It was a hard-fought Champions League match at the San Siro with Inter Milan sneaking three crucial points in a 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund.
The Italian side kicked off the scoring midway through the first-half with Lautaro Martinez confidently taking down an upfield pass from Stefan de Vrij before slotting home past an onrushing Roman Burki for the opener.
Dortmund knocked on the door sporadically throughout the match, struggling to break down Antonio Conte’s well-oiled machine, before Marcelo Brozovic compounded further misery on the travelling Germans, leathering a right-footed effort into the net just on the stroke of full-time.
It was a tense encounter in Milan but what did we learn from this Champions League Group F showdown?
1. Lukaku struggles to leave lasting impression
Across the entire 62 minutes Romelu Lukaku was on the field, the towering Belgian registered just eight touches. Eight touches! A measly figure for a player of his typical influence. Instead of attacking with a verve and panache tonight, Conte largely neglected his frontline and instead prioritised on forming a compact wall in front of his three-man defence which worked to suffocate Dortmund. It wasn’t pretty at times, but it was effective, and that is exactly why he has been brought in.
As for Lukaku, this was not his finest hour, looking isolated and rather anonymous for large spells of the bout, while also failing to register a single shot, making just four successful passes and being caught offside twice – more than any player on the pitch – while his replacement Sebastiano Esposito came on to make an impact immediately by winning a penalty off Mats Hummels.
Lukaku will have better games, and for £70m Conte will certainly hope so, but this was not a fair portrait of how his time on Italian soil has fared so far. The former Man Utd striker has found the back of the net five time in seven Serie A games and looks to have rediscovered his spark – this game will go on to prove a slight blemish on an otherwise promising start to his Inter career.
2. Martinez coming of age under Conte… despite penalty miss
The development of Lautaro Martinez continues to accelerate under Conte, with the 22-year-old Argentine marksman netting his sixth goal across all competitions this evening, breaking the deadlock with a fine finish at the San Siro.
With chances proving a rarity in the opening exchanges of this showpiece fixture, Stefan de Vrij, of all people, surged forward before dinking a delightful pass into the path of Martinez, who adjusted his body expertly before guiding the ball past Roman Burki.
Much was expected of this precocious talent when he pitched up in Milan last season as an unpolished No. 9 from Racing Club, but he didn’t quite light up the San Siro as many were hoping, though in fairness, much of the Nerazzurri’s season proved largely inconsistent under ex-boss Luciano Spalletti.
However, this term Martinez has been anything but inconsistent, with the South American now netting in four consecutive games, including a brace in Serie A on Sunday. Should he continue on this current trajectory then he will be up there for the highly-sought after Capocannoniere (Serie A top scorer) at the end of the campaign – he can perhaps be forgiven for a late penalty miss.
3. Sancho reaches youthful milestone
Tonight Jadon Sancho appeared in his 10th Champions League game, becoming only the fourth English teenager to hit that mark after Theo Walcott (17), Trent Alexander-Arnold (12) and Jack Wilshere (11).
This is just the latest milestone in what is so far proving to be a glittering career for Borussia Dortmund’s fledgling fulcrum, with the talented tyro looking like a world class player in the making.
Tonight, he had flashing moments of brilliance, dancing past veteran defender Diego Godin in the first-half, before forcing a top-class save out of Samir Handanovic. More chances would follow after the interval, but Sancho failed to really seize his opportunity here and put Dortmund in a solid position in Group F. Instead Inter picked up their first win and have now closed the gap on the Bundesliga outfit.
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4. Favre gets it wrong
With Marco Reus and Paco Alcacer both out of this fixture, Lucien Favre was forced to tinker with his tactics and he gambled on deploying creative maestro Julian Brandt through the middle, with Sancho and Thorgan Hazard flanking him either side.
On paper the attacking trident looked threatening, offering a composition of pace, precision and technical excellence, but in practice the trio struggled to form any semblance of a cohesive frontline, instead finding it exceptionally difficult to overpower Conte’s impressive backline.
Dortmund did have one or two openings, but ultimately squandered their chances, notably Sancho who found himself in two key goalscoring opportunities, but the Inter backline were equal to his efforts, with a special mention going to Handanovic who was impenetrable tonight.
Rumours of Jose Mourinho succeeding Favre have been heating up in recent days, and this result – and performance – will do nothing to alleviate the growing pressure the Swiss manager has looming over his shoulders at present – a result here in the aptly named ‘Group of Death’ was essential.
5. Conte’s catenaccio comes out on top
A lot has been said about Conte’s over-emphasis on organisation, defensive discipline and obsessive structure, well tonight proved the perfect example of why the Italian is so successful. His side thwarted the attacking threats of Dortmund, frustrated their forward players, and sprung venomous counters, which ultimately yielded two goals.
The football may not be up there, in terms of aesthetics, with say, Pep Guardiola’s philosophy, but there can be no questioning the effectiveness of Conte’s style. It gets the job done, results are produced, and targets are met.
At Inter, Conte has all the necessary tools to thrive. The back three of Godin, De Vrij and Milan Skriniar are an ideal blend between physicality, defensive competence and aggression; in fact, is there a more terrifying backline than the one in Milan at the moment?
With time, his system will only continue to grow and develop into something far more substantial than tonight’s showing from an attacking perspective, as Inter definitely could have offered more, but if results like this one against Dortmund are anything to go by, then who are we to complain?