If you ask Simone Inzaghi, he will tell you that two matches against a Premier League side in 2021/22 helped set Inter Milan on the path to facing another, Manchester City, in the UEFA Champions League final this Saturday.
“It has been a long road to get here,” said Inter coach Inzaghi. “Beyond everything this year, we remember those four encounters with Real Madrid and Liverpool a season ago.”
Inter lost both group matches against the Spanish club, before they were eliminated by Jurgen Klopp’s team in the last 16. Yet they won the second leg 1-0 at Anfield, a meaningful moment for a club who had previously not reached the knockout rounds in more than a decade.
For Inzaghi, it was a crucial step in his team learning what was required to compete on this stage.
Inter have conquered Europe before, twice under Helenio Herrera in the 1960s, and once more under Jose Mourinho in 2010.
Even the latter success though, belongs to a different era. Mourinho led Inter to an unprecedented treble, combining the UEFA Champions League with Serie A and Coppa Italia titles, but departed immediately afterward.
Inter then finished outside the top four in five of their next seven seasons.
The renaissance began with Inzaghi’s predecessors, Luciano Spalletti and Antonio Conte, who re-established Inter as a force to be reckoned with domestically.
'King of the cups'
It is Inzaghi, though, who taught them how to thrive in knockout competitions, earning a reputation as “un re di coppe” – king of the cups – by raising the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa in both seasons at Inter so far.
Inter may be regarded as underdogs when they face City in Istanbul, but they have a well-earned confidence in their ability to surprise.
Few expected them to make it through the group stage after they were paired with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, yet they beat LaLiga champions in Milan and led twice on the way to a 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou.
They have improved since. Injuries restricted Inzaghi’s options back then, but Inter have made a strength of their depth as players returned in the second half of this campaign.
Lukaku and Dzeko threat
An Italian spine holds it all together. Alessandro Bastoni, Francesco Acerbi and Matteo Darmian frequently start as the back three, while Federico Dimarco has been excellent at left wing-back and Nicolo Barella is a force of nature in midfield.
Inter are not especially defensive under Inzaghi, yet that core group have helped them to five clean sheets in six Champions League knockout matches.
“Some people have underestimated us [Italians],” said Bastoni. “It’s hard to beat us, we have a lot of pride, a lot of heart.
"If it’s hard to knock Italians out of this competition, that makes me happy, because it means Serie A is at a high level as well.”
Nicky Bandini (@nickybandini) is a sports writer and broadcaster who specialises in European football.
Also in this series
Part 1: Guardiola: History won't define this year's final
Part 2: Why Guardiola must keep it simple against Inter
Part 4: Who are Inter's key men Man City must watch?
Part 5: Premier League clubs in Champions League finals