Well into the second half of Inter’s match with Torino on November 22nd, things looked pretty bleak for boss Antonio Conte. Going into that fixture, the Nerazzurri had won just once – a 2-0 victory over struggling Genoa – having only just salvaged a 2-2 draw with Parma, lost to Real Madrid and rivals AC Milan and battled to earn a solitary point versus Lazio, Atalanta, Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Monchengladbach.
Torino were a team depleted by positive COVID-19 tests and were also without their head Coach Marco Giampaolo on the bench for that very reason, but found themselves 2-0 up by the hour mark.
It was then that striker Romelu Lukaku decided to take matters into his own hands.
First, he hit a rasping shot onto the crossbar and Alexis Sanchez knocked in a rebound to reduce the deficit by one. The number nine then hit another superb long-range effort off the post as it became clear he was not about to let his team lose this game.
Sanchez soon turned provider as Lukaku gratefully accepted his own tap-in goal as Inter were back on equal terms at San Siro on 67 minutes. After being awarded a penalty, there was never any doubt that the Belgian would fire home, and he completed a commanding performance by setting up strike partner Lautaro Martinez as Inter made it 4-2 by the time the final whistle blew.
At this point, we could delve into Inter’s many failings this season, and there remain a whole host of question marks over Antonio Conte’s decisions. Yet in Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Monchengladbach, Lukaku was once again the difference-maker, and it seems entirely more apt that we should instead celebrate the performances of a player who is at the very top of his game despite his team’s glaring weaknesses.
“LUKAKU IL MAGNIFICO,” read the headline on the front page of Wednesday morning’s Corriere dello Sport, while the pagelle (player ratings) from Gazzetta dello Sport described the player as having an “ocean of quality.”
He admits that since joining Inter, he has played the best football of his career so far. Looking at his previous spell with Manchester United, Lukaku scored 35 times across 69 domestic and European starts, and a quick calculation reveals that this equates to a goal every 179 minutes on average. In Milan however, the 27-year-old has netted 43 times in 53 starting appearances in Serie A and in Europe, recording a goal every 110 minutes.
At almost 6’3”, you might think that a combination of his strong and lean physique – significantly improved thanks to Inter doctors discovering an underlying medical issue that had caused him to gain weight at United – and his height are the main factors in gaining an advantage over his opponents in the Italian top flight.
Yet despite his physical presence, Lukaku’s magic remains firmly placed in his feet.
A look at statistics reveals that the Belgian has won just 1.1 aerial duel per game on average this term, exactly the same rate as team-mate Nicolo Barella, who stands at just 5’8” tall. In contrast, Lukaku has more successful dribbles per game (1.4) than any other player in Inter’s squad, which should be more than enough evidence to dispel any misplaced myths about this player’s game.
Nerazzurri supporters have been rightly pulling their hair out (excuse the pun) over Conte’s bizarre choices and statements as Coach of the team. The one saving grace of his frustrating tenure is the way that their number nine has performed. Lukaku’s goals have been decisive in terms of result on no less than seven occasions this season, and whilst you could argue that other star strikers such as Ciro Immobile, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are equally important to their sides’ results, it seems like something more with him.
Lukaku has come to Inter’s rescue on so many occasions when they would’ve otherwise succumbed to defeat or a disappointing draw, it feels like he is bringing the points home despite what Conte is doing on the bench and the responsibility on the Belgian’s shoulders may be beginning to take its toll on him.
After his two goals had put his side 3-1 up versus Gladbach on Tuesday night, Inter then put themselves back in danger by conceding again. They could have ended up with a draw had it not been for VAR ruling out another Alassane Plea goal for offside, and Lukaku’s frustration was telling in his post-match interview.
“We should’ve killed off the game, we were 3-1 up and were fortunate with VAR that the equaliser was disallowed,” he told reporters shortly afterwards, then going on to discuss being caught on camera shouting at Barella just before Gladbach made it 1-1.
“I was a little angry, because at that moment Lautaro and I were two against two,” he continued. “I thought in the first 40 minutes we attacked really well, so there are risks that we had to take, but we were over-doing it.”
There is a danger that if Inter do not improve as a team, then Lukaku will become tired of being the one that always comes to their aid. Yet while he is scoring for fun, it gives his boss Antonio Conte a little bit of breathing space to try and fix the problems that are currently plaguing this Inter side.
Not all superheros wear capes, you know.