Lukaku has Azzurri in his sights after Italian rebirth
Italy has lifted Romelu Lukaku to new heights. Now Belgium's star striker will look to end the Azzurri's Euro 2020 dream.
Romelu Lukaku has found a home in Milan after firing Inter to their first Serie A title since 2009-10 and is a player reborn.
Now it's time to annoy the neighbours.
"Yes, I am staying," Lukaku told VTM at the start of this month, amid speculation over his future after the departure of head coach Antonio Conte.
Lukaku happy at Inter
"I feel good at Inter. "I've already had contact with [incoming head coach Simone Inzaghi]. Maybe I shouldn't say that yet … but it was a very positive conversation. There’s also the challenge of doing it again [winning the Scudetto]."
Those clubs reportedly keen on changing Lukaku's mind over just how settled he is at San Siro have been given fresh reasons to try over the past few weeks, with the 28-year-old in superb form to haul Belgium into a Euro 2020 quarter-final against Italy on Friday.
When the sides met at Euro 2016 and Italy prevailed 2-0 in a group-stage encounter, Lukaku was substituted after 73 minutes with the game on the line.
Consider the centre-forward's herculean efforts in single-handedly and tirelessly trying to drive Portugal back as Belgium hung on to a 1-0 win over the reigning champions in the last-16 and it is impossible not to imagine him sweat-soaked in the middle of the field when the final whistle goes this time.
The Conte factor
Conte was Italy head coach that day in Lyon and he took an unfancied Azzurri to a penalty shoot-out defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals
That subsequent Premier League was promptly won by Conte, freshly installed at Chelsea. He tried to bolster their title defence by signing Lukaku from Everton, but the player's decision to join Manchester United left the combustible tactician in a fury that never completely lifted before his exit as an FA Cup winner at the end of 2017-18.
Lukaku finished that campaign with what was then a career best 27 goals in all competitions for United, but the following season became a struggle as Jose Mourinho departed and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived.
It was time for pastures new in 2019-20 and there was a serendipity to Conte ending a 12-month sabbatical to take the reins at Inter, aiming to bring down the Juventus dynasty he launched almost a decade earlier.
He got his man this time and Lukaku has blossomed.
In an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport before the St Petersburg quarter-final, Conte described the striker as a "force of nature" and he told L'Equipe: "Romelu, today, is one of the best strikers in the world.
"He always had immense physical and athletic qualities, but during the past two years together we have seen him grow even more in terms of presence on the pitch, teamwork, and composure in front of goal.”
Lukaku on fire in front of goal
Across all competitions in 2019-20, Lukaku scored 34 goals – the most prolific season of his career, which he backed up with 30 last time around. His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes figure in 2020-21 was 0.76, another career best that indicates he is getting into better scoring positions and benefitting from a higher quality of chances. A shot conversion rate of 24 per cent at Inter also sees Lukaku breaking new ground.
The all-round development Conte alludes to is also clear. The 70 and 63 chances created in each of his Inter seasons again outstrip anything he has previously posted by that metric, yielding a personal best 11 assists last term.
Lukaku has also relocated his destructive capacity when it comes to running at defences with the ball, something that dwindled significantly at United.
Only in 2014-15 with Everton (145) did he attempt more dribbles than his 125 at Inter last season, while he never posted three figures at Old Trafford, slumping to a career-low 58 in 2018-19.
Given Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard remain injury doubts, Lukaku's capacity to create for team-mates and himself might be crucial against an Italy defence that were breached for the first time in 19 hours and 28 minutes in their extra-time win over Austria.
Italy number one Gianluigi Donnarumma might not be too keen on the sight of the opposition number nine, given Lukaku's five goals against Milan in all competitions. Genoa (six) are the only Serie A side he has scored against more often.
Where Donnarumma might find reassurance is in the Juventus axis of Leonardo Bonucci and the fit-again Giorgio Chiellini in front of him.
While the veteran central-defensive pair's relative lack of pace means too many instances of the rampant, dribbling Lukaku that has re-emerged at Inter might spell disaster for Italy, the hitman's sparse record versus Juve suggests they know a thing or two about stopping him.
In five matches against the Old Lady for Inter, Lukaku has scored once from nine shots with an xG value of 1.4, a conversion rate of 11.1 per cent.
Contrast that with his record in the Derby della Madonnina, where his five goals have come from 24 shots (xG 5.2, 20.8 per cent conversion).
Such a record meant Lukaku was happy to proclaiming himself "King of Milano" after the Scudetto was secured, in a mocking dig at Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
If he can slay the country where he has enjoyed an incredible rebirth, he will take a giant step towards being crowned king of Europe.
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