MILAN — Inter Milan will play in its fifth Champions League final when it faces Manchester City in Istanbul on Saturday.
The three-time champion will be bidding for its first title since it won the treble of the Serie A, the Italian Cup and the Champions League under José Mourinho in 2010.
For current coach Simone Inzaghi it is a first Champions League final, as is the case for all of his players.
Few would have imagined the Nerazzurri would be in this position when the draw was made back in August.
But Inter progressed from a tough group containing European giants Bayern Munich and Barcelona, and it went on to eliminate Porto, Benfica and city rival AC Milan en route to the final.
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As soon as the draw was made, Inter’s group was dubbed the group of death. Bayern, Barcelona and Inter had 14 titles between them. Czech team Viktoria Plzeň completed the quartet. Inter’s Champions League future looked bleak when it lost 2-0 at home to Bayern in the opener. It was also the manner of that defeat that made progression seem unlikely as there was a clear gulf between the two teams. Inter would have lost by a more hefty scoreline had it not been for goalkeeper Andre Onana. Inter also lost by the same score in Germany, but by then it had already secured a spot in the last 16. A controversial victory at home over Barcelona had given it the advantage in what had been billed as the contest for second spot — as Bayern ran away with the group — and the Nerazzurri consolidated that with a 3-3 draw in Spain.
Inter beat Porto 1-0 on aggregate to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since going out at that stage in 2011 as defending champion. A late Romelu Lukaku goal in the first leg — and some fortune in the second — was enough to see Inter advance and perhaps save Inzaghi’s job. By the time Inter travelled to Porto in March it was already out of the Serie A title race as it had dropped 18 points behind leader and eventual champion Napoli. The pressure was on Inzaghi. Inter defended solidly in Portugal but Porto should have taken the match to extra time after a dramatic finale. Deep in stoppages, Porto had a shot cleared off the line and also hit the woodwork twice — all in the space of a minute.
Inzaghi and Inter were under even more pressure ahead of their second Portuguese test. Inter was without a win in more than a month when it travelled to Benfica. But it ended that six-match winless run with a 2-0 victory, thanks to a header from Nicolò Barella and a Lukaku penalty. Inter drew further criticism as it then lost at home to Monza in the Italian league, but it drew 3-3 against Benfica at San Siro to advance 5-3 on aggregate. The second leg was also more comfortable than the score suggests as Inter relinquished a two-goal lead late. Inter had been criticized for not being clinical enough in front of goal and failing to convert numerous chances but Barella netted early and Lautaro Martínez and Joaquín Correa scored in the second half to all but seal their team’s spot in the last four.
Everything seemed to go right for Inter in the buildup to the semifinal against city rival AC Milan. Players returned from injuries, while others who had been putting in sub-par performances started hitting form — notably Lukaku. Inter beat Milan 2-0 in the first leg of the so-called “Euroderby,” with goals from Edin Džeko and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the opening 11 minutes. Martínez scored the only goal in a 1-0 win in the return match, where Inter was nominally the home team at the stadium both Milan teams share. Those victories came in the midst of an impressive run that saw Inter end the season with 11 wins in its final 12 matches — ahead of its last and most important match of the season on Saturday.