Inter’s Serie A win and second star is the realisation of a dream – and a nightmare for Milan

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Inter’s Serie A win and second star is the realisation of a dream – and a nightmare for Milan

Not this. Anything but this. It can’t happen. “It won’t,” AC Milan’s captain Davide Calabria reassured the supporters.

The thought of hosting a party for Inter Milan’s 20th Scudetto sent shudders through the Milan fanbase. “They’ll win the league, but we’ll do everything to win the derby,” coach Stefano Pioli said. It did not inspire confidence.

Ever since Pioli got the Scudetto tattooed on his wrist to celebrate winning it at Inter’s expense on the final day two years ago, Milan have lost every single derby. Five in a row for the first time in their history. Five, like the number of goals Inter put past them in September. It was the heaviest defeat Milan had suffered in this rivalry for almost half a century. By inflicting it, Inter sent a powerful message.

Milan used the money from Sandro Tonali’s sale and a run to the Champions League semi-finals to sign 10 players with a view to being more competitive generally, but especially against Inter. It was Inter, after all, who knocked them out of the Champions League in the first Euroderby for 18 years. “Go rewatch my goals from those games,” Inter captain Lautaro Martinez told Sky Italia pundit Alessandro Costacurta when the Milan legend questioned his record in big games.

While the 5-1 came early in the campaign, what is it people say about first impressions? It left the idea that no matter the upgrades Milan made in the off-season, no matter how well they did against everybody else, Inter had become Pioli’s kryptonite.

Last week, the song “Pioli’s on fire” reverberated around San Siro. Nothing unusual there, you might think. Only Inter were playing at home, not Milan. There was glee in all the goading, with the prospect of securing the Scudetto in the derby becoming a reality. “It’s an insane opportunity,” Inter’s cerebral midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan said. For him, but also for Federico Dimarco, a lifelong Inter fan whose father, a greengrocer in the Porta Romana neighbourhood of the city, used to take him to games and training. So, too, for Hakan Calhanoglu, the Turkish playmaker who left Inter’s ‘cousins’, Milan, in the year of their last Scudetto. During the open-top bus parade, Zlatan Ibrahimovic grabbed the microphone and encouraged the fans to “send a message to Hakan!”. “I can’t hear you!” he shouted. Later, Theo Hernandez joined in with the chants, taking his former team-mate’s name in flame.



Inter were made from AC Milan. Never forget that – The story of the Milan derby

“I know in the past how Milan celebrated,” Calhanoglu shrugged. The 30-year-old pleaded for “calm”, having cupped his ears under the Milan end in the past. But the chance to clinch the Scudetto against them clearly excited him. “If it happens, it’ll be crazy,” he said. It was. Not crazy enough for Inter’s coach Simone Inzaghi to rush down the local tattoo parlour and mark the achievement in indelible ink after a 2-1 win; two goals for two shining stars. “I’m not a fan of tattoos,” Inzaghi said when asked if he’d go under the needle, as Pioli and Luciano Spalletti — Serie A’s last two championship-winning coaches — had done. The only needle he wanted to see was the one stitching a second star over Inter’s crest.

Outside of Italy, such a thing may seem trivial. An embellishment and nothing more. But within calcio, they are among the titles that shine the brightest, a matter of serious prestige. It was the idea of Andrea Agnelli’s father, Umberto, who, as president of Juventus and the Italian Football Federation in the late 1950s, suggested clubs be awarded one for every 10 titles won. Juventus earned their first in 1958 and were, until now, the only club to have more than one. “The reality is we want to win the Scudetto to put the second star on the jersey,” Inter’s CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, said.

They had achieved almost everything else under Inzaghi. The Coppa Italia-Super Cup double in back-to-back years. A Champions League final. “Europe is a dream that almost came true last year,” Marotta said. “Winning the Champions League would be a source of extraordinary satisfaction for us all, a gift for the Interisti. But as a realist it’s hard. The best team doesn’t always win the Champions League. It depends on the circumstances, the draw, the situation your opponents find themselves in. The league is a stage race where the best team wins. That’s why I’m saying the Scudetto.”

Marcus Thuram’s goal clinched Inter’s 20th Serie A title (Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

Moving into another echelon would add an extra layer of glory to this season’s championship. Beating rivals Milan to the achievement would make it mythical. After all, when Inter lost the title on the final day in 2022, Milan drew level with them on 19 titles. To reach 20 in the derby? Dio mio. For Inter fans who never thought it could get any better than that night at the Bernabeu in 2010 when Jose Mourinho guided the club to the treble, here was a perfect day of another sort.

The captain of that side and ageless vice-president Javier Zanetti said: “As a fan and executive, it’s a huge pleasure to watch this team play. It’s hard to draw comparisons. This Inter team definitely entertains. It’s a very strong team, like the treble-winning one.”

