Inter Milan: Are the Nerazzurri being overlooked in Champions League conversation?

 | February 21 | 

7 mins read

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After losing Andre Onana, Milan Skriniar, Marcelo Brozovic and Romelu Lukaku last summer - four crucial components of a side that battled Manchester City until the bitter end in the 2023 Champions League final - few expected Inter Milan to be in the position that they are in now.

The Nerazzurri already have a major honour to their name this season after emerging victorious in last month’s Supercoppa Italiana, and they are nine points clear ahead of second-placed Juventus in the race for the Serie A title, having played one game fewer. Tuesday night’s 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid has also given them the advantage in their two-legged Champions League round-of-16 tie.

As impressive as the squad makeover and results, though, has been the fluid football masterminded by their tactician, Simone Inzaghi. Despite employing a three-man central defence, flanked by two wing-backs - a set-up not synonymous with success at big clubs nowadays - Inter have produced some scintillating attacking displays this term, scoring 73 goals across all competitions. Lautaro Martinez has forged a potent partnership up top with summer arrival Marcus Thuram, replicating - and potentially upgrading - the Argentine’s previous combination with Lukaku.

Such success has inevitably drawn admiring glances towards their head coach, who has been linked to the new project unfolding at Manchester United. But with more than three months remaining of this season, the 47-year-old’s focus is well and truly on the here and now. Can Inzaghi inspire Inter to a seemingly unlikely fourth European Cup?

The Italian giants already have one foot in the quarter-finals, but are still behind Bayern Munich - who are trailing to Lazio in their round-of-16 tie - and three others in the Betfred outright odds. Are they still being underrated by the masses?

Inter Milan Betting Odds:

  • Inter to win 2023-24 Champions League @ 9/1
  • Inter to beat Lecce (25/02/24) @ 4/9
  • Lautaro Martinez to win 2024 Ballon d’Or @ 100/1

After winning 20 of their first 24 Serie A games, the 2023-24 title looks to be all but wrapped up for Inter now. Victory in their game in hand over nearest challengers Juventus and AC Milan would send the Nerazzurri 12 and 14 points clear respectively. It would take a monumental collapse for Inter not to pick up their 20th league title now.

There is no Coppa Italia distraction either, after Inter’s defence of the trophy was brought to an abrupt end before Christmas. They can, therefore, focus almost solely on the Champions League, as they bid to be crowned European champions for the first time since 2010.

Spearheading their shot at glory are frontmen Martinez and Thuram. The latter was brought in as a free agent from Borussia Monchengladbach under the noses of bitter rivals Milan, and he was initially billed as the replacement for third-choice striker Edin Dzeko, who left at the end of his contract to join Fenerbahce. But after a move for Lukaku, who scored 14 times in 37 appearances on loan from Chelsea last season, failed to materialise, Thuram was thrust into the starting XI.

The Frenchman has certainly lived up to the family name. Not goals-wise - his father was more famed for his defending - but he’s on the way to Serie A greatness already, which Lilian achieved with Parma and Juventus. The 26-year-old has struck 10 times in the Italian top-flight, and became just the third player from his nation to score in the Champions League for Inter when he netted against Benfica in October. With seven assists to his name, it’s not just goals that Thuram is contributing to the team, and the chemistry with his strike partner has been there for all to see.

Inter Milan to win 2023-24 Champions League at 9-1 

Martinez has scored four goals from direct Thuram assists, which is as many as he converted from Lukaku during the whole of last season. They’ve dovetailed perfectly - both players are capable of stretching the opposition’s backline or dropping deep to receive the ball - and offer Inter real dynamism in attack, begging the question - are the Nerazzurri better off with Thuram, rather than the previous occupant?

Lukaku is one of the most prolific centre-forwards of the last decade, but the Roma loanee is four years older than Thuram, who has proved more durable than the Belgian. In fact, the Sochaux academy graduate is the only member of the Inter squad to have featured in all 34 games so far. Ironically, he came off injured at half-time on Tuesday, but it’s not expected to keep him out for long.

Martinez, meanwhile, is well on course to beat his best goalscoring season, set last term when he fired 21 in Serie A and a further seven in other competitions. ‘El Toro’ already has 23 this season, 20 of which have come in the league, and there could be another 20 games for him to add to his tally if the club can go the distance in Europe. If they do, expect his current 2024 Ballon d'Or odds of 100/1 to come crashing down.

Lautaro Martinez to win 2024 Ballon d'Or at 100-1

Speaking of odds, 9/1 for Inter to win the Champions League - higher than Manchester City (11/8), Real Madrid (9/2), Arsenal (13/2) and Bayern (17/2) - suggests that they’re not fancied too strongly. The first two are rightly considered firm favourites - last season’s champions City priced particularly short - but are the other two justified? The Gunners are an interesting one; Mikel Arteta’s side have racked up an impressive number of Premier League points over the last 18 months, and have a more expensively-assembled squad. They are yet to prove themselves in European competition, however, after crashing out to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League round of 16 last season, and have routinely failed to rise to the occasion when required.

Bayern, meanwhile, are in pretty dire straits, eight points behind Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga title race and having failed to record a shot on target in their first-leg defeat to Lazio. It was even announced on Wednesday that head coach Thomas Tuchel will be leaving the club this summer.

The mood in Milan, at least on the black-and-blue half, feels a lot more serene. Inzaghi has implemented a system which seems to be trusted by both players and supporters, and his tactical nous was evident against Atletico this week as Inter invited the Spanish side’s high press before bypassing it with relative ease. There were marauding centre-backs - even the most central of them, Stefan de Vrij - and midfielders dropping deep - almost as centre-backs themselves - to receive the ball in possession. Had it not been for the profligacy of players like Marko Arnautovic - despite his winning goal - Inter could have had the tie buried at San Siro.

As it is, there is still a big job to do at the Wanda Metropolitano in three weeks' time, and they might need their frontmen to step things up a notch away from Italy. Martinez has scored twice in seven Champions League contests this season, and his overall record - 12 in 43 - is poor by his Serie A standards. Thuram has only managed one himself on European club football’s biggest stage in 2023-24, and a failure to convert chances could be the biggest hindrance to a deep run in the competition.

There is no Liverpool or Chelsea - two European powerhouses - to contend with in the competition this season, while Barcelona and Bayern are a shadow of their former selves. With a settled defence and Inzaghi’s innovative tactics, it’s time for Inter to grasp the nettle and make sure they don’t rue a missed opportunity at the end of the campaign.

Inter Milan to beat Lecce at 4-9

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