By Peter Hall
(Reuters) - Romelu Lukaku is hitting top form at the right time for Inter Milan, the Belgian striker making one goal and scoring another in a 3-0 derby win over AC Milan on Sunday which put his side in pole position to win their first Serie A title in 11 years.
Lukaku has had his fair share of critics throughout his career, but his brilliantly-taken goal for Inter's third – his sixth strike in his last six appearances in all competitions -- took him to the top of the Serie A scoring charts.
Lukaku became the first player to score in four consecutive Milan derbies in Serie A since 1950, but the 27-year-old is not just about goals. His pinpoint cross to set up Lautaro Martinez for Inter's first on Sunday was his fifth league assist of the season.
"Lukaku can improve a lot, he is only 27," Martinez told DAZN.
"He works very hard and he makes himself available to his team mates also. He is a great person on and off the pitch, we are happy to have him with us."
Sunday's derby was even more eagerly-anticipated as it was the first time Lukaku had gone up against Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic since their heated physical exchange in last month's Coppa Italia match.
Although Ibrahimovic could not make an impact from his five attempts at goal, however, Lukaku’s efforts made all the difference.
Lukaku’s finish for the third goal in the 66th minute, where he drove at the heart of the Milan backline before firing home, was so good that Ibrahimovic applauded it.
The form of Lukaku is certainly rubbing off on his team mates - Inter's 57 league goals after 23 games is the most they have registered at this stage of a season since 1951.
"This is without doubt the hungriest Inter Milan I've ever played for," goalkeeper Samir Handanovic told Inter TV.
"We had all week to prepare and we put it in on the pitch -- we knew what we had to do to win the match."
Antonio Conte's side only took over from Milan at the top last weekend after Stefano Pioli’s side surprisingly slipped to defeat at Spezia.
But with no European football or other domestic cup competition to distract them, Inter can focus on one goal -- earning that first league title since the treble-winning year under Jose Mourinho in 2010.
And with Lukaku in this form, they could take some stopping.
(Reporting by Peter Hall, editing by Ed Osmond)