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 it 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.
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 explains.
“Like, you know, he was disappointing with Man 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 has 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.” He has 32% of his team’s goals and even more might be asked of him next season if, as expected, Martinez completes a move to Barcelona.
It shouldn’t faze Lukaku, he is clearly happy now, Antonio Conte appears to be the manager he has waited for, and the Italy 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. It helps 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 face 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.
The problem on the pitch for Lukaku and for Inter is the situation that surrounded his historical goal. It came during a 2-1 defeat to at home to Bologna. The top four are locked in but they are now in danger of being overtaken by Atalanta and finishing in that fourth spot. In the grand scheme it makes no difference as they would still be in the Champions League group stage but it is the feeling of what might have been.
That defeat, combined with the chaotic 3-3 draw against Sassuolo a couple of weeks ago, has ruled out what little hope they had in the title race when Serie A resumed. After Milan’s surprise victory over Juventus on Tuesday night that looks even more like a lost opportunity.
That aforementioned kindness of Lukaku came back to bite him and the team during the match when he gave Martinez, under pressure at the moment, a penalty to take. Unlike Esposito earlier in the season the Argentine missed and Lukaku has been criticised by some for his decision including former Inter captain Giuseppe Bergomi who told Sky Sports Italia “The penalty taker is Lukaku and he once left a penalty to Esposito with a good result. The gesture is beautiful, he wanted to help Lautaro. I don’t think the rumours influence him, but Lukaku has to take that penalty.”
Regardless, with the title now seemingly beyond reach, questions will turn to next season’s challenge. Pegoraro says that Inter “need more on the wings, both right and left [Achraf] Hakimi is a massive signing. If Lautaro leaves Inter will have to bring in another top forward, someone like [Edinson] Cavani.”
Depending on what happens in the Europa League knockout tournament it might be tempting to write this season off as a disappoint for Inter. But at the same time it feels important to remember that we’re only one year into the Conte revolution, if he can lead them to a top three finish it will be the first time since the 2010-11 season. This is a team that needs work and Conte needs the time. With another year and a good summer window who knows what he and Lukaku can achieve together. The building blocks are already well in place.