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The chance for Inter Milan to score and tie the game late in the Champions League final was as clear as any team could hope for.
The ball floated slowly across the Manchester City goalmouth in the 89th minute toward the head of towering striker Romelu Lukaku, who stooped slightly four yards (meters) out with half the goal open to aim for.
Lukaku’s forehead guided the ball toward the net -– but almost straight at goalkeeper Ederson, whose left leg pushed it toward safety.
Somehow the 1-0 lead was intact and minutes later Man City was European champion for the first time, completing a rare treble with the English league and cup titles already sealed.
“I’m still wondering how it’s possible that we didn’t score at the end,” Inter coach Simone Inzaghi said. “We clearly deserved more.”
It had seemed inevitable that a striker of Lukaku’s quality, the all-time record scorer for Belgium, would find the net. Almost 20,000 Inter fans massed at that end of the stadium could hardly believe he didn’t.
It was that kind of final for Inter. Even though a series of circumstances had give the Italian underdog a better shot at a fourth European title than most believed possible before kickoff.
Man City’s best defender, Kyle Walker, didn’t start the game, nursing an injury. Its best midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, came off before the end of the first half because of a hamstring problem. Its star striker, Erling Haaland, was held in check for most of the game. And the goalkeeper, Ederson, had an uncharacteristically shaky first half.
Yet Inter never came close to scoring before halftime.
Then, within minutes of falling behind to Man City midfielder Rodri’s 68th-minute shot, Inter still could not convert back-to-back chances. Both were clear headers in the goalmouth, the start of a misery-making hat trick of missed opportunities.
First, Federico Dimarco slipped behind the Man City defense to loop a slow header over Ederson who fell back into his goal as the ball bounced back of the crossbar.
The ball came back to Dimarco who crouched and dived to direct it back toward goal -– and straight into the sturdy legs of Lukaku blocking the path.
“We’re really upset, we’re really upset to have lost this final,” Dimarco said. “We’re left with so much disappointment because we played against City like equals.”
There were other attacks crafted by Inter, often with the guile of Lautaro Martinez at their heart. He took his best shooting angle from a tight angle that Ederson saved when Lukaku had demanded a pass to him.
Martinez, at least, can look back on a season where he became a World Cup winner with Argentina in Qatar.
For Lukaku, however, the end of his Champions League season was eerily similar to the end of his World Cup campaign.
In the final minutes of a tense, tight group-stage game, 0-0 against Croatia, a single goal would have lifted the Belgians into the round of 16 and sent eventual semifinalists Croatia home.
Lukaku — on also as a substitute then, again because of recent injury — had a chance fall to him two yards (meters) from goal. The ball struck his midriff and went back across the goalmouth to Croatia’s goalkeeper.
It has not been Lukaku’s season. Minutes after the final whistle, he stood still alone and was approached by Man City defender Nathan Ake, then shared a long embrace and words with Ilkay Gündoğan, who would soon lift the iconic trophy for the English club.
It was not Inter’s night, and it has not been Italy’s time.
Three European finals, three losses in 11 days. Inter joined beaten finalists Roma in the Europa League and Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League.
“I want to congratulate Inter for their performance I know how they feel,” Man City coach Pep Guardiola, said, reflecting on his team’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the 2021 final. “We felt it two years ago.”