Inter’s march to brink of Champions League final owes much to beating Barcelona

Inter Milan's Hakan Calhanoglu celebrates scoring the opening goal during the Champions League group C soccer match between Inter Milan and Barcelona at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)
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MILAN (AP) — When Inter Milan kicked off its Champions League campaign with a loss at home to Bayern Munich, few would have imagined that eight months later the Nerazzurri would be on the brink of their first final in more than a decade.

But that is the situation Inter is in as it takes a 2-0 lead into the second leg of its semifinal series against AC Milan on Tuesday, having vastly outplayed its city rival in the first match at San Siro last week.

Back in September, it seemed unlikely that Inter would even advance past the group stage.

Simone Inzaghi’s team had just lost 2-0 at home to Bayern, which was favorite to qualify from the group along with Barcelona. But Inter managed to beat Barcelona 1-0 at home and draw 3-3 in Spain.

And it was those matches that gave the Inter team the belief it could fight for its first European title since it won the league, Italian Cup and Champions League under José Mourinho in 2010.

“We work together seven days a week, we went through difficult moments, the work is that of the whole staff, we spend hours locked in the office,” Inter assistant coach Massimiliano Farris said. “Simone in many situations gave us enthusiasm not to give up, but we all helped each other.

“Like after the Champions League defeat against Bayern when everyone already thought we were doomed. At that point Simone said, ‘OK, we can do it against Barcelona, let’s try.’ And from Barcelona, the European race began.”

Inter heads into Tuesday’s match on a run of seven victories in all competition. That has left it on the brink of another treble after beating Milan in the Italian Super Cup back in January and also qualifying for the Italian Cup final.

Moreover, Inter’s attack is firing. Veteran forward Edin Džeko has scored three times during that run, Lautaro Martínez has netted six times and Romelu Lukaku has weighed in with five goals as the Belgium international finally seems back to his best.

“(Lukaku) is a great guy. He has heart, sympathy, empathy,” Farris said. “In the first part of the season we missed him a lot, I think we are seeing the real Romelu at the moment, you see how much of a factor he is in so many games.”

Inter is also on course to qualify for next season’s Champions League competition as it is third in Serie A, a point above Lazio and five above fifth-place Milan with three rounds remaining.

Indeed winning the Champions League could be Milan’s only route into next season’s competition following Saturday’s 2-0 loss at relegation-threatened Spezia. Winning the Champions League title guarantees a place in next season’s tournament if a team doesn’t qualify through its domestic competition.

“At this point given where we are in the league it’s the biggest game of the season,” Milan coach Stefano Pioli said. “We know we need to put in a massive performance, we need to go out there believing we can beat Inter.

“Beating Inter means we’re on the way to qualifying. We need to play well. I think we have the chance to do it.”