Inter Milan make a long-awaited return to the Champions League final on Saturday as they face Manchester City in the Ataturk Olympic Stadium showpiece.
For the first time since Jose Mourinho’s side defied the odds to establish the Nerazzurri atop Europe’s most prestigious club competition in 2010, the Italians entertain a slim chance to do the unthinkable.
With the odds firmly stacked against them, Simone Inzaghi’s men must pull a rabbit out of the hat to topple a more heavily fancied Pep Guardiola’s high-flyers, bidding to complete a coveted ‘Treble.’
Defensive resilience has been the Serie A team’s hallmark in this season’s Champions League, as they’ve amassed an impressive eight clean sheets in 12 matches en route to the grand final.
But winning titles often requires scoring goals. And despite a sizeable gulf in class, it’s not like Inter don’t have enough ammunition to put the ball past Ederson.
After his immense contribution to Argentina’s World Cup success in Qatar and a match-winning performance in the Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina last month, Lautaro Martinez is certain to start on Saturday.
However, the question remains – who should partner him in the front third? Inzaghi is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Edin Dzeko would have been the Italian’s favourite, yet Romelu Lukaku’s return to form at the tail-end of the season makes it an impossible choice.
Let’s break down this puzzle.
At 37, Dzeko is well past his prime and could be on the verge of hanging up his boots at the end of the season, yet he’s been Inzaghi’s number-one choice to start alongside Martinez in every high-stakes fixture.
The Bosnian has made 51 appearances for Inter this season, including all six starts in the Champions League knockout stages and the abovementioned Coppa Italia title decider.
But he only netted once across those seven starts, while his 14-goal tally for the season indicates his scoring boots have seen better days.
Dzeko’s only strike served as a game-opener in a 2-0 first-leg win over AC Milan in the semi-finals.
Barring his vast experience in big matches, the ex-Roma talisman has offered little in terms of being a genuine scoring threat, often letting Martinez do all the heavy lifting in front of goal.
Considering Inter may only have a handful of chances to hurt Man City, Inzaghi’s men don’t have the luxury to squander any opportunity that may come their way.
Which brings us to Lukaku.
After experiencing an injury-plagued start to his second stint at Inter, the 30-year-old has hit his stride at the most opportune moment for his side.
The Chelsea loanee’s superb form down the final stretch of the 2022/23 Serie A campaign helped the Nerazzurri effortlessly secure a sixth consecutive top-four finish.
Lukaku netted seven goals and chipped in with five assists in his last nine league appearances, equalling Dzeko’s haul of 14 goals this season despite playing 15 matches fewer.
Although he has yet to start a Champions League fixture for Inter this term, he has tallied three goals and one assist to become the only Nerazzurri player to either score or assist in every round they’ve contested.
What’s even more impressive is that it only took him 144 minutes on the pitch to achieve that feat.
His career at Stamford Bridge never reached the promised heights, yet when properly motivated and at full capacity, Lukaku could be a nightmare for any defence in Europe.
That’s not to mention his on-field chemistry with Martinez that forged a devastating attacking partnership leading to Inter’s Serie A triumph in 2020/21 under Antonio Conte.
Depending on whether Inzaghi prefers experience and style over strength and workload, both players have reasonable chances to make the starting line-up.
However, the Inter boss may have to adapt his tactics to the game, which will likely see his men chasing Man City players all night while waiting for their chances on the counter.
In such circumstances, having a player of Lukaku’s physique could be more beneficial than throwing a veteran into a speed race with Kyle Walker and Ruben Dias.
Maybe it’s time for Inzaghi to shuffle his pack and give the Belgian one last chance to earn a permanent contract at Giuseppe Meazza.
How to watch?
Make sure to find live Champions League streams here to avoid missing out on the most significant event on the European football schedule.
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