Whether Edin Dzeko or Romelu Lukaku lines up alongside him, Martínez is the sure thing in Internazionale’s attack. He won the World Cup in December, even if not everyone was keen to give him much credit after a tournament in which he failed to register a goal or assist. It later emerged that he had been playing on an injured ankle that required pain-killing injections throughout.
In any case, he has been prolific for Inter, scoring 28 times – two shy of Diego Milito’s tally during their 2010 treble-winning campaign. Martínez is all too aware that his compatriot completed his haul with a pair in the Champions League final. “I hear about these things,” he said. “Sometimes you believe [history can repeat], sometimes no. The important thing is to be ourselves and attack City with courage. They ought to be worried about us, too.”
No Turkish player has won the Champions League but Calhanoglu, captain of the national team, hopes to become the first in Istanbul. “It’s the most beautiful city in the world for me,” he said in an interview for Uefa last week, adding that he hoped the final could bring some joy to his country after the earthquake that cost tens of thousands of lives this year.
Adapted by Inter’s manager, Simone Inzaghi, from a No 10 into a deep-lying playmaker, his position changed again when Henrikh Mkhitaryan was injured in the second leg of their semi-final win over Milan, moving into a box-to-box role on the left of the midfield three so that Marcelo Brozovic could slot into the middle. Regardless of where he lines up, Calhanoglu will back himself, recently saying: “I see myself as one of the top five in Europe at what I do.”
Samir Handanovic remains Inter’s captain, and others have worn the armband since the goalkeeper lost his starting role, yet it is Barella who often sets a tone. That can be a double-edged sword. He is a tireless runner – only Milan’s Sandro Tonali has covered more distance in this season’s Champions League – and selfless contributor at both ends of the pitch but has sometimes struggled to contain his frustration when teammates fail to match his high standards.
He has delivered in key moments on this run to the final, scoring the opening goal in both legs against Benfica as well as his team’s first in the 3-3 group stage draw with Barcelona. As Barella tells it, though, the journey here began with defeat by Sevilla in the 2020 Europa League final. “From that pain we started winning trophies, a league, the cups,” he said. “We are lifting Inter back up where it deserves to be.”
Alessandro Bastoni spoke for Inter’s defenders on Monday, insisting that fear was something you could feel toward “assassins” but not centre-forwards, even ones as brilliant as Erling Haaland. A modern, ball-playing centre-back who has collected three assists on the way to this final, the 24-year-old found himself fending off a reporter’s suggestions that he might be a classic “Guardiola player”.
Acerbi, 11 years his senior, is something different: an unshowy and sometimes awkward-looking defender whose signing by Inter last summer was not well received by supporters but who has won them over by marking several talented No 9s out of games – including Olivier Giroud in both legs of the semi-final – as well as with his brutally blunt demeanour.
Before the return game against Milan, he told journalists that losing now would make it a “shit season”. Asked this week what a perfect game against Haaland and co might look like, he replied: “I’m not interested in perfect. All I care about is lifting the cup.”
One of the defining acts of Inzaghi’s management at Inter has been the rehabilitation of Dimarco, a boyhood fan of the Nerazzurri who had spent half a decade playing for different clubs on loans and short-term deals. Over the past two years he has established himself as one of the most effective wing-backs in Italy, a diligent worker and excellent crosser whose five Champions League assists this season trail only Kevin De Bruyne and Vinícius Júnior.
He credits his growth to the experience gained playing big matches for club and country. “The games against Barcelona [in the group stage] changed me,” he said this week. “Those matches helped turn me into a different player completely.”