Romelu Lukaku will complete 2020 among a very select band of strikers, probably only five of them, with more than 30 goals scored in Europe’s most elite club competitions during this disrupted calendar year.
His misfortune is that perhaps none of those strikes are remembered as much as his own goal and a goal he prevented.
Lukaku’s Internazionale were 16 minutes from taking the Europa League final into extra-time in August when calamity struck. A speculative overhead volley from Sevilla’s Diego Carlos, an unfortunate ricochet off the shin of Lukaku, and Inter’s grasp on a first major trophy for almost a decade abruptly extinguished. Sevilla were 3-2 winners via an ‘og’ against Lukaku’s name.
A fortnight ago, Inter fell out of European competition entirely. One goal would have kept them in the Champions League. Eighty-nine minutes into their goalless final group match, home to Shakhtar Donetsk, a soaring Alexis Sanchez’s goal-bound header was stopped from rippling the Shakhtar net by the back of Lukaku’s head. He had intended to stoop lower; his unfortunate clearance from his own colleague left Inter bottom of a tight Group B.
If Europe has been doubly cruel to Lukaku, in Serie A he galvanises a powerful drive towards what might yet be Inter’s first Italian title since 2010. Lukaku has six goals in six matches this month, his only December blank that dispiriting, costly stalemate against Shakhtar.
Should Inter extend their winning run in the league to seven games on Wednesday at Verona, they will move to the top of Serie A, at least for a couple of hours.
AC Milan, a point ahead of their neighbours, entertain Lazio later, in the last matchday slot before Italy’s brief winter break.
Milan have been surprising pacesetters. This time 12 months ago, they were in the bottom half after a 5-0 defeat by Atalanta. A year on, they are proactive, bold, and inflicting their own form of ambush.
Lazio are advised to be wide awake at kick-off on Wednesday. Milan maintained their top-of-the-table status on Sunday thanks to a goal at Sassuolo scored after six seconds – a Serie A record for – from a carefully prepared dash from halfway by Hakan Calhanoglu, who set up an angled finish from Rafael Leao.
Whether Milan or Inter can prevent Juventus from taking a 10th successive Scudetto will depend in large part on stamina through the remaining two-thirds of the campaign.
Lukaku may come to privately reflect that an unfortunate bounce off the back of his head against Shakhtar turns out to have a silver lining. With no European commitments, Inter can count on more restful midweeks than their rivals for as long as Juventus last through the knockout phase of the Champions League, and AC Milan progress in the Europa League.
AC Milan were the last club other than Juve to win Serie A, and their 2011 success would seem even further back in history were this challenge not so bathed in nostalgia. That is unavoidable when it is personified in a figure as domineering as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their top scorer in 2010-11.
Ibrahimovic, who rejoined Milan 12 months ago, has directly contributed 14 of the club’s 31 points so far. It’s an even more staggering ratio when you consider he has played in fewer than half their games because of Covid-19 quarantining and injuries. He has 10 goals from his six league matches. A reminder: The Swede is 39 years old.
Milan manager Stefano Pioli hopes to have Ibrahimovic recuperated from his calf strain before the end of January. In the meantime, he is happy to spread praise and limelight onto the ageless superstar. Even if Milan have maintained their unbeaten run, now at 23 league matches, without Ibrahimovic for the last five games, his aura played a part.
“Thanks to his work, many other players have lifted their performances,” said Pioli, who values Ibrahimovic’s vast experience around the training ground. In Sunday’s 2-1 victory at Sassuolo, Milan fielded nine players aged 21 or under. “Zlatan is a champion, and I want him back playing as soon as possible. We are a stronger team with him in it.”
Pioli himself staged his own comeback in 2020. Milan were all set to replace him with the German Ralf Rangnick, and had Rangnick’s signature on a contract to start in July. But as Milan kept gathering points after the spring lockdown, the transition plan was cancelled and the club stuck with Pioli.
One more win, and he will keep the renaissance going from the top of the league, above Inter, above Juventus, at the end of an unpredictable year.