Picture the scene — June 2021. The situation could not be more perilous for Inter Milan. The champagne stains had finally settled on the San Siro turf off the back of a first Serie A title in over a decade, and things should be glorious in Lombardy with the Euros on the horizon. However, rumours were circling of Antonio Conte’s departure — the man who had made all this happen.
Within a matter of weeks ‘The Godfather’ would have packed his bags and star striker Romelu Lukaku, fresh off the back of 24 domestic goals, would hand in a transfer request and announce he was unsettled. Despite Italy winning the Euros later that summer, it would be bitter sweet, knowing victory would be tainted by hesitancy over I Nerazzurri’s title defence the next season.
Flash forward six months, where both Conte and Lukaku packed their bags for London — but neither have tasted the spoils the English capital had promised, with Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea struggling to satisfy the palette of two serial winners — that is compared to the lure of Milan.
Something about the city’s indescribable passion — the fervent perseverance of their fans, who regardless of capacity restrictions enforced by covid, have always made their presence known. The unique atmosphere of the San Siro, in the twilight of its life, could well prove the difference for Inter as they embark on a title defence that once appeared ambitious, but with each passing win is coming to fruition under Simone Inzaghi.
Indeed, Inter have managed to stay on the ball over a turbulent winter period, but there is also business to attend to in Europe. Plenty of blushes were spared after a bizarre start to Group D saw Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol jovially tipped by football betting odds to qualify for the round of 16, but eventually Inter found their feet and comfortably dispatched of the plucky underdogs to finish second behind Real Madrid.
Complications caused by the draw for the next round initially saw Inter play Portuguese champions Sporting Lisbon, but a technical error changed the Italians fate and now they face Liverpool — an opportunity they will want to seize with both hands.
Contrary to what many neutrals may believe, this Inter side is more than capable of squeezing past the 2019 Champions League winners, regardless of how good they have been under Jürgen Klopp. Liverpool won their group unbeaten, seeing off current La Liga champions Atlético Madrid and winning at the San Siro in December against Inter’s rivals, AC Milan. Although Klopp and co. took all three points on their last visit, the first leg could well prove decisive as I Nerazzurri’s immaculate home record will make for a difficult trip for the Premier League side.
You only have to look at their last few games to know Liverpool will expect a real battle. Alexis Sánchez’s 120th minute strike against Juventus in the Italian Super Cup exemplifies everything good about this Inter side. So often a football team is a personification of their manager, and Inter’s gritty, determined nature was a reflection of Inzaghi, who will ensure they go right down to the wire when the sides meet on the February 16th.
The return leg also promises to be an exciting encounter, with Inter looking for a measure of revenge for the last time they visited Anfield — beaten by Liverpool 2-0 in 2008. But this group are a far cry from that Roberto Mancini team, who were dominant on Italian shores but struggled in Europe.
Boasting a plethora of attacking talent, this Liverpool team will be on the front foot from minute one, but the midfield battle could be the difference maker. The mercurial Nicolò Barella has been a target for the Reds in the past and is enjoying another purple patch at the moment. He could influence Inter’s rhythm, which will be essential for a dream start.
If they can impose themselves on the game, isolating the Liverpool press and blocking off balls to Fabinho, who starts a lot of attacks with his range of passing, then Inter can feed Edin Džeko, who already has 12 goals this season and was a thorn in Liverpool’s side during his time at Manchester City.
The tie will certainly be an interesting prospect — one littered in European royalty and lineage surpassing the majority of other Champions League stalwarts. Nine titles between them and everything to play for, whoever qualifies will certainly head into the quarter finals riding the crest of a wave.