Lautaro Martínez had not even got his hands on the trophy and already they were asking him about the next one, his TV interviewer rushing through a conversation about the Coppa Italia Inter retained on Wednesday night to get to a question about the Champions League final in Istanbul. “I want to keep going,” said the Argentinian. “I want to keep on winning.”
He has established quite a habit. In the last six months, Martínez has claimed three trophies – starting with a World Cup in Qatar last December, following up with a Supercoppa, and now the Coppa Italia. His first goal cancelled out an early deficit for Inter against Fiorentina, the second secured a 2-1 win.
The Nerazzurri were favourites for this final, but anyone who imagined it to be a formality could not have been paying attention. Fiorentina beat them at San Siro in April and were drawing with them as late as the 94th minute of their previous league game. Vincenzo Italiano has shaped the Viola into a relentless, in-your-face team who navigated to the finals of this competition and the Europa Conference League.
Italiano was described by one former sporting director as a “little [Pep] Guardiola” and has named the Manchester City manager as his inspiration. His Fiorentina team press from the front without the ball and build from the back with it, with centre-backs as auxiliary playmakers.
Wednesday’s opening goal was an example of what it looks like when it works. Inter gave the ball away in a seemingly innocuous position and in the blink of an eye it had been advanced to Giacomo Bonaventura, who fed Jonathan Ikoné on the left corner of the box. He took one touch before nutmegging Matteo Darmian with a pass back across the area. Nico González arrived at full speed to finish on the far side.
Since missing out on the World Cup triumph due to injury, Fiorentina’s Argentina winger has been making up for lost time. González’s return was instrumental in lifting his club out of a winter slump and he scored twice in the second leg of the Europa Conference League semi-final away against Basel last week, carrying them to a 5-4 aggregate win.
On this occasion, however, Inter were quick to recover. Martínez equalised in the 29th minute, running on to Marcelo Brozovic’s through pass and drilling into the bottom corner. He put his team ahead in the 37th, volleying home brilliantly from Nicolò Barella’s cross.
Those were his 100th and 101st goals for Inter but more importantly his ninth and 10th since the start of April – a figure bettered only by Karim Benzema and Callum Wilson in Europe’s top five leagues. The greatest criticisms of Martínez in Italy have centred on his streakiness, the way he seems to vanish for weeks at a time. When he is on form, he can look unstoppable.
He was in that mode on Wednesday. Shortly before his equaliser, Martínez had shed the 6ft 5in Nikola Milenkovic like a twig catching his shoulder on a stroll through the woods, casually brushing him off before sending Edin Dzeko through on goal, only to see the Bosnian fire over the bar.
Inter ought to have put the result beyond doubt. They had further chances either side of the interval, Romelu Lukaku entering the game and testing the Fiorentina goalkeeper Pietro Terracciano himself before presenting Robin Gosens with an open goal after bulldozing to the byline on the right. The German, under pressure from Dodô, could not hit the target.
And then they nearly blew it. Luka Jovic, on as a 70th-minute substitute for Fiorentina, executed the smoothest of drag-backs to wrong-foot Darmian, but could not beat Samir Handanovic at the near post. The striker should have done much better moments later, when Dodô’s cross found him unmarked, but his header sailed harmlessly across the face of goal.
The emotions at full time showed how much this cup meant on both sides. Several Fiorentina players were in tears, overcome with exhaustion and frustration. This was their 57th game of a marathon season, and a chance to claim a first piece of silverware since 2001. They were painfully aware of how it might have ended differently had they taken their chances in the second half.
Inter, meanwhile, celebrated retaining a trophy that validates the good work they have done under Simone Inzaghi. Their league form has been disappointing this season, a team expected to challenge for the title finding itself 20 points behind the leaders Napoli with two games to play, having lost 12 out of 36 games. They have lacked consistency but believe they can be a match for anyone when their focus is right.
There is something about cup competitions that seems to bring the best out of them, and especially from their manager. Inzaghi had already won the Supercoppa twice and Coppa Italia once at Lazio. In two seasons at Inter, he has a perfect record in both.
The Nerazzurri have lost only a single game of knockout football out of the 20 they have played under Inzaghi: the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Liverpool last February. They won the return at Anfield but exited 2-1 on aggregate.
Inter supporters may hold on to statistics such as these – another being that Inzaghi has won seven out of eight finals in his managerial career – as the Champions League showdown with Manchester City looms. The team itself cares less for statistics than the feelings of confidence that winning brings.
“We know it will be really difficult,” said Hakan Calhanoglu of the final against City. “But it’s only one game. Of course we believe we can do it. We have believed ever since the start of the Champions League, after [the win against] Barcelona.”
Fiorentina have a continental final of their own to come against Premier League opponents, West Ham, whose manager David Moyes was in attendance at the Stadio Olimpico. Italiano had acknowledged even before the Europa Conference League semi-final that he wanted to win that competition the most.
“You can’t be defeated after a match like this one,” he said on Wednesday. “We played on a level footing with a Champions League finalist. We are really disappointed, but we will take lots of positives with us to Prague. We need to take revenge for ourselves and go there convinced we can bring that trophy home.”
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