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On the roof of Inter’s headquarters in Milan’s regenerated Porta Nuova district, the club’s chairman, metaverse fashionista, Steven Zhang opened TikTok and announced Romelu Lukaku’s improbable return less than a year after his €115million sale to Chelsea.
“The big boss is back again,” Zhang excitedly declared. It was like deja vu. “Remember three years ago when we were here?” Lukaku smiled, giving a thumbs up. “It was like yesterday,” Zhang said, suddenly at a loss for words. “We’re going to score lots of goals this year,” he hoped. Lukaku insisted: “That’s what I’m here for,”
“You promise?” Zhang wagered, holding out his hand for Lukaku to shake on it.
Lukaku scored 64 times in 95 appearances in his first spell at Inter (2019-2021). He left as the league’s MVP. The assumption was Lukaku would pick up where he left off and he did. Within minutes of making his second Serie A debut for Inter, Lukaku scored in Lecce and all the forecasts were sunny in their optimism. Inter had relinquished their title — the one Lukaku won — on the final day of the season in May. Who would stop them reclaiming it from AC Milan now Rom was in town again? The King of Milan seemed poised to take back his crown and make Inter rule again.
If you tuned into their round-of-16 tie against Porto in the Champions League at San Siro, you could be forgiven for thinking the reign has been uninterrupted. Lukaku was the matchwinner, hitting the post before careening the only goal of the game past Diogo Costa on the rebound. It was a huge goal for him and not just because it gives Inter a strong chance of reaching the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years. The significance it assumed came down to the past six months not going as planned for Lukaku.
In Serie A, he has not found the back of the net from open play since the opening weekend of the season and he started the Porto game on the bench. His famous LuLa duet with Lautaro Martinez has not had much opportunity to flourish and, once the junior partner in that tandem, Martinez, a world champion, is now the player Inter fans look to most for big moments.
In Italy more broadly, the striker everyone talks about is Victor Osimhen, who stands miles out in front at the top of the scoring charts while his team Napoli are 15 points clear of Inter at the top of the table and in a league of their own.
Pundits have even gone so far as to wonder whether Inter would have been better off signing Paulo Dybala on a free transfer from rivals Juventus last summer rather than taking back Lukaku. Talks were advanced enough and only broke off when emotion drove through Lukaku’s loan. Inter, still ailing from the squeeze on owner Suning’s core business and the pandemic, could not afford to take on both players’ wages simultaneously.
Even at a discount on his Chelsea salary, Lukaku is Serie A’s highest-paid footballer and Inter have got surprisingly little bang for their buck on the combined €20million it is costing to rent the player from Stamford Bridge.
“Romelu loves Inter,” Inter’s chief executive Beppe Marotta said outside the club’s Christmas party. But for love nor money, is it enough? Cash is what Inter have been short of these past couple of years and, as with the €30million price paid for Joaquin Correa, they cannot afford to waste it. “He knows full well that he’s in our debt,” Marotta’s deputy, Pier Ausilio, said this week.
A penalty in the 3-1 win against Udinese at the weekend was a step towards repaying it (although Lukaku got a little lucky after seeing his first effort saved by Marco Silvestri only for the referee to order a retake upon catching Adam Masina encroaching in the area).
At least he is starting regularly in Serie A again.
Lukaku snapped a microtendon in his flexor over the autumn, an injury he considers the worst he has suffered in 13 years. The World Cup in November, probably the 29-year-old’s last for Belgium, meant he could not afford take any chances and the manner in which his country were eliminated not to mention his miss against Croatia weighed heavy.
Lukaku scored 64 times in 95 appearances in his first spell at Inter (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)
As comebacks go in Serie A this season arguably only Paul Pogba’s second spell at Juventus has been more underwhelming. Lukaku has been limited to 571 minutes in the league — which is still 571 minutes more than Pogba.
It is a stark contrast to his first spell when Antonio Conte, his fitness coach Antonio Pintus and nutritionist Matteo Pincella were able to transform his body and get the best out of Lukaku. Alas, Conte is now at Tottenham and Pintus back at Real Madrid.
“If you come over to my house, it looks like a hospital,” Lukaku told Sky Italia, full of state-of-the-art machines to help him recover as soon as possible. But the contraption in need of most attention is the clock. After missing nearly half of Inter’s league games, time is running out for Lukaku.
“We expect big things from him,” Marotta said. Otherwise, keeping him is hard to justify. Last night’s goal against Porto could represent a turning point. Lukaku looked sharp when he came on, teeing up Martinez with a good chance before the winning goal arrived.
But even if he suddenly hits form and scores in every game from now to the end of the season, does his future lie at Inter beyond June?
Inter cut their losses from €245.6million to €140million last year. But they still have a €407m bond to service and, more pressingly, a €292m loan from Oaktree Capital Management with 12 per cent annual interest to pay off in 2024.
The departure of Ivan Perisic last summer and Milan Skriniar this coming June hurt as both ran down their contracts and left or will leave for nothing. Throw in the problems Inter have had with front-of-shirt sponsor DigitalBits and love alone won’t keep Lukaku. The strict financial fair play settlement agreement imposed by UEFA and the prospect of Serie A’s next domestic TV deal from 2024 shrinking gives Inter even less room for manoeuvre.
“At times (the FFP parameters) impede us from letting our imagination loose and working as all sporting directors would like,” Ausilio said, “which is going out and signing the best players in the world.”
Only a handful of peers can do that now and many of them operate in the Premier League. “We can’t do what some of our competitors in England are doing,” Ausilio noted. “It’s enough to see what the ‘smaller’ clubs are doing. They spent €100m in the last window. We can’t do that but it doesn’t mean we can’t build a competitive team.” Lukaku is still worth around €70million on Chelsea books and financial practicalities mean Inter will balk at stumping up that sort of money for him, especially considering his age and recent injury history. Even rolling the loan over for another year looks a challenge.
“I want to stay here and do good,” Lukaku said. “I hope to do well, give my all, then we’ll talk to Chelsea and hopefully find a solution.” What that is remains to be seen. Thomas Tuchel is no longer coach of Chelsea and the team are in desperate need of a striker. Nothing is apparently off the table, not even a return to Stamford Bridge although building bridges with the fanbase there may be harder than it has been at San Siro.
Initially indifferent, the Curva Nord appreciated Lukaku’s mea culpa celebration after a goal in the Champions League against Viktoria Plzen in October. Todd Boehly granted Lukaku his wish to move back to Inter last summer, listening to him and his representatives after Belgium’s Nations League game against the Netherlands. But what if, as seems likely, he is returned to sender? Lukaku has, after all, now scored more goals (two) in February than Chelsea (one).
“Damn, look how in shape I am,” he joked, without realising he was on air after Wednesday’s game. Inter now hope Lukaku can stay fit until the end of the season and that more is to come from him. The question is: for how long?
(Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)