Italy’s exciting team at UEFA EURO 2020 is built on a bedrock of talent from Serie A, which supplies 22 of the 26-man squad. Yet the division’s Most Valuable Player, the man whose 24 goals and ten assists inspired Inter to end Juventus’s dominance, is not among them. On Friday, he will be against them.
Romelu Lukaku has taken the Italian top flight by storm since arriving in August 2019 following a mixed spell at Manchester United. He scored on his Inter debut, against Lecce, and the goals have flowed ever since: 47 in 72 outings, to be precise, with 12 assists.
The Nerazzurri duly romped to their first title in 11 barren years this season, finishing fully 12 points clear of runners-up AC Milan. In the eyes of many, Big Rom’s lethal left foot ultimately tipped the balance.
The sense is born out by statistics. Serie A takes a mathematical approach to their end-of-season awards, drawing on statistical data encompassing the little things on the pitch as well as the big – movements without the ball, decision making, technical and physical returns. By those metrics, Lukaku was MVP. Hands down. That spell at Old Trafford feels a long time ago.
“Two years in Italy have improved him,” Claudio Ranieri wrote in his column for La Gazzetta dello Sport. “The trust and responsibility that Antonio Conte gave him have strengthened him internally. He is a tank, he scores naturally, he does not miss a game.”
Conte himself describes Lukaku as “a force of nature”, which feels like an apt description for a man who has scored 46 goals in his last 45 international outings.
Lukaku for Belgium
“He’s a great forward,” Italy defender Francesco Acerbi told EURO2020.com. “He’s had a real impact in Serie A as well as with Belgium. If you give him any space, he can score. You always have to be switched on, you can’t leave him anything. But I’ve stopped him before.”
That is true: Acerbi helped Lazio subdue Lukaku three times over the past couple of seasons; in their most recent meeting, though, the 28-year-old scored twice and set up another in a 3-1 win. The imperious Gianluigi Donnarumma also bears scars of past conflicts: Lukaku has scored past the goalkeeper in all four of the Milan derbies the pair have contested over the past two years.
The Azzurri defence always carries an aura, and the current crop are adding to the myth established by Catenaccio with a run of 11 clean sheets in 12 outings. “Nobody can play as a team better than Italy,” says Conte. “Other sides have stars but Italy have the group and a good style of football.”
Belgium, though, have Lukaku.