Zanetti’s enduring Argentine lilt is no understatement. Inter have lost once in the league all season, inexplicably to the worst Sassuolo side since their promotion. Until last weekend’s draw with Cagliari, they were still on course to finish on 103 points and break the record set by former coach Antonio Conte at Juventus 10 years ago. When Conte’s total of 102 became unsurpassable, his brother Daniele posted a prideful message on Instagram. He later clarified in a separate post that it wasn’t aimed at Inter. “I’d never allow myself to do that,” he wrote. However, he did sign off with “I hope it remains unbroken for as long as possible”.

Conte had creditably knocked down the house he built when he ended Juventus’ nine-year domination of Serie A. The Scudetto he won with Inter in 2021 was their first since the treble. It came during Covid and restrictions meant it could not be celebrated like this one. But he departed, as he did Juventus in 2014, lacking confidence in the club’s ability to keep progressing. It was the summer Inter’s owners Suning needed a €275m (£237m; $293m) loan at 12 per cent interest from the hedge fund Oaktree to prop up the club – a loan that needs repaying on May 20.

It was the summer that league MVP Romelu Lukaku was sold to Chelsea, Achraf Hakimi moved to Paris Saint-Germain, and Christian Eriksen’s contract was rendered null and void after his cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 (players are not allowed to play with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator in Italy). It seemed like Inter’s cycle was over.

Inter fans celebrate outside the Duomo of Milan (Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images)

And yet, as was the case at Juventus, where his successor Max Allegri won five league titles, did the double four times and reached two Champions League finals, Inzaghi has taken Inter to further heights and greater acclaim. He brought the Coppa Italia back to Appiano Gentile and qualified Inter for the knockout stages of the Champions League after a decade. None of this should be taken for granted.

“The (last) Scudetto caused a few financial issues,” Inzaghi dared say.

The club had to become more disciplined. Inter cut the wage bill and sold €405m worth of players during his tenure. Seven members of Conte’s team — Samir Handanovic, Milan Skriniar, Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, Eriksen, Hakimi and Lukaku — have left. Replacements for some of them, like Andre Onana and Edin Dzeko, have come and gone. It has not been an easy situation to manage and it has been quickly forgotten that Inzaghi regularly found himself on the brink last season. Inter lost 12 league games for the first time since 2011-12. For six months, the team bickered among themselves, struggling to move on from losing the Scudetto on the final day.

The ownership situation cast doubt on players’ futures. Inzaghi’s substitutions and game management came under fire. He had mounted a title challenge with Lazio during Covid, then Inter in his first season, only to fall short. A king of cups, he did not seem capable of winning the league. But this time last year, everything suddenly clicked. Players returned from injury and Inzaghi could finally rotate. He could use Lukaku, a returning loanee, in the league and Dzeko in the cups. Calhanoglu reinvented himself as a world-class No 6 in Brozovic’s prolonged absence.

“A few months ago I claimed to be the best regista in the world and no one believed me,” he said. “But I believe in myself and I’m not afraid of anyone.”

The team not only freshened up, it began to play a style of football that already hinted at a changing of the guard in Italy. Napoli were runaway champions, but how Inter finished the season left a big impression. They reached the Champions League final for the first time in 13 years, one billed erroneously on the eve of the game as the most one-sided in recent memory. Inter lost 1-0 to Manchester City, but they did not return from Istanbul defeated. On the contrary, this team held the conviction it could and should have won the game. “I’m European champion because a striker (Lukaku) missed a clear header from three yards away,” City manager Pep Guardiola recalled only last week.

Inter have made Serie A look easy ever since. “I noted after Istanbul how our self-esteem improved a lot,” Marotta said.

Inter have played with an aura. But Inzaghi does not believe things changed overnight for his team. “I don’t agree that this team was born in Istanbul. I look at it as a journey we’ve been on for three years. I look at how we got through the group stage in our first season. We played great games against Liverpool (winning at Anfield) and Real Madrid, the two finalists that year.”

It’s a point of view shared by Alessandro Bastoni, Inter’s marauding centre-back, who has been quick to remind the press how no one made Inter favourites for the title at the start of the season. “We were favourites with Conte. But not this time. I don’t remember anyone in the industry putting Inter ahead of everybody else. And let’s be clear, we didn’t even know what kind of guys, other than what they were like as footballers, were joining the group. So the title would be a nice bit of revenge for us after integrating new players. It would be a success for us as a group.”

A core of Italian players, the nazionale in Internazionale — Bastoni, cancer survivor Francesco Acerbi, homegrown left-back Dimarco, the resourceful Matteo Darmian and the indefatigable Nicolo Barella — helped the 12 recruits passing through the revolving door settle in. Yann Sommer broke the club record for clean sheets in a single season. Benjamin Pavard made a memorable goal-line clearance in Florence in February, then days later helped decide a prematurely declared title decider against Juventus by forcing Federico Gatti into the error that led to an own goal.

Davide Frattesi emerged as a super sub and late matchwinner. His stoppage-time goal against Hellas Verona at the turn of the year felt like a championship-winning moment, even if a controversial refereeing decision in their favour led to the usual unfounded complottismo — conspiracy theories — and talk of Serie A as a Marotta League, where his teams have won nine of the past 13 titles.

