MILAN — And all of a sudden, they seemed mature, devoid of the anxieties, brain farts, and inferiority complexes that had previously derailed them. Inter Milan’s 1-0 win against AC Milan gives them a 3-0 aggregate victory over their crosstown rivals, paving the way for the UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul on June 10. It also demonstrated how this club, whose DNA is imprinted with stupid choices, unforced blunders, psychodrama, turmoil, and missed chances, could evolve into something bigger than the sum of its parts and actually play with confidence and control.
That final sentence is crucial. Because even when Inter were extremely excellent in the past, even when they were winning the Treble under Jose Mourinho and were a much superior team – in terms of both skill and execution – they seldom displayed the kind of confidence they’ve shown in this Champions League campaign.
This is where critics and pedants will point out that the 2010 Treble winners faced a higher calibre of opponent in the knockout rounds — Chelsea in the round of 16, Barcelona in the semis, and then Bayern Munich in the final — whereas this Inter side beat FC Porto (by the skin of their teeth), Benfica, and a stumbling Milan, and won’t actually play an A-lister until the final. True, but this isn’t about Inter being excellent. It’s about Inter being the best they can be, treating flaws as if they were beauty spots, hiding flaws with cleverness, and not approaching every impending setback as if it were the end of the world. In other words, it is about maturity.
Twelve minutes into Tuesday’s encounter at San Siro, Theo Hernandez pulled the ball from Nicolo Barella, leaving the Inter midfielder prone on the grass and 60,000 Nerazzurri in the seats yelling for a foul. That stretch of play finished with Sandro Tonali smoking Henrikh Mkhitaryan, sprinting into the area, and sending a superb cutback for Brahim Diaz on the penalty spot. It seemed to be a goal that was easier to miss than score, but the Real Madrid loanee scuffed it with his wrong foot and it dribbled innocuously into the arms of Inter goalie Andre Onana.
The blue-and-black majority at the stadium sighed a collective sigh of relief before worrying that it was a harbinger of things to come, that Milan had their number, that they’d be torn to bits like this all night.
The blue-and-black on the pitch? Not so much. They took it in stride, moved on, and played their game. Maybe they’d all read Eckhart Tolle’s “Power of Now.” Maybe manager Simone Inzaghi mentioned it in his pregame speech: “You can’t change the past because it’s gone, you can’t affect the future because it’s not here yet, all you really do is shape your present.” In any event, that would be Milan’s lone shot on goal all night.
Inter, in fact, restricted the opponents to only five shots altogether, while lavishly taking attempts (15 in all) and winning the expected goals (xG) fight (0.91 to 0.54) along the way. This had all the grandeur and choreography of a derby, but the strain on the field looked to be solely on Milan’s shoulders. Which is remarkable, considering the cliché that when you’re 2-0 down and chasing the game, you have very little to lose. Whereas for Inter, the feat of making a mistake, the dread of messing it up so close to the finish line, would have followed their age-old script.
A lot of this is due to an experienced midfield that understands how to make their experience pay. Mkhitaryan (and later Marcelo Brozovic, when the former Armenia international was forced off due to injury), Hakan Calhanoglu, and Barella held off Milan’s undermanned combo of Tonali and Rade Krunic (would it have been different with a healthy Ismael Bennacer? We’ll never know). They may not have the legs to cover every blade of grass (and whomever they face in the final will be stretched), but Mkhitaryan and Calhanoglu play with the exuberance of offensive players desperate to demonstrate they can do blue-collar work as well.
This is also where Inzaghi must be credited. Stefano Pioli, his opposite number, apparently expected they would sit deep and strike on the counter, which explains why, with Bennacer out, he chose a 4-2-3-1 with the more sluggish and creative Junior Messias out wide rather than the fast Alexis Saelemaekers.
However, Inter did not sit deeply.
They kept going and attempted to play from the back when they could. There would be no siege. They trusted their backline, despite the fact that, with the exception of Alessandro Bastoni (one of Europe’s best central defenders), none of these players were projected to be starters at the start of the season. Matteo Darmian was a former full-back turned utility player. Onana was Ajax’s backup custodian who had hardly featured previous season. Francesco Acerbi, a 34-year-old cancer survivor, joined on a free transfer to cover for the additional cover. Onana and Bastoni are truly extremely excellent, and the other two are experienced and brave, which sometimes means more.
Inter stuffed the bogeyman Rafael Leao, who had returned from the muscle ailment that had kept him out of the first leg, with wing-back Denzel Dumfries (unquestionably the best player named after a Hollywood leading man). Edin Dzeko dragged his 37-year-old physique to assist Barella in suppressing Theo’s long runs. That eliminates the majority of Milan’s offensive danger. It left Tonali battling windmills in the midst of the park.
The remainder was done by Inzaghi’s typical replacements. A fresh Romelu Lukaku coming on in the last 25 minutes to rush at (and into) your defenders is about as pleasant as blue lights flashing behind you after you’ve been playing fast and loose with the speed limit.
Most importantly, Inter were unconcerned. Not because of the occasion, not because of the tactical fouls (it became tetchy, as derbies do), and not because of their history. Maybe they reminded themselves that, for all of Milan’s European heritage with seven European Cups, the Nerazzurri were in a Champions League final more recently (2010 vs. 2007).
They may be roasted in Istanbul, whether by Treble-chasing Manchester City or reigning champions Real Madrid, but they’re playing with house money. Whatever happens, they’re unlikely to defeat themselves in Istanbul, as so many previous Inter sides have. They’re much too mature for that.