Inter Milan might be better than in 2023 so this Champions League exit hurts

The ball flew so high it almost reached the top tier of the Civitas Metropolitano and landed where Inter Milan’s travelling ultras stood. Lautaro Martinez spun around in despair. Atletico players ran past him to celebrate with their goalkeeper, the man of the match Jan Oblak. Only one among their ranks stopped to console Lautaro — Alvaro Morata, a sensitive soul who knows what it is like to have a costly miss on his conscience.

Lautaro was not a penalty hero as he had been for Argentina in Qatar when, against the Netherlands, he coldly put away the last spot kick of a shootout that kept alive Lionel Messi’s dream of winning the 2022 World Cup. This time, Inter’s skipper trudged back to his team-mates crestfallen. He has scored 26 goals in all competitions this season. Another one didn’t come in Madrid.

“It’s tough, really tough,” Inter’s goalkeeper Yann Sommer said, puffing out his cheeks in exasperation. The 35-year-old Swiss had done his part. When Alexis Sanchez became the first player to make a mistake from 12 yards, Sommer kept the score level by thwarting Saul, who had surprisingly come on for Antoine Griezmann in the second half of extra time.

“It’s a bitter end,” said Sommer, shaking his head. Inter had won all of their games in 2024. They had trailed for only five minutes during a 13-match winning streak. “The team isn’t used to losing,” Inter coach Simone Inzaghi said. It had happened once since September. “The defeat should burn because qualification was in our hands.” The Champions League quarter-finals were within touching distance. Federico Dimarco had given Inter the lead, finishing a typically gorgeous move full of the positional interchangeability that has made this team so fun to watch.

Two-nil up on aggregate, it was hard to imagine Inter capitulating. Atleti didn’t have a single shot on target at San Siro three weeks ago. They lost in Cadiz at the weekend and Inter have rarely given their opponents a sniff this season, as 24 clean sheets in all competitions attests. But like a boxer who has forgotten how to take a punch, the calamitous equaliser Griezmann poked home stunned Inter. It came so quickly after Dimarco’s opener, Inter’s ultras were still singing their favourite ‘AMO SOLTANTO TE’ chant. The cascade of uncharacteristic errors from Stefan de Vrij, Benjamin Pavard and Alessandro Bastoni had the worst possible effect. It made the Metropolitano believe again.

“We should have been better, more focused,” Inzaghi said. “Letting them back in three minutes after scoring was to be avoided.” Inter might still have seen the game out. At 1-1, Lautaro twice led counters and played perfect through balls for his team-mates, only for Marcus Thuram to blast over and Oblak to save from Nicolo Barella. That they did not capitalise need not have been the end of the world either. Inter hadn’t once conceded in the last 15 minutes of games this season. All that changed on Wednesday.

Social media has given Inzaghi the nickname ‘the demon of Piacenza’ over the past year. But old demons resurfaced in Madrid. It feels like an awful long time ago now but there was a point when Inzaghi used to get criticised for his game management. Lazio fans may recall a Europa League quarter-final against Red Bull Salzburg and how, 5-2 up on aggregate, the Biancocelesti conceded three in five minutes and somehow got knocked out. Inter fans will remember his first season and how his substitutions, most notably in the derby against Milan, seemed to hand the initiative to the opponent and turn wins into defeats.

At the Metropolitano, Inzaghi went far too conservative in the final quarter of an hour. A succession of Atleti corners in front of the vociferous Sur led him to bring on one centre-back then another one and another. While Matteo Darmian and Pavard operated as wing-backs, Inter ended normal time with five players who have played centre-back for the club. It was asking for trouble. Diego Simeone’s substitutions, one in particular, were far more effective. “(Memphis) Depay coming on changed the game,” said Atleti captain Koke. First he hit the post. Then he scored the goal to take the game to extra time. He got Hakan Calhanoglu and Yann Bisseck booked, then whacked home his penalty and vigorously pumped the crowd up before Alexis’ penalty, the first one to be saved.

“I wouldn’t talk about the subs,” Inzaghi said. “Also because we were the better team in extra time.” Thuram headed over the bar. Lautaro almost scored at the near post. Ultimately, though, Inter did not lose this tie in the shootout. Paradoxically, they lost it when they won three weeks ago. Inter created an expected goals (xG) total of 2.7 that night but had one only goal to show for it. The fear was they would live to regret misses by Lautaro and Marko Arnautovic and so it proved.

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Simone Inzaghi talks to his players before the penalty shootout (Mattia Ozbot – Inter/Inter via Getty Images)

Inzaghi knew it was going to be tough at the Metropolitano. Inter had not won in Spain in 20 years and he had warned that “Atleti transform at home”, adding: “They’d be top of La Liga if they only played at home. They’ve won 13 and drawn once. I think in 29 games they only lost to Athletic.”

Still he remained “super proud” of his players. “We went out of the Coppa Italia in extra time and the Champions League on penalties.” In other words Inter make you go the distance. Inzaghi complimented his old team-mate Diego Simeone too. “They never gave up.”

So what does this mean for Inter? Last year’s run to the Champions League final brought in enough money for the club to be compliant with Financial Fair Play without the need to sell players by June 30. Less TV revenue and prize money this time around means the shortfall will likely have to be made up through player trading, although Inter’s participation in the Club World Cup in 2025 is set to bring in €50m (£43m, $55m). The ownership situation will no doubt come back into focus, as will the Scudetto. If Inter win their next five games, starting with Napoli at the weekend, they can clinch the title against Milan in the derby. It would be the 20th Scudetto in the club’s history and earn Inter a prestigious second star. The stella was the principal objective at the start of the season, more so than the Champions League after reaching the final in Istanbul. But the manner of their exit, coming as it does amid the sensation this team is even better than the one that lost to Manchester City, will take some getting over.

(Top photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

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