Edin Dzeko learned long ago not to worry about the dry spells. The Bosnian striker went 19 games without a goal for Internazionale this year, then interrupted that sequence with three in a week, scoring twice in a rout of Verona before grabbing the opener in the Champions League semi-final against Milan: a brilliant volley from a corner.
“Sometimes you get in these difficult moments when the ball doesn’t want to get in,” he said at the time. “But patience and work always pay off.”
They certainly have for Dzeko, preparing at 37 to play in his first Champions League final. Standing between him and the trophy are Manchester City, a team he scored 72 goals for between 2011 and 2015. “My club,” as he referred to them this week.
Dzeko uses similar framing when he talks about others he has played for: Wolfsburg, whom he fired to a first Bundesliga title when he was 23, or Roma, where he enjoyed his previous best Champions League run, reaching the semi-final after inspiring an epic three-goal comeback against Barcelona. They all have a piece of his heart. He has yearned, though, to revisit Manchester since he left.
“I haven’t been there for, like, eight years,” Dzeko told his former teammate Joleon Lescott in an interview for BT Sport this week. “I was praying that at some point in the Champions League I’d get the chance to play against City at the Etihad Stadium but unfortunately I never got the chance.
“I know that we were a big part of the beginning of the City era which was the most important. So now when I see City, I’m always happy. I know that I meant a lot to the club and the fans.”
How could they not remember him fondly? Dzeko played an essential role in City’s first Premier League title, his 19 goals in his first full season including the stoppage-time equaliser that made victory over QPR possible on the final day. Sergio Agüero’s winner from a Mario Balotelli pass is more iconic but it could never have happened without Dzeko heading in from a corner first.
He claimed a second title at City in 2014 but left to join Roma a year later, after finding himself squeezed to the margins of a crowded attack. Looking back, he believes the Premier League is the hardest place for a footballer to succeed, yet also that he has improved since coming to Italy, where he discovered coaches more eager to dig into the details of how to approach specific situations on the pitch.
There is something to be said, too, for breadth of experience. Dzeko, who moved on again to join Inter in 2021, was the first player to reach 50 goals in three of Europe’s top five leagues. His understanding of the different approaches required against diverse opponents is a big part of why Simone Inzaghi has started him in 10 Champions League games, including every knockout fixture, continuing to pick him ahead of Romelu Lukaku even as the Belgian found form.
The manager insisted on Monday that he had not made his mind up about who would start alongside Lautaro Martínez against City. “I haven’t settled on my midfield or defence yet either,” he said. “Right now, I have the luxury of choice and for a manager that’s the best thing you can have.”
Lukaku, too, would relish the opportunity. His return on loan to Inter, just a year after they sold him to Chelsea for €115m (£99m), got off to an inauspicious start, injuries limiting him to five appearances before the World Cup in November. Yet he ended the Serie A season on a run of seven goals and four assists in his past seven games.
“I knew from the start we could reach a Champions League final,” said Lukaku this week. “I texted it to the [club] president [Steven Zhang] once I learned I was supposed to be coming back to Inter. He replied with an emoticon.”
Lukaku hopes to stay next season, though financial realities make that complicated. Inter posted losses of €140m (£120m) on their accounts for 2021-22 and next year will need to repay the €275m emergency loan they took from Oaktree Capital to cover operating costs after revenues were decimated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those are concerns for another day. Right now, all minds are on Saturday’s final. Asked how the choice of Dzeko or Lukaku would affect his game, Martínez replied: “They are two very different players. Edin likes to keep the ball, to come back and look for teammates. Romelu tends to attack the space and take defenders with him. I’m really happy with either of them.”
In practice, it seems certain that both will play, the only question being who lines up from the start. Dzeko seems the more likely choice, having been selected for the Supercoppa and Coppa Italia final, each of which ended in an Inter triumph. He scored and was man of the match in the first of those games, a 3-0 drubbing of Milan.
He joked with a reporter after the match that everybody had his age wrong, and he was about to turn 22. Dzeko cannot really turn back time, but he is looking forward on Saturday to facing off against his own past.