The bar for success has always been set impossibly high for Simone Inzaghi. His older brother, Filippo, was a prolific goalscorer who won a World Cup with Italy and two Champions Leagues at Milan. Fans renamed him even before those triumphs as “Superpippo”, a real-life comic book hero.
But Simone also achieved things as a player few others have. He helped Lazio win one of two Serie A titles in the club’s history and was the second man to score four goals in a Champions League game. Filippo believes only injuries stopped his sibling from surpassing him “because he had better technical gifts than I did”. Yet Simone, too, was defined by a nickname bestowed on him: “Inzaghino”, the “Little Inzaghi”.
Seven years into his management career, he has finally carved out his own brand. These days, Simone is the “Re di Coppe” – “King of the Cups”. At Lazio, he lifted the Coppa Italia once and the SuperCoppa Italiana twice. Since joining Inter in 2021, he has won both editions of those competitions and now steered his team into a Champions League final.
“Of course I like this reputation,” said Inzaghi on Monday. “I’ve had the fortune to work with important teams at Inter and Lazio, to have important players. In decisive games we’ve always managed to play well, to look after both phases – defence and attack – in the best way.”
That habit may have kept him in a job. As recently as two months ago, Italy’s sporting newspapers carried reports that he was close to the sack, Inter sliding to sixth in Serie A after collecting one point from five games.
Inzaghi made mistakes, but, as in his playing career, also found himself being held to unobtainable standards. The comparison this time was not to his brother, but to his Inter predecessor, Antonio Conte, who, in 2021, led the club to its first league title in more than a decade before immediately standing aside.
As Inzaghi reminded his critics after knocking Porto out of the Champions League in March: “That Scudetto provoked a few little problems on an economic level.” Inter posted losses of more than €245m on their accounts for 2021 and sold two pillars of the title-winning team, Achraf Hakimi and Romelu Lukaku, before their new manager’s first game.
“It’s easy to talk about Simone Inzaghi,” he continued. “Maybe sometimes in life education and intelligence get confused.”
Inter shook off their poor form this spring, winning 11 of their last 12 matches in all competitions, beating Juventus and Fiorentina to lift the Coppa Italia and finishing third in Serie A. It was the European run, though, that resonated most. They had not won a Champions League knockout tie since 2011. Conte never got them out of the group stage.
Timing is everything. Inter have played their best football in recent weeks and Inzaghi will tell you it’s because he has finally had enough of his squad fit and in form to rotate effectively. “In the last two months I’ve been able to alternate players,” he said. “The ones who were playing before did great, but I couldn’t ever rest them.”
Inzaghi has options throughout his team. He has not decided which of Lukaku or Edin Dzeko should begin up front in the Champions League final against Manchester City on Saturday with Lautaro Martínez. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is pushing to reclaim a place in midfield after injuring a hamstring in the semi-final win over Milan, but Marcelo Brozovic is hardly a weak alternative. Even at settled positions such as left wing-back, Federico Dimarco’s legs are fresher for having given up some recent starts to Robin Gosens.
Inter know they are underdogs against City, “the best team in the world”, as Inzaghi named them. Yet the King of the Cups has instilled a confidence that any one-off game is winnable. Asked what he feared about Pep Guardiola’s team, Inzaghi scoffed, reminding his audience that “we’re talking about a game of football. So, nothing.”
Having grown up in the same house as a footballing superhero, he understands better than most that these opponents are just people with strengths and weaknesses of their own. Inzaghi spoke of his admiration for the City manager, of how modern football can be framed as two eras, “before and after Guardiola”, but also shared a humanising anecdote about going downstairs for breakfast at a New York hotel on his honeymoon and stumbling into Guardiola in the dining room.
Inter have won this competition three times, twice under Helenio Herrera in the 1960s then under José Mourinho in 2010. They had to get past a super-team led by Guardiola on the latter occasion. Their 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the second leg of that year’s semi-final, enough to secure a 3-2 aggregate victory despite playing with 10 men for more than an hour, remains one of the most famous games in club history.
“City have won two trophies this season,” said Inzaghi. “But we’ve won two as well. We deserve to be in this final.”
He has lost one final out of eight as a manager, his first, a Coppa Italia defeat by Juventus with Lazio in 2017. In a joint-interview with his brother a few years ago, Simone Inzaghi said the only thing he envied Filippo was a goal in a Champions League final. That dream eluded him, but he can realise a different one on Saturday by helping his players to give the best of themselves on a big stage once again.