This article was initially published on July 9.
Before the weekend of July 4, three players in the illustrious history of Inter Milan had scored 20 or more goals in their first 30 Serie A matches for the club.
Then Romelu Lukaku made it four.
The goal itself wasn’t pretty, but he was in the right place at the right time, as he has been so often this season, to turn the ball in after the initial effort from strike partner Lautaro Martinez had hit the post.
It was Lukaku’s 20th goal of his debut season for Inter, following in the footsteps of Giuseppe Meazza, Stefano Nyers and Ronaldo. Remarkably in a career where he has scored over 200 goals it is just the second time he has reached the 20-goal barrier, following 25 in his final season for Everton. However, if his first season in Italy is anything to go off it certainly won’t be the last.
There have been plenty of memorable moments, not least headers in both episodes of the Milan derby, as well as a couple of spectacular solo efforts. He ended with 23 goals in Serie A and then scored in both games as Inter dispatched first Getafe and then Bayer Leverkusen as the Europa League returned. On Monday evening Lukaku scored a fabulous late brace during Inter's emphatic 5-0 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk. It meant he has now scored in ten consecutive Europa League matches, a new record.
In total he has 33 goals, one fewer than Ronaldo's debut tally. Ronaldo's 34th goal? That came in the UEFA Cup final...
But Lukaku, who is now 27, had to win over the doubters at first. He was allowed to leave by Manchester United, almost pushed out of the door, after failing to be the number nine they dreamt of.
“There was some kind of scepticism surrounding him.” Eurosport Italy’s Paolo Pegoraro explained back in July.
“Like, you know, he was disappointing with Manchester United, he didn't score against the top teams of the league and this was a huge investment for Inter Milan.”
Nearly a year on, it’s safe to say that move has worked out. Lukaku scored more goals than everyone in Italy save for Ciro Immobile and Cristiano Ronaldo. Pegoraro says Lukaku has been “a massive success. He's acting as a force of nature since the beginning of the season. He is almost unstoppable.”
The added pressure shouldn’t faze Lukaku, he is clearly happy now, Antonio Conte appears to be the manager he has waited for, and the Italian has certainly managed to get the best out of him. In an interview with Sky Sports at the start of the year Lukaku listed the Italian alongside Roberto Martinez and Ronald Koeman as the managers who get the best out of him. His performances are a true sliding doors moment for Chelsea fans, who watched their team sign Alvaro Morata rather than bringing Lukaku back to the club after initially signing him as a teenager
Inter Milan's Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku (L) embraces Inter Milan's Italian head coach Antonio Conte after scoring during the Italian Serie A football match AC Milan vs Inter Milan on September 21, 2019 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. (
Image credit: Getty Images
It also helps that he has instantly become a fan favourite at the San Siro. Of course it's handy when you score against Milan twice but his work-rate and his goals were always going to endear him to the fans. Now they belt out his name, while he stands and salutes them after scoring, at least when they are allowed in the stadium.
Another moment that highlights just how quickly Lukaku has taken Inter into his heart came back in December during a game against Genoa. Inter were cruising when they were awarded a penalty. Lukaku, on a hat-trick and the team’s designated penalty-taker, turned to 17-year-old Sebastiano Esposito and allowed the teenager to take it for what proved to be an emotional moment for the academy product in front of the home fans.
Unfortunately Lukaku has found himself to be no different to any of the other black players currently plying their trade in Italy, namely subject to the racist abuse that plagues the country still. Lukaku has continued to fight back wherever he can but the laughable sanctions often put in place by the Italian football federation mean it is often a case of one step forward and three or four steps back. Perhaps after the recent Black Lives Matter protests things will be different.
Inter ended the season strongly, finishing second and just one point behind champions Juventus, but there is a sense of what might have been. In many regards Inter threw away the title as Juve stalled, that 20th Serie A goal for Lukaku came during a 2-1 defeat at home to Bologna. There has been speculation over Conte's future but a win in the Europa League would certainly salvage the season. No Italian team has won the competition this millennium and no Italian side has won a European competition since Inter themselves in 2010. That is something that can distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
After all we are into the first season of the Conte revolution. This was the first time since the 2010-11 season that they finished in the top three and he clearly is working to overhaul the squad. The pieces are there and Lukaku is a critical element. If they can end strongly and keep the key players something special could be brewing in the black and blue half of Milan...