In a night of exciting sensory overload, Internazionale were left with the most important feeling: victory, and in the game that matters most. The 2-0 at the San Siro, from the most exciting start, helped end this Champions League semi-final when it had barely begun, putting Simone Inzaghi’s fine Cup team on the verge of the club’s biggest final. football. It could still have been much worse for AC Milan, who greatly missed their best player in Rafael Leao. It meant they had no answer, back or front, for individual Inter stars. Edin Dzeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan looted lightning from the first goals.
One of the few hopes left for Milan is that Leao’s return could trigger a comeback that had some embers in that second half. There was also the almost irrational way in which Inter started the game, both because of the excitement of everything that was happening and because of any imposed idea.
The same can happen in the second leg, especially since Milan was the “home” team here. Stefano Pioli at least has to make sure they believe that. That’s what a lot of it came down to, as the whole occasion turned into something that was beyond a sporting spectacle.
These two teams didn’t just come together for a historic derby in the most prestigious of competitions. They came together for something bigger.
This was indeed a profoundly rich cultural occasion as much as a sporting event, the profound history of the latter context enriching the former. It was also a truly sensory experience. The noise and color were on another plane, the ancient sights and sounds like those huge Italian banners waving like battle flags amidst raucous chants gave it a new air. There is something important in that.
These are two great clubs that had largely been left behind by the forces engulfing the wider game, but still came under fire from such interests. Understandably, it was presented as a semi-final that only happened due to the luck of the draw, with the prize for the winner being the misfortune of being beaten by the victor of the “real” final in the actual final. Even some of the players had a Europa League feel, a mix of Premier League and Premier League yet to be.
And yet it produced an occasion unlike anything the Champions League has experienced in recent years. It was deafening. It was also, appropriately for something so sensory, completely organic. Owners of major clubs, whether capital companies, states or industrialists, may be looking to buy this, but it is something that can only come from history and context.
Embedded in that stadium-wide roar that greeted the final “champions” of the competition’s theme, was the shared history of 10 European Cups each.
As for the present, and who will enjoy the prize of that next Champions League final, it was Inter who initially attacked with that much better atmosphere. They were going with the vivid flow of it all, actually playing to the occasion in a way that arguably suited them best.
The first two goals were vibrant illustrations of this, Milan seemingly unable to even briefly impede an unstoppable force. For the former, a corner from Hakan Calhanoglu was acrobatically converted by Dzeko in what seemed like one uninterrupted move. For the second, the effervescent Federico Dimarco simply pushed through to set Mkhitaryan up for the finish of a fluid move that seemed to engulf Milan.
It was at that moment that it looked as if Inter would score with every attack, the physical strength of their individual stars looking better equipped for the occasion than Milan’s more methodical system. That system was also frequently on the verge of collapse, as when Simon Kjaer and Fikayo Tomori again got into the most terrible mess dealing with a Lauturo Martínez run. Luckily the Argentine decided to go down, assuring that the penalty was annulled, and Milan was not yet out of the tie.
Mike Maignan did a pretty good job of it, producing at least two brilliant reactive stops.
However, the contrast between the approaches further conditioned the game and indeed ensured that Inter did not lose sight of each other too early. With Inzaghi’s side poised to respond to Milan with individual flurries, it was no surprise that Pioli’s system began to assert itself more in general play, even if he had to bring in Junior Messias for Ismael Bennacer to ensure that. Brahim Diaz started running the game. Sandro Tonali hit the post. Messias fired when he should have passed.
This was where they lacked their own star in Leao. The Milan crowd behind Andre Onana’s goal could feel something. They tried drawing with more sensory overload, the end glowing demonically with red flares, a firecracker exploding loudly.
However, there was no late eruption from Milan. They stayed in the system without ever cutting through.
His fans were still roaring in spirit at the end. The Inter players ran for theirs. This is not over. It may take a while for anyone watching to get over it.