It really is a new era. Physically, tactically and mentally, everything went right for Inter as they cruised past Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 in the Europa League semi-final. The Nerazzurri are the first Italian club to reach the Europa League Final since Parma in 1999, when it was still the UEFA Cup and a young Gigi Buffon was in goal, and they are determined to go on and win the competition. It is true that Sevilla will be tough opposition, but if Antonio Conte can get the same levels of performance out of his team as he did last night, then they stand a very good chance of achieving what they set out to do and lift the trophy.
Diego Godin alluded to it before the game. Inter needed to cut out Shakhtar’s passing channels. In the final third, they certainly did this, although Conte’s tactics were to allow the Ukrainians the ball in some areas. Inter sat deep and absorbed the opposition’s pressure, they made sure there was never any definitive ball in dangerous areas. The plan to allow them to attack, break up the play and hit them on the counter worked perfectly, especially as Donetsk had such a high defensive line.
Romelu Lukaku also spoke after the game of how they knew if they kept the centre of defence closed, they would physically be too much for their opponents. The Belgian was exemplary once again, bagging a brace and an assist in the 5-0 drubbing. It is fair to heap praise on the attacking players, Lautaro Martinez who also netted twice and created a goal, was electric and Nicolò Barella showed once again that he is developing into a world-class midfielder.
The former Cagliari man seemed to be everywhere, snapping at the heels of every Shakhtar player, leading the high press and of course providing the assist for the opening Lautaro Martinez header. The little terrier is also learning to focus more and not lunge into unnecessary tackles. It’s amazing Barella has developed a skill at 23 that fellow Italy international Marco Verratti has still not come close to at 27.
It has to be said however, that one of the main reasons that these complete team performances are happening more often under Conte, is because of the defensive organisation. Stefan de Vrij was in fine form, whilst the experience from Godin and the maturity shown from Alessandro Bastoni, allowed the rest of the Nerazzurri to be able to carry out the plan. They trusted the defence, they trusted the goalkeeper and that allowed the full-backs and midfielders to sit when needed and break when needed.
It has been 10 years since Inter last won in Europe, that was the unforgettable 2010 Treble team, but the fans are now beginning to dream again. The defensive stability will certainly be something that will also bring hope, as solid defences have been at the heart of so many great Inter sides. Whether Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter, to Giovanni Trapattoni’s side of the late 1980’s to the aforementioned Jose Mourinho’s Treble winners, all were solid at the back. Perhaps the irony of Inter is that they have often not focused on the back line in order to fund the star-studded creative players that the Morattis loved so much.
On the strength of the last couple of months, Conte deserves to be given absolutely anything he wants. It’s been a decade since Inter have shown this kind of hunger, let alone work-rate and efficiency. He said he knew the ‘steps’ this team needed to go through in order to become a truly top level outfit and his tough love approach was purely aimed at making them stronger. His methods might not be diplomatic, but he has proved himself more than worthy of Suning’s absolute trust.
The Final in Cologne on Friday night has the potential to be a fantastic affair, as Inter seem unstoppable at the moment, but take on the Europa League serial winners Sevilla. On the strength of the 5-0 victory against Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester United will probably be quite relieved they won’t get that reunion with Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Ashley Young.
This isn’t just about the trophy now, but the future for Inter. Victory would ensure an easier draw in the Champions League group phase, above all marking the start of this new Conte era with silverware and maintaining spectacular momentum across the brief summer break, able to challenge for more trophies next season and beyond. As the hashtag said, #InterIsComing. Well, they’re here.