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Lukaku upstages Ibrahimovic as Inter make most of Juve’s tragedy in Verona

We ought to be talking about Verona. We ought to be talking about an astonishing week for the club with the lowest wage bill in Serie A, in which they drew with Milan and Lazio before beating the champions, and league leaders, Juventus. We ought to be talking about how a newly promoted side went from battling relegation to sixth place, via an eight-game unbeaten run, inspired by a manager with a passion for death metal.

But then, Sunday night happened. A Milan derby played to a full house at San Siro. Flares, banners, and thousands of supporters lighting up their mobile phones in unison to spell out the message “Inter Merda” (“Inter are shit”). Zlatan Ibrahimovic versus Romelu Lukaku, a comeback for the ages, and the emphatic renewal of a title challenge that looked like it might be about to fall apart.

This has always been a fixture unto itself: retaining its sense of occasion even in those years when both Inter and Milan were languishing in mid-table. Still, Sunday’s game felt different. Verona’s win over Juventus had offered the Nerazzurri an opportunity to pull level with Juventus in first place. Not since 2010 – the year they won the treble – had Inter been top of Serie A so far into a campaign.

Milan, though, were on the rise as well. Unbeaten in 2020, they had won five straight before their draw with Verona. The signing of Ibrahimovic in January galvanised them, restoring enthusiasm among fans, and perhaps the players themselves, as well as providing a much-needed focal point to the attack.

For 45 minutes, he dominated this derby. Named as a lone striker, Ibrahimovic used his size and aggression to force Inter’s defensive line into retreat: creating spaces for teammates to flood into. Hakan Calhanoglu hit the post after finding room to let fly from 20 yards. Ante Rebic opened the scoring from an Ibrahimovic knockdown.

The Swede himself made it 2-0, heading home at the back post after Franck Kessié flicked the ball on at a corner. It was his seventh goal in this fixture, with the first dating back to 2006, when he was playing for Inter. He celebrated with a kiss toward former fans in the Curva Nord.

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🔴⚫ ZLATAN MAKES IT 2-0!

😮 AC Milan strike again just before half time, and Ibrahimović’s header adds to Padelli’s first half to forget

🔵⚫ Conte’s Inter have a lot to figure out at the break pic.twitter.com/8aQm1yp3Rr

February 9, 2020

Inter looked sunk. They had not overcome a two-goal deficit against their city rivals since the 1940s, and were being comfortably outplayed. By abandoning his usual 4-4-2, the Milan manager, Stefano Pioli, had freed up a man in midfield. Calhanoglu was dropping on to Marcelo Brozovic when his team lost possession, disrupting Inter’s attempts to launch the fast breaks Conte desires.

It was easy to imagine Inter’s manager tearing into his players in the changing room. This is the man who, according to Andrea Pirlo, used to hurl full bottles of sparkling water by players’ heads in Turin.

Yet Conte would paint a very different picture of what went down on Sunday. “There was no need to talk much,” he claimed at full time. “In difficult situations everybody needs to take responsibility for their own mistakes. I was the first one responsible. But you get out of these situations by staying compact as a team.”

That, and with moments of individual brilliance. No sooner had play resumed, than Brozovic brought Inter back to life with a glorious volley into the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Within two minutes, they were level. Alexis Sánchez ran on to a through-ball from Diego Godín before cutting the ball back to Matías Vecino, who dispatched it first-time into the bottom corner.

By now, Inter were only a thumping dance-track away from transforming into a YouTube highlights reel. Stefan de Vrij put them in front with a header that defied physics, bowing down to shin height to divert a corner across his own body and over Gianluigi Donnarumma. That might not even have been the best goal of the night, if Christian Eriksen’s 30-yard free-kick had dipped a fraction lower on its way to striking the inside junction of post and crossbar.

Still, Inter could have blown it. Ibrahimovic hit the post with a header in the 89th minute, before Lukaku finally put the result beyond doubt. As Gazzetta dello Sport’s match report would observe on Monday morning: “On the night of the Oscars, there could not have been a more Hollywood way to pull level with Juventus at the top.”

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🔵⚫ Here’s how Lukaku made it 4-2!

👏 A night that the Nerazzurri will remember for a very long time! pic.twitter.com/InF3wZrHRe

February 9, 2020

This title race has already brought us more twists and turns than many movies proposed for an Academy award. Lazio’s win over Parma on Sunday means there is now just one point separating the top three. The Biancocelesti host Inter in Rome next weekend.

That should be a sterner test still. Milan, despite their improvement, remain a long way short of Serie A’s best. Yet Inter can draw encouragement from the character they showed to recover from a disastrous start while missing a pair of key players. Lukaku led the line well without his usual strike partner, Lautaro Martínez, but their goalkeeper Daniele Padelli, replacing the injured Samir Handanovic, was at fault for both Milan’s goals.

Conte insisted afterwards it was still too early to talk of the title. In Turin, it is a year-round topic of conversation. Defeat to Verona was a catastrophe for Juventus, and all the more so for the fact that they had been 1-0 up deep into the second half. This was their first loss in a game that they led in the 75th minute since Conte himself was in charge.

There is much to be said about their failings, about the scant evidence of the fluid football that Maurizio Sarri was supposed to bring, and the fact that they are failing to capitalise during a period when Cristiano Ronaldo is on fire – marking 10 consecutive games with at least one goal.

But it would be wrong to close out this column focusing on Juventus’s shortcomings, when there is still so much more to be said about Verona. Where Inter could call on the likes of Brozovic and Lukaku to author their comeback, Hellas’s goals were scored by Fabio Borini and a 35-year-old Giampaolo Pazzini.

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😱 UNBELIEVABLE SCENES IN VERONA!

💛💙 Pazzini converts the penalty, and Hellas Verona have come from behind to lead Juventus 2-1! pic.twitter.com/bCkiReVVdu

February 8, 2020

Ivan Juric has done an astonishing job of moulding a team from a group of cast-offs, loanees and relative unknowns. Some of those – such as the Moroccan midfielder Sofyan Amrabat, who will join Fiorentina in the summer – look destined for bigger things. Most, like Pazzini, are simply role players being put in position to extract the best of what they have.

The character of this team is extraordinary. On 15 December, Verona were 3-0 down to Torino in the 69th minute, and came back to take a point. Since then, they have not lost. They are ahead of Milan and Napoli, and have conceded fewer goals than anyone outside the top three. A European berth could even be in reach.

“For now we are just trying to reach 40 points and safety,” insisted Juric. The fans who sang about winning the Scudetto at full time might, light-heartedly, disagree.

Quick guide

Serie A results

Inter 4-2 Milan, Parma 0-1 Lazio, Brescia 1-1 Udinese, Genoa 1-0 Cagliari, Napoli 2-3 Lecce, Spal 1-2 Sassuolo, Verona 2-1 Juventus, Torino 1-3 Sampdoria, Fiorentina 1-2 Atalanta, Roma 2-3 Bologna

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