"He demands everything – not just in matches, in training as well," said Ashley Young.
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In the summer of 1997, a certain Ronaldo joined Inter Milan. His first season in the Nerazzurri shirt was sensational. 'Il Fenomeno' – as he soon came to be known – scored 34 goals in all competitions, the last of them capping a brilliant performance in the 1998 UEFA Cup final to seal a 3-0 win against Lazio.
Twenty-two years on and history could be about to repeat itself. Step forward Romelu Lukaku, who in his first season with Inter has scored 33 times and still has one game to play – the final against Sevilla.
The Belgian has struck three times in this mini-tournament in Germany and has set a competition record for scoring in his past ten Europa League games; a run stretching back to the 2014/15 season with Everton. But it is not just his goals that make Lukaku the face of this Inter side.
The powerful 27-year-old will always make that extra run; he works hard for his team-mates and is quick to share credit for success in the impressive Italian he has already picked up in Milan. All qualities the famously workaholic Antonio Conte was looking for in a striker when he was appointed Inter coach last summer.
A devotee of the three-man defence, Conte has built his Inter team around a 3-5-2 formation, with two dynamic midfielders ahead of a holding midfielder (Marcelo Brozović) and two attacking players on the wings. Play starts from the back, inviting opponents on to press and then looking to hit the forwards with long balls out of defence or from goalkeeper Samir Handanovič. Lukaku is key to the system – able to defend the ball with his body, create space for his team-mates and, as he showed again against Shakhtar Donetsk in the semi-finals, make incisive runs and provide the finishing touch himself.
But it has not been all wine and roses for Inter this season. Conte's side started the campaign in the UEFA Champions League and would have reached the knockout stage had they beaten a weakened Barcelona side on Matchday 6. Lukaku scored once, but missed other chances and the Nerazzurri were made to pay.
In Serie A too, Inter rued a lack of consistency. Despite a strong finish, they came in second, just one point behind Juventus as Conte looked to find a settled side. Ashley Young has had a significant impact, scoring four times and providing five assists since arriving from Manchester United in January. Christian Eriksen, though, has found things tougher. Conte briefly tried to accommodate the Dane in a 3-4-1-2 formation but soon switched back to 3-5-2 and has not changed a single player in his starting XI since beating Getafe in the round of 16.
One of those regulars is veteran Diego Godín – twice a Europa League winner with Atlético Madrid. The former Atlético captain was expected to become a cornerstone of the Nerazzurri defence when he joined last summer, but things did not initially go to plan and he lost his place to the exciting youngster Alessandro Bastoni. Godín never complained; he just set about winning his place back.
"It was a challenge for me to understand what Antonio Conte wanted," the 34-year-old said after the quarter-final win again Leverkusen. "It's totally different to the way I had played and moved for 15 to 20 years. I had to change mentally and also physically; change the way I looked at football. I've learned so much from the coach. He is so incredibly demanding and I just realised that I had to work as hard as I could."
Young too has been struck by Conte's drive. "He demands everything – not just in matches, in training as well. You can tell he's a winner. He wants to win, and he demands that from all the players, a winning mentality." The example set by the work ethic of the likes of Lukaku, Godín and Young has filtered through the team.
"When you play with top players and a great coach, it becomes easier to develop," 23-year-old midfielder Nicolò Barella explains. "This was the start of a new era for us, so it wasn't easy to be in fine form from the very start. I had to make mistakes and learn from them. Conte has improved my mentality, the way I play. I use my mind a lot more now. I was pure instinct before. I am also stronger when going forward."
Inter have shone before on the European stage. Helenio Herrera's Grande Inter twice won the European Champion Clubs' Cup in the 1960s; the 'German Inter' of Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann won the first of three UEFA Cups in the 1990s, then José Mourinho led Inter to the famous treble in 2010, completing the hat-trick with victory against Bayern München in the Champions League final. Is it Conte's turn next?
"We worked really hard in the little training camp that we had before this tournament," Lukaku said after the 5-0 win against Shakhtar in the semi-finals. "It was tough, but I think now we see the results of the hard work. Physically and tactically, everybody is at 100% and we can keep going." All that hard work could be about to pay off.