The festival of football in Portugal and Germany this month have provided more surprises for the favourites than many had cared to imagine. And make no mistake, Inter Milan fell into that favourites category ahead of their meeting with Shakhtar Donetsk,
Antonio Conte’s future appears to be very much dependent on their success in ending a 10-year European trophy drought, following his criticism of the club’s owners in recent weeks.
Conte however may have made the remarks with the knowledge that very few defences appear to have the ability to stop Romelu Lukaku right now.
Once again on Monday evening, it was Lukaku’s brilliance – imbued with flashes of brilliance from a younger crop of Inter stars – that sent the club through to their 10th European final.
The club possess loftier ambitions than the three Uefa Cups they won in seven years in the 1990s, and Monday night may prove that Conte is beginning to build the efficient machine that drove Chelsea to the 2017 Premier League title.
There was barely a noticeable passage of play before 23-year-old midfielder Nicolo Barella looked up and delivered a pinpoint cross to 22-year-old striker Lautaro Martinez, whose own glance ensured he nodded past Andriy Pyatov – who had started the counter with a poor clearance – at the Merkur-Spiel Arena in Dusseldorf.
The header was Inter’s 107th goal of the season, matching their club record from 1951 and 2007, and doing so in a half where they enjoyed just 33% of possession, their lowest this season.
But while Inter were starved of possession, they could easily have made it two, but Danilo D’Ambrosio appeared to get in Lukaku’s way from Ashley Young’s cross.
Shakhtar Donetsk were the antithesis of Conte’s gameplan, weaving pretty patterns in midfield but failing to register a shot on target and any effort of note until Marcos Antonio’s effort just skimmed over the bar with two minutes of the first half remaining.
Barella meanwhile was a live wire for much of the first half but failed to see his energy replicated from the other 21 players on the pitch.
However, following what were presumably some spirit-raising words from Conte and Shakhtar boss Luis Castro to their respective sides, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope of a more engaging contest similar to the one in Cologne the previous evening.
Martinez threatened to add a 21st goal of the season to the 20th he had already scored, but his delightful chip was pawed away by Pyatov before Lukaku tried to spark a quiet evening into life with a right-footed effort that – had it curled as intended – would have provided Inter with a second.
In spite of their chances though, Inter were reminded of their delicate lead when Junior Moraes found space between Alessandro Bastoni and Stefan de Vrij but headed the cross straight at a grateful Samir Handanovic.
But not soon after the reminder had arrived were Conte and his side breathing a sigh of relief as D’Ambrosio stole in at the back post to head home a corner from the right, which ensured they surpassed their scoring record from 1951 and 2007.
The floodgates very much began to open after that, and after Lukaku spurned a golden chance, Martinez expertly controlled following Taras Stepanenko’s error to curl a superb strike beyond Pyatov.
Shakhtar’s belief had been completely decimated by this point and Lukaku would claim an unprecedented record by scoring in a tenth consecutive Europa League game, cushioning an intricate pass from Martinez before finding the corner of the net.
The Ukranian champions had been lacklustre in pressing their Serie A outfit all evening, but few could have stopped Lukaku in his tracks as he burst past his marker deep inside his half, before drawing an advance from Pyatov and sliding the ball between his legs to claim his second of the night.
In truth, the Italian side could have gone close to matching Bayern Munich’s humiliation of Barcelona on Friday, but their job had already been completed as they aim to win their first trophy in nine years having scored 111 goals in all competitions.
Diego Godin had spoken before the semi-final about trying to annihilate Shakhtar. The Uruguayan defender however will be under no illusions given his LaLiga experience that Friday’s final against the competition’s specialist will be such a rollover.