Sorry to break it to you guys, but Manchester United are not the favourites to win the Europa League. At least, they shouldn’t be, anyway.
That would be Internazionale.
Sure, the Red Devils have got some world beaters fit and firing in their side, and their number nine has finally gone from Tony Marshall down the street to Anthony Martial, FIFA street. But an even bigger storm is brewing across the waters, as hurricane Antonio gathers momentum.
I Nerazzurri are raging. Not surprising, given Antonio Conte, the angriest man in the world, is leading the charge. The fiery Italian’s days at San Siro looked to be numbered at the end of the domestic campaign, after he launched a scathing attack on his unsupportive owners, who have left him and his player to ‘eat s**t’ for an entire season.
Somehow, being the determined cockroach he is, Conte survived that particular nuclear missile war of words, and is now focusing all of his attention on rubbing an enormous European trophy in everyone’s face. His troops are carrying out his orders pretty well, too.
A 2-0 victory over Getafe was followed up by a 2-1 success over Bayer Leverkusen, as the Italian giants booked their place in the competition’s final four. Up next, they face, on paper, the weakest team left, Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Ukrainian side are the perma-underdogs of just about every tournament they enter, and pundits all over the globe will be warning Inter not to underestimate their opponents, who just possess that knack of causing the odd upset or two.
And I Nerazzurri’s performances in the previous two rounds would suggest there are some serious vulnerabilities within the squad. A two-goal win against Getafe may sound relatively straight-forward, but it was far from it. The Spanish side were gifted – and subsequently squandered – a golden opportunity to equalise with a penalty late on, before Conte’s side finally killed them off in the dying minutes.
Leverkusen were equally close to causing a shock of their own, threatening to complete a two-goal comeback for large portions of the contest. Worrying signs, indeed. However, for every con, there is a hidden pro.
Yes, Inter lost control of both matches, having taken their opponents by the scruff of the neck in the opening exchanges. But the fact remains – albeit rather lost in the sea of confusion that followed – they did dominate from the off, with some real authority, too.
Had it not been for some shoddy finishing or poor decision making in the final third, Leverkusen wouldn’t have had a prayer of making a fist of it. So for all the naive game management, there is the much more easily rectifiable issue of sticking away your chances.
That should be simple enough, given the form which Romelu Lukaku is enjoying. The big Belgian has proven worthy of every penny Inter splashed out last summer, reaching 30 goals in all competitions and providing a sturdy focal point for his teammates to pick out.
His blossoming relationship with strike partner Lautaro Martinez has been a joy to witness, and even when the Argentine’s form dropped amid links with a move to Barcelona, Lukaku has carried the can and looked even sharper than at the start of the campaign.
Another man who is re-finding powers of years gone by is Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean’s career has fallen off a cliff since leaving Arsenal in 2018, but Conte is a man who knows who to light a fire in any player’s belly – or up their backside, if needed. Whatever he has done to Sanchez, has worked.
The 31-year-old is almost back to his industrious, creative self, and now with a point to prove, the forward is demonstrating why Inter were right to make his loan deal permanent. Sanchez is a match-winner, and even if he is not quite up to full speed, he can still turn a game on its head with one wave of his wand. Fingers crossed he recovers from another injury setback to make the potential final.
From the maverick, to the consistent. Inter possess some incredibly reliable, steady heads across the pitch, with Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic, Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij turning in minimum 7/10 performances every week.
Add to that list, Ashley Young. The wing-back struggled in his final stint in the Premier League, but his displays since the turn of the year have shown he is built for the demands of Serie A. A slightly less frenetic and physical league, the Englishman is able to take control of the left flank at his own pace, and consequently, with perhaps a touch more fuel in the tank, his wicked deliveries and shots on target are back to their curling best.
Many raised their eyebrows when Young joined Inter in January, but Conte’s faith that he is the perfect man for his wing-back system has continued to be proven right with each passing week.
But what do all these players have in common? That’s right, they have all been chased out of Manchester with torches and pitchforks in the past 12 months. Heavily criticised for their final contributions at Old Trafford, Man Utd fans and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer alike decided enough was enough, and sent the trio packing to Italy.
So, with the Red Devils expected (but not overwhelming favourites) to edge past Sevilla and into the final, it may feel somewhat of a nightmare to come up against three bitter, vengeance-seeking ex-lightning rods, secretly desperate to get one over their former employers.
A special mention should also go out to Christian Eriksen, a man permanently linked with a move to Manchester from Tottenham Hotspur, before eventually settling on a San Siro switch, instead.
The words ‘It had to be him’ must be ringing in Red Devil ears as they lay in bed each evening. The only problem is, ‘him’ could be any of the four.
We should expect a 6-0 hammering then, with both Lukaku and Sanchez claiming hat-tricks, while Young and Eriksen provide all the ammo.
Along with their own personal and raw anger, Conte will be equally determined to win his first trophy as Inter boss, and throw down the gauntlet for Andrea Pirlo and Juventus ahead of the coming season.
He is relentless in his quest for success, and Europa League success would be a step in the right direction for this team of hungry and mistreated misfits.
I Nerazzurri are hunting for glory, and they can smell blood.