MILAN: A record-breaking Romelu Lukaku is leading Inter Milan's chase for their first trophy in 9 years.
Eyebrows were raised last year when Inter shelled out a club record of around €65 million ($73 million) plus €13 million ($15 million) in bonuses for Lukaku, who had had a disappointing final season at Manchester United.
However, Lukaku swiftly developed a scintillating partnership with Lautaro Martínez and their goals helped Inter sustain a title challenge before eventually finishing second in Serie A, a point behind Juventus.
Inter scored 81 league goals — well above the paltry 57 they managed in the previous campaign.
Lukaku scored again on Monday and set up another to help Inter beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 to reach the Europa League semifinals.
“Romelu has never played so well, not even in the past,” Inter coach Antonio Conte said.
The Belgian forward became the first player to find the net in nine consecutive Europa League games, surpassing the eight set by Alan Shearer for Newcastle in 2005.
Lukaku’s 31st goal of the season took him past the 30-mark for the first time in his career.
“I’ve always wanted to win, ever since I was little,” Lukaku said. “I’ve always said that I will give my all for this team.
“We’re a great team; my teammates help me a lot, otherwise I couldn’t do these things and achieve these numbers ... my teammates look for me. We’re doing well together, all of us.”
Inter reached their first European semifinal since 2010 when they went on to win the Champions League as well as Serie A and the Italian Cup to complete a historic treble.
They retained the Italian Cup the following year but have not managed to lift silverware since.
The Nerazzurri play Shakhtar Donetsk or Basel in the semifinals on Monday.
After an intense period of playing matches approximately every three days after soccer restarted following the pandemic-enforced shutdown, Conte has almost a week to prepare his players.
He will want to make sure they understand that profligacy can prove costly at this level.
Inter have often failed to kill off games in which they have dominated, and that was again the case on Monday when they had opportunities to extend their advantage.
That allowed Leverkusen to stay in the quarterfinal despite having only two shots on target.
“We could have gone through in a more relaxed manner because, despite the fact that we never really had to dig in, the result was close,” Conte said.
“It’s difficult to be annoyed. I can only compliment the lads on their performance. As is the case after every game, we’ll analyze every situation and see where we can improve.”