Simone Inzaghi, Inter Milan’s urbane manager, needs little introduction to the aura of Pep Guardiola. In 2018, he unexpectedly encountered him while on honeymoon in New York, as he and his wife, Gaia, turned up for breakfast one morning and found the Manchester City manager sitting at the next table. Little did Inzaghi know that five years later, he would again be meeting the finest tactical mind of his generation in the match of their lives.
In a Champions League final, you would not usually expect to find the underdog enthusiastically talking up the favourite. But at 47, Inzaghi, younger brother of the celebrated AC Milan striker Filippo, hardly even tries to conceal his admiration for Guardiola. “City have a coach who has marked an era in modern football,” he says. “In football there is a before and an after Guardiola.”
You wonder if Inzaghi, by showing this degree of deference to his opposite number, is letting slip a certain inferiority complex. And yet he has his own reasons for optimism as he prepares Inter for their sixth appearance in Europe’s grandest game, having been labelled “king of the cups” for his extraordinary record in finals, first at Lazio and now Inter, winning seven and losing only one. “I like having the nickname,” he says with a smile. “I’ve always had strong teams, and in the decisive finals we have always attacked and defended well. We will do the same against City.”
Trepidation is conspicuous by its absence here at Appiano Gentile, Inter’s opulent training base in the countryside north of Milan. “Pep is the best coach in the world and I will always say that, but we’re talking about a football match, and there’s no fear,” Inzaghi explains. “City have been chasing the Champions League title for many years. Does that give us a psychological edge? We will see. We’re proud to play this final, because we wanted it with every fibre of our being.”
Alessandro Bastoni, Inter’s centre-back, is even blunter, regarding any suggestion that the 19-time champions of Italy should be frightened of City with a scepticism verging on disdain. Even if the prospect of trying to contain Erling Haaland cannot ruffle the 24-year-old, who has been studying footage of Antonio Rüdiger’s close marking of the Norwegian, during the first leg of City’s semi-final against Real Madrid, for inspiration.
“You are scared of assassins and murderers, not football players,” Bastoni says. “It would be a mistake to talk about fear. It’s not Haaland versus Inter, it’s City versus Inter. There’s no fear, just the right level of tension. More than anything, there is happiness.”
Federico Dimarco, the left-back, is in no doubt as to where the heaviest burden of expectation lies. “For us, winning the Champions League is a dream, but for them, it is an obsession,” he says. “For 13 years, I have been looking at the images of our victory in Madrid in 2010, from Diego Milito’s goal to Javier Zanetti when he lifted the trophy. We are a strong team and we have demonstrated it up to this moment. If we do what we know how to do, we can achieve a great result.”
Inzaghi paid particular attention to City’s FA Cup final triumph over Manchester United in trying to understand the scale of the task awaiting Inter in Istanbul on Saturday night. “The more you see City, the more you understand why they have achieved so much,” he says. “They are complete, physically and technically. They are aggressive. City have very few weaknesses, but we have shown how good we are. We’ll have to take some possession away from them.”
One crucial decision for Inzaghi is whether to deploy the veteran Edin Dzeko, the former City striker, up front alongside Lautaro Martínez, or to choose the more direct physical threat offered by Romelu Lukaku, who has scored seven goals in his past 11 matches. “We know that we are up against the strongest team in the world, who have won the Premier League five times in the last six years,” Inzaghi says. “We will have to be careful. We will need to make things different for them, because they have been playing for so many years together under the same coach. It will be very difficult, but we’ll do it with our own weapons.”