Nearly two years ago, Antonio Conte departed Inter Milan following a dispute with the management. At that time, many believed that the Nerazzurri were headed for another downfall. The Italian side were facing major financial constraints that forced them to sell key players and crippled their ability to spend on new signings.
Inter struggled to pay players’ salaries on time during the 2020/21 season, despite winning the Serie A title, as their debt surged past $500m. Their Chinese owners, Suning, faced major losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic and tried to sell the club altogether in 2021.
However, slowly but surely, the Nerazzurri got themselves out of the trouble. They appointed Filippo Inzaghi to replace Conte and sold star striker Romelu Lukaku to Chelsea that summer for a club-record fee, something that help dilute their financial troubles.
Fast-forward almost two years since the start of their issues and the Nerazzurri are now on top of the world – having progressed all the way to the 2022/23 UEFA Champions League final.
They’ve been smart about running the club and not stacking on their problems with wasteful spending. Legendary Italian football executive Guiseppe Marotta, who was responsible for Juventus’ dominance under Conte too, has somewhat stabilized the ship.
Inter managed to make some really smart signings, roping in reliable players like Edin Dzeko, Hakan Calhanoglu, Andre Onana and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on low-budget deals. These are the players who have come up big under the bright lights of the European lights and helped them excel under pressure.
Contrary to popular belief, Inter did not have an ‘easy’ path to the final at all.
They were placed in a competitive group alongside reigning German champions Bayern Munich and a Barcelona side that spent over £150 million in transfer fees to sign quality players like Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha.
Back at the start of the season, the odds for Inter to make it out of the groups itself were very, very low. For them to make the Champions League final? Well, let’s just say whoever made that bet can cash out for a really, really lucrative return now.
Inter managed to be the defiant team in their group and ensure that the predictable thing did not happen. While they were a bit fortunate to see Barcelona seriously under-perform in their games, the Nerazzurri did walk the tough plank and got two wins over Barca – as well as one against Viktoria Plzen to help them make it past the group stages as runners-up.
They scraped through a 1-0 win over a daunting FC Porto side in the Round of 16 clash. In the quarter-finals, Inter faced a Benfica side that ousted Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus in the groups. That didn’t trouble Inter, who sailed through with a 5-3 win on aggregate.
Inter managed to put their arch-rivals AC Milan to the sword in the first leg of the semi-finals itself. Despite having a ‘home advantage’ of playing at the San Siro, they played under a daunting crowd – 95% of which was accompanied by the Rossoneri supporters. However, a highly clinical start from the Nerazzurri and another defensive masterclass saw them sail to a 2-0 win.
That seemingly dealt a hammer blow on AC Milan’s dreams of reaching their first Champions League final since 2007. With Inter having the home advantage for the second leg, which basically meant San Siro would be surrounded by 95% of their fans, this game almost felt like a pre-party to celebrate making it to the Champions League final.
The Inter supporters brought out some beautiful Tifos and covered the stands in their iconic blue colour, making it impossible for the AC Milan players to mount any sort of a comeback. But not only did the match-going, ordinary faithful root for the Inter players on the day – but the second leg also served as a reunion for former alumni.
A plethora of prominent names from the club’s past were in the stands, seated in the VIP box to watch their former side book a ticket to the final in Istanbul. Some of the winners of the 2009/2010 Champions League with Inter were present like their hero from that campaign, Wesley Sneijder, as well as the likes of Goran Pandev and Esteban Cambiasso – who also worked as a pundit.
A few Inter Milan legends like Cristian Vieri and Marco Materazzi also attended the match at the San Siro to watch their former side defeat the arch-rivals. With that being said, not only did the retired former Inter players attend the game – but some of the active players were also spotted in the stands.
Achraf Hakimi – who won the 2020-21 Serie A title with Inter – sneaked into the stands without much fanfare to watch his ex-teammates achieve their dream of making the Champions League final. Ivan Perisic, who only left the club last summer to join Tottenham Hotspur, was another notable guest to come cheered for the Nerazzurri and power them onto the final.
This sweet little reunion between the former players shows a sense of unity that was in the entire Inter Milan fraternity – be it of past or present members.
The Nerazzurri’s never-give-up ability and strong character have helped them script the ultimate underdog’s story in the Champions League this season. Whether they can finish the story in the ‘David vs Goliath’ fight against Manchester City in Istanbul – however – remains to be seen.