Getting Inter Milan to Saturday’s Champions League final is the latest achievement in Simone Inzaghi’s understated managerial career which has highlighted his ability to perform against the odds.
Inzaghi, 47, spent his playing career firmly in the shadow of his older brother Filippo, a prolific goalscorer for Italy’s biggest clubs, a two-time European champion and World Cup winner.
The younger Inzaghi, also a striker, played most of his career for Lazio, where he is loved by fans despite a modest goal record and a single league title won 23 years ago.
However in the managerial game it is Simone who is leading the way, at the helm of one of Europe’s traditional powerhouses while Filippo slogs about in the lower leagues.
And now he has a chance of winning the biggest honor the club game has to offer, just as his brother did as a player in 2003 and 2007 with Inter’s local rivals AC Milan.
“It’s my most important match ever, but I believe that’s also the case for my players, because we have players like (Edin) Dezko and (Andre) Onana who have played in the semi-finals,” Inzaghi told reporters on Monday.
“It repays all our efforts as it’s been a long, hard year.”
Inzaghi took over at Lazio in 2016 after working his way up through the youth ranks and immediately made an impact, taking the Roman club back into Europe and losing the Italian Cup final to all-conquering Juventus.
Lazio are frequently overshadowed by crosstown rivals Roma and hampered by a budget which is dwarfed by Italy’s big three of Juve, Inter and Milan who themselves are relative paupers on the continent.
The 2019 Italian Cup, two Super Cups — both won against Juve — and Champions League qualification in 2020 might not sound like much but it was enough to attract cash-strapped Inter following the departure of Serie A title winner Antonio Conte.
– More with less –
Inzaghi arrived at Inter two years ago with the club about to go into full-blown crisis mode following Conte’s exit and the sale of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, the two stars of the Scudetto-winning campaign.
The sale of Lukaku to Chelsea enraged not only supporters but reportedly also CEO Giuseppe Marotta and Inzaghi, while fans protested outside the club’s headquarters.
However, used to doing more with less at Lazio, he folded in cheap replacements for the departing stars rather than complain about having them sold out from under him.
He created a new style of play which got the best out of the whole team rather than just a few key players, including veterans like Edin Dzeko, who will contest his first Champions League final at the age of 37 against his old club Manchester City.
And although he failed to retain the league title — which he wasn’t expected to do — he has won a pair of Italian Cups and Super Cups as well as taking them to heights in Europe which no coach has since treble-winning icon Jose Mourinho.
Saturday’s match is not just Inter’s first final in the competition since winning it under Mourinho in 2010, it’s the first for any Italian club for 13 years.
It came a year after their quarter-final exit at the hands of last season’s losing finalists Liverpool, Inzaghi guided Inter into the knockout rounds for the first time in a decade before succumbing to a tight aggregate defeat.
And Inzaghi has taken that experience and used it to take himself to the biggest game in club football, a match he believes he can win against all the odds.