The primary reason for Marotta’s dominance, aside from his political sway as someone who sits in positions of power with both Serie A and the federation, is free transfers like that of Marcus Thuram, which will go down as one of the best of his career, along with those of Paul Pogba and Andrea Pirlo at Juventus.

The Frenchman was arguably the best value signing anywhere in Europe this season, with 21 goal involvements, the best being an outrageous curler in the 5-1 win against Milan in September, the most historic the one that clinched the title in the same fixture on Monday night.

Once again, Lautaro Martinez’s ability to play with any striker came to the fore. There was a time when he threatened the single-season scoring record, as Inter’s skipper hit more than 20 league goals for a third year in a row. His penalty miss in the shootout against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 was the only blemish on his campaign. Lautaro, goalless since late February and guilty of missing a couple of presentable chances on Monday, was not to blame for Inter’s elimination.

Thuram’s injury in the first leg at San Siro meant he was not 100 per cent fit for the game at the Civitas Metropolitano. His replacement, Marko Arnautovic, should have scored more than once in the opening game of the tie and Thuram and Barella did not capitalise on the one-on-ones Lautaro set up for them in Madrid, where Inter even took the lead. Their exit came as a shock. Inter had won all 13 games in 2024 up until their trip to Spain, playing a brand of total football that was becoming the talk of Europe.

The fortnight that followed was the only time dark clouds gathered over Inter. They dropped points in the next league game, against defending champions Napoli, whose defender Juan Jesus accused Acerbi of racially abusing him.

Acerbi was sent home from international duty pending the outcome of the investigation and walked through Milan’s train station looking for a cab while a pack of reporters pursued him. No one from Inter’s communications team was there to meet him and his comments — “I didn’t say anything racist” — angered Jesus further. Acerbi was later cleared on the grounds of lack of corroborating evidence, but it was an unsavoury situation all the same and one that was hard to leave at the back of one’s mind when he scored the title-clinching goal against Milan on Monday.

Marotta, the architect of this Inter era, then announced his plans to leave in 2027 and go into politics with a view to getting more young people into sport.

Meanwhile, the court of appeal in Milan found in favour of China Construction Bank in the case it brought against Inter president Steven Zhang to get Italy to recognise a ruling in Hong Kong where he was ordered to pay more than $250m in unpaid debts, as detailed in the long read from our crisis clubs series.



Crisis clubs: Inter Milan, the ticking clock – a £287m loan, record loss and silverware

He has been conspicuous by his absence from Italy this season and wasn’t in attendance for Monday’s Scudetto and second-star-sealing derby. The latest sight of him in public curiously enough was on the grid at the weekend’s Shanghai Grand Prix, where he was supporting Ferrari.

Perhaps emboldened by reports Suning may have found a fund willing to refinance the Oaktree loan, the clock is still ticking, the deadline less than a month away. “I guess what I can say is we will continue the fight,” Zhang said. “For as long as I’m the president, we’re going to continue to win and continue to aim for the best, no doubt.”

The uncertainty around Inter’s future also continues and their early exit from the Champions League raises the spectre of more player sales than last summer. Amid the blue sky of the Scudetto, this is the dark night behind those glittering stars. Inzaghi’s contract, due to expire in 2025, needs extending, as does Lautaro’s deal and for all Marotta has been promising it for months and months, it has yet to happen.

Inter’s repeated success has ruffled a few feathers. At the launch of his new book, Milan’s legendary former coach Arrigo Sacchi was speaking generally when he said Italian football’s problem is the tendency to take shortcuts, prioritising today over tomorrow. “Winning by going into debt is cheating,” he insisted. “Are Inter cheating, then? Yes,” he replied. But Sacchi, a football purist who believes winning isn’t enough, it’s how you win that matters, still couldn’t begrudge Inzaghi this championship. “He has evolved. He has come on a lot and is on the right path.”

Inter’s football this season has been some of the most avant-garde in Europe; fluid positional interchanges, wing-backs setting up wing-backs, centre-backs assisting centre-backs. “If I go on the attack, Lautaro or Mkhitaryan know they have to go in defence,” Bastoni said. “Everyone defends. Everyone attacks. There’s a code we respect.”

Inter have the league’s best defence. They have scored in 40 consecutive games and counting with 17 different goalscorers. The only knock on Inzaghi is that instead of two league titles in four years, Inter as a club perhaps should have won three. As a cycle, it is a thinly-veiled dynasty, one that has culminated with a Scudetto in a derby and a star that will shine in history.

Under the pouring rain on Monday, Milan’s ultras put on a brave face. “Maths are not an opinion. The titles on the pitch are 19,” a banner read, alluding to the Scudetto Inter were awarded in 2006 after the Calciopoli scandal. Across from them, the Interisti in the Curva Nord did not care. Their choreography showed a fortune teller in an Inter tracksuit looking into a crystal ball. “Our destiny is your nightmare.” And as one side of the city partied into the night, the other was sleepless for another reason.

(Top photo: Francesco Scaccianoce/Getty Images)