Inzaghi, LuLa and Onana: Inter can put paid to Guardiola's treble dream

UCL Inzaghi, LuLa and Onana: Inter can put paid to Guardiola's treble dream

Seye Omidiora 21:50 - 09.06.2023

Manchester City are the favourites in Saturday’s Champions League final, but the man in the dugout and players at both ends of the pitch could swing the game in the Nerazzurri’s favour.

How do you even prepare for a game as the underdogs when observers reckon you do not have a prayer? That is the dilemma facing Simone Inzaghi and Inter Milan heading into Saturday night’s Champions League final in Istanbul.

The last time the Ataturk Olympic Stadium hosted the deciding game of Europe’s most prestigious competition saw favourites AC Milan do battle with less fancied Liverpool. Resounding favourite versus an underdog. Italian side versus English club.

That 2005 meeting was the first competitive meeting between both clubs, as is Saturday’s encounter featuring the Nerazzurri and Manchester City. While this year’s favourite and underdog have been transposed — the Serie A club enters as the little guy and the Premier League side are fancied — the outcome will be settled 11 versus 11.

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Inzaghi recognises the strengths of the “strongest team in the world” but wants his team to leave everything on the pitch. They face the only unbeaten side left in this year’s competition, the team with the best attack and defence — scoring 31 times and conceding just five.

Inter’s strength lies in their defence, even if the statistics show 10 goals conceded heading into Saturday’s decider. No team has kept more than the 2010 champions’ eight clean sheets, with Man City (seven) the nearest to Inzaghi’s troops.

Andre Onana has not been a bystander in goal for Inter. He has had to earn five shut-outs in six knockout-stage games.

Onana’s outstanding Champions League form

Much like this writer’s suggestion that Thibaut Courtois could be the antidote to Erling Haaland, Onana could be Inter’s answer to the Norwegian’s menace.

Indeed, the Belgian goalkeeper delivered beyond measure, thwarting the marksman multiple times in both semi-final games, only for the Cityzens’ goals to come from elsewhere when Haaland did not have his shooting boots on.

Like Courtois, Onana’s shot-stopping before facing Pep Guardiola’s men is first-rate. The Cameroonian has prevented about eight goals going by the quality of shots faced in this year’s competition, and a clean sheet at the Ataturk would be his ninth — matching Edouard Mendy (2020-21), Keylor Navas (2015-16) and Santiago Canizares (2000-01).

Andre Onana's shot-stopping has been second to none in this year's Champions League (FBref)

The shot-stopper's path to this year’s final has not been smooth. He was seconds away from the 2019 final until Lucas Moura put paid to Ajax’s hope at the death.

Then a 12-month suspension (reduced to nine after a partially successful appeal) came down on the goalkeeper in February 2021 after testing positive for the banned substance, Furosemide the previous October.

He returned in time for last year’s Africa Cup of Nations in his home country, but 2022 ended with a falling out with Indomitable Lions coach Rigobert Song in Qatar, leading to his expulsion and subsequent retirement from international duty.

It has not been plain sailing for Onana, and neither has it been for LuLa: Lautaro and Lukaku.

LuLa revived but unsure of starting berth

Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku have had slightly similar campaigns, even though the Belgium international endured an even rougher year than he stomached on his Chelsea return last season.

The centre-forward battled fitness issues pre-World Cup, looked unfit in Qatar and blew a succession of opportunities that would have sent the Red Devils through to the knockout stage.

Returning to club football did not prove to be an immediate fillip for Lukaku, who missed a series of chances in Serie A, with failures against Fiorentina and Salernitana underlining his struggles in front of goal.

But he has since turned the corner: In part down to the innate desire to have the last laugh on his temporary spell with the Nerazzurri and also down to the continued confidence given by Inzaghi.

Martinez has been a beneficiary of both, even if the World Cup winner was never going to be displaced at San Siro.

Like Lukaku, Lautaro endured a tough time in Qatar despite winning the Albiceleste’s first title since 1986, losing his starting berth to Julian Alvarez due to his blunted finishing at the finals.

Like Lukaku, Lautaro’s revival was not immediate. A missed penalty at Spezia in March started a run of one win in nine games in all competitions, the only victory being the 2-0 success at Benfica.

The Belgian was the difference-maker in Lisbon, while the World Cup winner was on song in the reverse fixture at San Siro. Both men have not looked back since.

Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku have been on song for Inter Milan since March.

Inzaghi may start Edin Dzeko on Saturday, with Lukaku introduced at the hour mark to play alongside his dynamic partner. If Inter are still in the game by then, both men could wreak havoc on Guardiola’s men in transition.

But will Inzaghi stick or twist?

Inzaghi’s incredible cup-winning streak

Inter’s form following a hard-fought 1-0 success over Porto in the first knockout round meant Inzaghi may not have been in the Nerazzurri dugout for this weekend’s decider – if they made it that far without the erstwhile Lazio boss.

Inter Milan manager Simone Inzaghi
Inter Milan Simone Inzaghi is seeking an eighth consecutive cup final triumph against Manchester City

Performances were pretty good, but results had fallen off a cliff, putting the Inter boss at risk. He was backed by Steven Zhang, whose faith in the 47-year-old has been rewarded with the manager seeking his eighth consecutive win in finals.

The Italian has stayed without blemish in deciders since losing the 2017 Coppa Italia final to Juventus as Lazio's boss. The “King of Cups” has won the Supercoppa Italiana twice with the Biancocelesti, on two occasions with Inter and claimed three Coppa Italia titles with both clubs, with back-to-back triumphs in his current role.

Inzaghi’s teams know how to navigate these tight, close-run games. This is the Inter head coach in his element.

“We are proud to have come this far. We will do everything to play a game of incredible concentration. We will fight inch by inch.”

The Nerazzurri boss has issued a challenge to his troops to play the game of their lives on their return to this stage since Jose Mourinho led the club to a treble in 2010.

Now they look to upstage another side seeking history by heeding their manager’s rallying cry.