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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Nicky Bandini

Milan begin title defence in style as Inter leave it late in Serie A

Ante Rebic celebrates his first goal against Udinese, with Milan going on to win 4-2
Ante Rebic celebrates his first goal against Udinese, with Milan going on to win 4-2. Photograph: Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

The only thing missing from Serie A’s opening weekend was a bleary-eyed traveller bursting into the room and demanding to know what year it is. Rodrigo Becão scoring a header against Milan? How did a story this unlikely get stuck on repeat? The Udinese centre-back’s three goals in four seasons against the Rossoneri are more than he has managed against every other opponent combined in his professional career.

Six hundred miles away, Romelu Lukaku netted on his Inter debut against Lecce, exactly as he did when he joined for the first time in 2019. The shirt on his back has changed from No 9 to No 90, and that was about how many seconds he needed to make history recur, heading home from close range to open the scoring at the Stadio Via del Mare.

One day later, Ionut Radu found himself trapped in a less happy rerun. The goalkeeper swapped Inter for Cremonese in the summer, seeking a fresh start with a newly promoted side after his howler against Bologna cost the Nerazzurri control of last season’s title race. But after a mostly strong performance against Fiorentina, he blundered again, dropping a cross at the feet of an opponent in the 95th minute to squander a hard-earned point.

It was a weekend of fast starts and late drama. Becão’s goal was the first of the season, arriving in the second minute at San Siro, but did not unsettle the reigning champs. Milan equalised from a contentious penalty and led through Ante Rebic before allowing themselves to be pegged back by an Adam Masina goal just before half-time.

That same player would gift them a chance to reclaim their advantage after the interval, failing to deal with a cross at the back post. Brahim Díaz pounced to punish his mistake and the Spaniard then set up Rebic to seal a 4-2 win, nutmegging Bram Nuytinck and serving his teammate an invitation to finish on the edge of the six-yard box.

Milan were not perfect, but which team is on day one? There was sloppy defending at both ends and Rebic ought to have done a better job of tracking Becão on Udinese’s opener, but his two goals more than made up for it. That is already enough to match his entire tally for an injury-riddled 2021-22 campaign.

Udinese and Milan line up before kick-off.
Udinese and Milan line up before kick-off. Photograph: Shutterstock

Stefano Pioli was able to give second-half debuts to Divock Origi, Tommaso Pobega and Charles De Ketelaere without compromising a win over opponents who took four points off his team last season. The manager reflected afterwards that his team had complicated things with their early sloppiness, but it was certainly a more confident performance than Inter managed at Lecce.

Since Lukaku returned, the Nerazzurri have been listed as favourites to win the Scudetto, but struggled in spite of his early goal. Perhaps they were complacent against opponents for whom seven starters were making their Serie A debuts. Certainly, a heavy pitch did them no favours.

Yet newly promoted Lecce faced those same conditions and showed greater courage for much of the first hour, the 23-year-old Danish midfielder Morten Hjulmand carrying the fight in midfield with the Brazilian Gabriel Strefezza a whirlwind and menacing chaos on the right. Their equaliser arrived from the opposite flank, when Assan Ceesay – a free signing from FC Zürich – swapped passes with Federico Di Francesco and ran through to score at the start of the second half.

Lecce could even have gone ahead, Samir Handanovic making a brilliant reflex save to keep out Kristijan Bistrovic’s deflected free-kick. Simone Inzaghi responded by throwing every Inter attacker on the pitch all at once, Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez joined by Edin Dzeko and Joaquín Correa, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind.

It was instead the wing-back Denzel Dumfries, another second-half introduction, who scored the winner in the 94th minute, using his chest to redirect Martínez’s header into the net from a corner and seal a 2-1 win. A mighty relief for Inter, and heartbreak for Lecce fans watching their team play a first Serie A game in three years.

As the rest of Inter’s players raced after Dumfries, Lukaku wheeled away in the opposite direction, heading alone toward Inter’s supporters in the away section. He pumped his fists furiously before collapsing to his knees and pounding the floor in celebration; a display of emotion warmly received by many fans, even if those ultras who accused him of betrayal may not be so easily swayed.

Inzaghi found positives and negatives in his team’s performance, but aimed his greatest frustration at the media, whom he accused of constantly reporting on rumours of Inter players departing whilst simultaneously touting them as title favourites. No manager seems keen to claim that mantle for their team just yet.

José Mourinho ridiculed suggestions that Roma could even be a dark horse for the title before their 1-0 win over Salernitana. “I could only understand saying we are a candidate for the Scudetto if there are 18 Scudetti to go around,” he insisted, “because the only teams that have spent less are Sampdoria and Lecce.”

Salernitana 0-1 Roma, Spezia 1-0 Empoli, Fiorentina 3-2 Cremonese, Lazio 2-1 Bologna, Lecce1-2 Inter, Monza 1-2 Torino, Milan 4-2 Udinese, Sampdoria 0-2 Atalanta.

Under a very narrow definition of spending, perhaps he is correct – Roma have paid out less than €10m in transfer fees this summer, but Paulo Dybala’s wages alone could be more than that if all bonuses are triggered. Not that the Giallorossi would mind in that instance. If he or Nicolò Zaniolo had been a little more clinical their margin of victory could have been much wider on Sunday night.

It was a very different story for Fiorentina, who could count themselves lucky to take three points at all. They led 2-1 at half-time against Cremonese, who were reduced to 10 men when Gonzalo Escalante was sent off in the 43rd minute. Better yet for the Viola, Luka Jovic had opened his account with a well-taken goal.

Luka Jovic scores Fiorentina’s second.
Luka Jovic scores Fiorentina’s second. Photograph: Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images

Despite the man advantage, though, Fiorentina let their lead slip. Pierluigi Gollini was caught out of position at a corner, forced to retreat rapidly and claw the ball out as it swung in towards goal. Matteo Bianchetti forced it back over the line, and after that, Cremonese had chances to win.

Instead, Radu’s mistake deep into injury time meant that they left the Artemio Franchi empty-handed. This might be a new season, but the year is still 2022. It has not been a happy one for a goalkeeper trapped in a recurring nightmare.

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