“I have not forgotten how a lot of people turned their nose up when we signed Lukaku and said he was overrated,” noted Antonio Conte after the win over Sassuolo. “But I always said that he arrived here with potential and that if he worked hard he could do extraordinary things. Lukaku has made exceptional improvements and can make even more.”
Romelu Lukaku has been a revelation at Inter. With 21 goals this season, he is the team’s top scorer and the key player in ending Juventus’ nine-year dominance in Italy. Eleven points clear with eight games to play after beating Cagliari on Sunday, the title is imminent.
For the man himself, it will be his first league championship since his time as a teenager at Anderlecht and a point proven after his Manchester United exit. At 27, he has answered those critics who focused on his limitations. He has done so by eliminating them.
Lukaku appears quicker now, perhaps even stronger. He is intelligent on and off the pitch, a team player, whose link-up play and creativity has developed too. The Belgium international has fulfilled his potential, transforming himself into the complete centre-forward.
“Only Lewandowski and Haaland are at his level,” says Ivan Zamorano, the former Inter favourite. Jurgen Klinsmann, another iconic striker in the club’s history, highlights his selflessness. “In a team, there are those who give and those who take. Lukaku gives.”
For Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, yet another ex-Inter forward queuing up to praise him, it is an overlooked quality that stands out. “He does not rely only on his physique. Lukaku has technical skills that had not been seen so much in Manchester. At Inter, he is a man reborn.”
The perfect illustration of this change is not his goal return but the number of assists that he has laid on for team-mates – nine already this Serie A season. No player has provided more. This from a man who did not register an assist in his last 37 Premier League games.
His contribution for the only goal of the game against Cagliari did not even register as an assist but it underlined the importance of his role in the team. Achraf Hakimi rolled the ball into his feet inside the area and made the run in behind, knowing the ball would come.
Lukaku held off his marker with nonchalant ease, controlled the ball with his left foot before feeding the pass into the path of the wing-back with his right. The cross found Matteo Darmian at the far post and Inter had taken another huge step towards the title.
Against Sassuolo, his goal had been a trademark header but his assist for strike partner Lautaro Martinez has become a staple too. The purposeful run in the right channel, drawing defenders towards him, before having the awareness to pick out Martinez in space.
It was the fifth assist that he has provided for the Argentine, making it the most common combination in Serie A, but Lukaku has also set up Alexis Sanchez three times too. Sanchez’s second at Parma was very similar to the Sassuolo goal, only the grateful recipient changed.
This is what it means to play with Lukaku now. In the opening stages of the derby against Milan, it was his inviting cross that found Martinez. Next up against Genoa, he had the presence of mind after a surging run to measure the pass into Darmian’s path.
Lukaku has always been a useful target but his awareness in these situations, his decision-making in the final third, has improved significantly. As has the subtlety of his touch. That was always in his game. Now, with confidence booming, it is there consistently.
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