Inter and the impossible task of the Champions League final

Inter and the impossible task of the Champions League final

When Pep Guardiola and his staff began to properly prepare for this Champions League final, they found something they haven’t really experienced in, well, years.

It has been very difficult to identify patterns or trends in Inter’s play because there don’t appear to be any. During the quarter-final against Benfica, it became clear that the Portuguese side had much more of an idea of play, in that they had an idea at all. Inter’s forward players, by contrast, didn’t seem to be coordinated. There were moments when some would press and some wouldn’t, as if it was completely ad hoc.

A few figures in the game have quipped that it is like something out of the turn of the millennium, or even 1990, and that it certainly shouldn’t be working in 2023. It is most definitely not a product of the pressing-dictated world that Guardiola himself has been so central to creating.

It is not the only way that Inter have defied the norms of the modern game in reaching their sixth Champions League final.

They may be one of football’s grandiose names and one of the most successful clubs in the competition’s history, having already lifted the European Cup three times, but they are currently not a “super club” and very far from one of the better eras in their own 115 years of existence. It is actually funny how football works, even as it has changed.

None of the stellar Inter squads that featured - among others - Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieiri, Lothar Matthaus, Jurgen Klinsmann, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Youri Djorkaeff or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ever got within a breeze of a Champions League final and yet here they are with Robin Gosens and Matteo Darmian.

There are enjoyably nostalgic threads you could follow there about how the club was run, how former owner Massimo Moratti was too fixated on stars, how one of their best European runs came in the Uefa Cup just before the Champions League was expanded and how the sport as a whole had a greater competitive balance.

Even allowing for all that, though, Gosens and Darmian are part of a squad that is currently the oldest in Serie A. It also has 12 players out of contract this summer just at a point when Inter badly need to sell. That points to how financially stretched the club are, with many potential buyers understood to be circling in the belief that such a historic name can be bought for a relatively low price.

Previous issues have already ensured Inter are part-owned by the Chinese state, even if that is not for reasons of soft power or “sportswashing”. It does mean the club almost represent a cautionary tale in what can happen when an autocratic country suddenly abandons a huge international football plan, which has never been more relevant.

It also means it should never have been more difficult for Inter to get this far. They may have part state-ownership, just like Manchester City, but they almost represent the total contrast in every element of the football club. The 2023 Champions League final arguably features the greatest mismatch in this fixture since 1989.

Everything at Inter was supposed to be coming apart, and Simone Inzaghi is not one of those coaches who brings everything together under a unifying tactical ideology. He didn’t even have a particularly rallying message before that epochal semi-final against AC Milan.

Edin Dzeko faces former side Manchester City in the Istanbul final (Getty Images)
Edin Dzeko faces former side Manchester City in the Istanbul final (Getty Images)

It was pretty much to “go out and do the club proud”.

And yet it is that very lightness that has played into this run. Uncertainty about so much of the club has fostered a strange focus.

Even the one constant of this run, which is the surges from deep by the burgeoning Federico Dimarco, are impossible to predict or pin down. He can attack any space out of nowhere, suddenly driving 50 yards up the pitch before a one-two that wreaks havoc. It may be something Guardiola’s staff can point to, but - in the words of one source - there’s “an anarchy to it that makes it impossible to accommodate in any gameplan”.

That focus from uncertainty has been gently nurtured by a manager who may be the first since Jose Mourinho to lift Inter to this stage but is “absolutely nothing like” the Portuguese.

There hasn’t quite been that defiance or anger. Inzaghi has instead sought to use the circumstances to nurture a “family atmosphere”, that very much comes across in the spirit in the group.

Even the directors and general staff are all quite close with the players, something that could be sensed on the club’s mandated media day before this final. That formality involves squads having to go through open training for 15 minutes, but all finalists of course use that for warm-ups, with the serious business behind closed doors.

Not that you would have noticed that much of a difference with Inter. There are no drills instilling a grander idea.

Inzaghi never plays the same way twice. His approach is entirely reactive, to arguably a greater degree than anyone in this modern systemised era.

That is possibly why so many league games are battles, and they have never looked like reclaiming the title delivered by Antonio Conte in 2020-21.

Simone Inzaghi faces Pep Guardiola but is the opposite to the Man City manager (Getty Images)
Simone Inzaghi faces Pep Guardiola but is the opposite to the Man City manager (Getty Images)

It can be hard for players to buy into that approach for a game against Spezia, and they run out of ideas and impetus. The Champions League meanwhile fosters something very different. Conscious of the stakes, the players become charged for the changes that Inzaghi makes. That is where the age of the squad is an advantage, as so many players sense a last chance or even redemption. Much has been made of how Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku have been almost in a relay as regards the number-nine role, the Bosnian accentuating his age-old qualities through experience, the Belgian in arguably the best physical condition of his career.

This is also where there is at least something of a 2010 vibe, at least in terms of so many seasoned individuals applying an emotional intensity to the competition. They are the ultimate “cup team” in that way, and have got into their heads that they are one of those vintage Champions League sides. No matter the form in the league, they have that rare momentum in this competition.

Many might fairly say that comes from the most forgiving run of fixtures in a split knock-out stage, but it actually goes back further. City may have had a harder series of opponents in getting to Istanbul, but Inter first came through one of the hardest groups you are going to get.

Squeezing through to the last 16 between Bayern Munich and Barcelona first fostered this conviction. It was seen as “ridiculous for the group - and huge”.

From that, and especially the grand show in the first leg against Milan, you just would not guess there is such a cloud over the club above a professional executive department.

“It is like many are almost embarrassed to talk about the ownership situation,” one source said.

None of that was visible on the San Siro pitch in the immediate aftermath of the semi-final. There, the employees and families came together with the players for a true moment of community.

It was glorious, one of the club’s great nights, even when the very stadium surrounded them with so much illustrious history.

Lautaro Martinez with the Inter fans after reaching the Champions League final (Getty Images)
Lautaro Martinez with the Inter fans after reaching the Champions League final (Getty Images)

That points to the present difference. Some warned that it could be like Tottenham Hotspur at Ajax in 2019, where the emotional peak could only ever come in the semi-final.

This Inter squad just don’t see themselves like that, though.

They see themselves as winners, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

It goes against everything building up to this final. That very contradiction, however, is what has got them to Istanbul.