After months of waiting and years of hoping, Inter Milan are finally Serie A champions again.
2009/10 was the last time Inter lifted the Scudetto, with José Mourinho as coach they completed Italian football’s first (and still only) Treble in dramatic fashion. It looked like Inter, who at that point had won five straight titles, were emerging as the country’s dominant force.
Of course, what happened was Mourinho left, the team fell apart, and after one AC Milan title, the real juggernaut of Italian football uncoiled and revealed its brutal power. With Antonio Conte as coach, Juventus won Serie A in 2011/12 without losing a single game. The Bianconeri would go on to win nine consecutive titles with three different head coaches in a span of success Italian football had never seen before.
Now it’s been ended by the very man who started it. Conte is in his second year as Inter manager and after faltering at the final hurdle and finishing second by a single point last season, he has guided Inter to a truly dominant title victory with four games still to play.
Conte’s greatest achievement?
Antonio Conte is a polarising figure as a coach. He is famously demanding of his players and his owners, a temperamental sort who can upset people around him. But he is very obviously brilliant, as he has demonstrated this season.
In the 1960s, Inter Milan were one of the very best teams in the world. They won consecutive titles and consecutive European Cups. However, since they lost the 1967 European Cup final to Celtic in what felt like a battle for football’s stylistic soul, they have struggled.
Between 1967 and 2005, a span of 38 years, Inter won just three titles. They watched Juventus hoover up championships in all three decades, city rivals Milan revolutionise the game, Napoli sign Diego Maradona and become cult heroes for all-time. All the while, Inter became a running joke, able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For Conte to take that joke, to take those “rejected” players, and turn it into such a potent and powerful team. A team that thrills with its ability to punish opponents, to play from the back, to find goalscoring heroes in the strangest of places, really speaks to his genius as a coach.
This last decade in Italian football is bookended by Antonio Conte’s brilliance. First in winning Serie A unbeaten with Juventus, and now for winning Serie A with Inter so thoroughly. Seriously, Inter just won Serie A with four games left to play. They are 13 points ahead of second place. This is staggering dominance and unlike their great title run from the late 2000s where people could blame Calciopoli, no one can say anything about it. This was all Inter.
You can’t talk about Inter, Juventus and Serie A without mentioning Calciopoli; where some of the top sides at the time, especially Juventus, were found guilty of influencing refereeing selections for their games. The result was astounding as Juve were relegated to Serie B, meaning that a whole host of their superstars left the club. Notably, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira left to join Inter; the only big club (with Roma) who were not found guilty of any wrongdoing.
So Inter’s five-title run in the late 2000s came in the shadow of Calciopoli. Juventus were relegated and Milan were docked points. In fact, the first of Inter’s five titles had been won by Juventus but was given to Inter by the courts. And of course, the subsequent dominance was down to the winning mentality brought by Ibrahimovic and Vieira as well as a lack of real competition giving them a headstart on everyone.
Bringing this up isn’t to belittle those title wins, which were wholly legitimate, but to enhance this season’s glory. No one can speak ill of this team, this championship. No one can doubt what they have done here: preventing a literal decade of dominance from one single side, their most hated rivals at that.
This title, Inter’s 19th title (taking them ahead of city rivals Milan on 18), was won with nothing but the skill of their recruitment, the genius of Conte’s coaching and the immense performances of the players.
Romelu Lukaku: player of the year
Every title winner needs a talisman, a player who leads the way with their performances or goals. Sometimes a player leads the way with both, and for Inter that someone has been 27-year-old Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku.
Back in 2017, Lukaku was lighting up the Premier League for Everton when Conte’s Chelsea wanted to sign him. The Blues had just won the title but Conte wanted to move on from Diego Costa and saw Lukaku as his man.
“I wanted Romelu very strongly when I was at Chelsea, even back at Juventus. I wanted him,” Conte said in 2020; before referring to Lukaku as a rough diamond who needed work to improve; “now I can get to work on polishing the diamond.”
In 91 games for Inter, Lukaku has scored 61 times. In his first season, he equalled the great Ronaldo’s record for most goals in a debut season for Inter. And in 2020/21 he did what even Ronaldo could never do: guide Inter to a title.
And this really should be known as Lukaku’s title. While Inter are obviously a great team and Lautaro Martinez’s 15 goals and five assists cannot be understated in their importance, Lukaku is on a different level. While he won’t win the Capocannoniere award for top goalscorer (Cristiano Ronaldo is top with 27 goals), there can be no doubt that he is the player of the year in Serie A.
21 goals scored places him second in terms of overall goalscorers. So impressive. Meanwhile, 10 assists leaves him joint-first with Juan Cuadrado and Ruslan Malinovsky. His direct goal involvement of 31 puts him top of the table in Italy, with only Robert Lewandowski, Leo Messi, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappé outdoing him across all of Europe’s top five leagues.
Lukaku is in that elite company and very much belongs there, too. He looks leaner, meaner, sharper and more skilled than he ever has done. Conte has well and truly polished the diamond, and Lukaku himself agrees.
“Conte has improved me in all ways. Thanks to the coach I understood who I am, it’s the first thing that needs to be understood,” Lukaku said, adding that he was sure after just one training session: “I knew that he and Inter were the best choice from the first training session”
As much as Lukaku and Lautaro have been the starring act, what makes Inter so fascinating is just how many of their squad came into this season viewed as cast-offs and rejects or players who are just plain disregarded.
Arturo Vidal was cast-off at Barcelona, Christian Eriksen was having troubles at Spurs before they finally sold him for a small fee, Bayern Munich didn’t feel like they needed to get Ivan Persisic back even after he helped them win the Treble.
And then you look at Manchester United… apart from Lukaku, there was also Alexis Sanchez and Ashley Young, players who left Old Trafford having seemingly given all they had left to the Red Devils finding out that, with Conte’s guidance, they still had much to offer.
Matteo Darmian was a full-back who saw his career completely derailed by a move to Manchester United, but he joined Inter in the summer and ended up scoring two crucial game-winning goals in the last month as Inter consolidated their lead atop the table and avoiding the abundance of draws that had so cost them in 2019/20.
All of these rejects, these cast-offs, they were unified by Conte. They rallied behind their leader and provided a superb platform for Inter’s superstars like Lautaro Martinez, Marcelo Brozovic, Nico Barella, Stefano Sensi and, of course, the regal Romelu Lukaku to thrive. And those superstars have led Inter forward unto a new dawn where they could establish a new dynasty atop Italian football.