Milan: Inter Milan are dreaming of a shock Champions League triumph after upsetting the odds to reach this season’s final, securing their place in Istanbul on June 10 with a deserved semi-final win over city rivals AC Milan.
“If you had said at the start of the season that we would reach the Champions League final, I would probably have found it hard to believe you,” Inter president Steven Zhang admitted after his side beat Milan 1-0 thanks to a Lautaro Martinez goal in Tuesday’s second leg to win the tie 3-0 on aggregate.
Tuesday’s result was, remarkably, Inter’s fourth win over Milan in four meetings in 2023, all of them without conceding a goal.
It allowed the blue and black half of the city to avenge Champions League exits to their rivals in the 2003 semi-finals — on the now-scrapped away goals rule — and the 2005 quarterfinals.
“It’s a dream come true. We always believed we could do it, we have had an extraordinary journey,” coach Simone Inzaghi told broadcaster Mediaset.
Reaching the final seemed improbable just a few weeks ago, after Inter narrowly edged out Porto in the last 16.
They then beat Benfica 5-3 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, but a 1-0 home league defeat by Monza on April 15, just before the second leg of that European tie, left Inter sixth in Serie A, five points adrift of the top four.
They had taken just four points from seven league games. Fast forward a month and they are now on an eight-game winning run.
They are back up to third in Serie A, meaning Champions League qualification for next season is now likely regardless of what happens in the final.
Inter have shown themselves to be cup specialists — they also have the Coppa Italia final against Fiorentina on May 24 as they seek to retain that trophy.
Sixth final together
Reaching the final in Istanbul is a huge moment for Italian football, with Inter aiming to become the first Champions League winners from the country since they lifted the trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2010.
This will be their sixth final altogether.
Helenio Herrera’s team that famously perfected the art of “catenaccio” beat Madrid 3-1 to lift the European Cup in Vienna in 1964 and retained the trophy with a 1-0 win over Benfica a year later.
Inter then lost the 1967 final to Celtic and were beaten in 1972 by Johan Cruyff’s Ajax.
Before this season Inter had not won a Champions League knockout tie since 2011 and it was a surprise that they qualified from a group containing Bayern Munich and Barcelona, with the Catalans missing out.
Money talks at this level, and City and Madrid were the top two in this year’s Deloitte Football Money League, a reference for ranking the financial might of European clubs.
Each had revenue over €700 million ($758 million) last year, while Inter were 14th with revenue of €308 million, in between Borussia Dortmund and West Ham United.
There is uncertainty off the pitch, with the club posting losses of €140 million last season.
It was recently reported that their Chinese owners, electronics retailer Suning, at the helm since 2016, were looking to sell.
Yet the revenue and prestige earned from their Champions League run may make for a different outlook.
“(Romelu) Lukaku said at the start of the season we would get to the final and I thought he was joking,” Zhang said.
“Inter are a club with a history of winning trophies. When we bought Inter seven years ago we knew it was not just any old club. Nobody expected us to get out of a difficult group, and now we are in the final.”
Zhang has also said that Inzaghi, under contract to 2024, will be staying.
“There is no reason for us to change the coach, so we are ready to start a third season with him,” he told Italian media.
This Inter team has been together a while, with six of those who featured against Milan on Tuesday having been in Antonio Conte’s starting line-up for the 2020 Europa League final defeat by Sevilla.
The next season they won Serie A, and now they are one game away from winning the club’s fourth European Cup.