up top.
The differences between the two strikers could not be more stark. While Icardi ghosted in and out of games, refusing to track back or press opponents, Lukaku is making sure his strength is felt all over the pitch. It’s no wonder Antonio Conte wanted a player with such extraordinary work-rate, the complete opposite to Icardi, as everyone saw for PSG against Atalanta.
It remains incredible to think Icardi was named captain of Inter, when Lukaku is already acting more like a leader than the Argentine ever did. Romelu has already proved his ability to shout at teammates in several different languages – a handy skill – but also praise them in post-match interviews, shrug off personal success and focus on the team targets.
During difficult moments of a game, Inter players can look to Lukaku. That’s not just as a centre-forward who can hold up the ball and ease the pressure, but as someone who will track back and fight for every ball. Lautaro Martinez still gets too downhearted when something goes wrong, so he can learn from someone like Lukaku who will always keep fighting, being ready for the next chance and make that one count.
The Belgian’s Europa League showings are further proof that he is a world-class forward. Four goals in four knockout stage matches have carried Inter within touching distance of their first trophy since they lifted the Coppa Italia in 2010-11. For all his talent, Icardi never brought the Nerazzurri near any silverware.
While the South American’s poor attitude proved detrimental, the determination and courage of Inter’s new Number 9 inspired the Milan giants to greater heights. The deplorable reaction of ultras group L’Urlo della Nord to the racist chants Lukaku suffered at the hands of Cagliari supporters back in September gave the Belgian ample reason to give up on the club that had bought him less than a month before. Instead, Lukaku has continued to produce at an elite level while speaking out against racism.
With Lukaku in such fine fettle, Inter must be considered favourites to reach the final in Cologne. Once there, a potential meeting with his former employers would present the perfect opportunity to cap a dream debut campaign with a title. The Belgian’s skill has brought the Nerazzurri to the brink of glory. However, his work to heal the wounds Icardi opened up is arguably more important.