Lukaku's late Champions League final miss leaves Inter Milan forever asking 'What if?'

ISTANBUL -- Romelu Lukaku can't have got much sleep on Saturday night in Istanbul. He might not on Sunday or on Monday either. His failure to score for Inter Milan in the 88th minute of the Champions League final against Manchester City will haunt his nights as much as his days for a while.

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It will also, undoubtedly, launch a new wave of criticism and online mockery of the Belgium international. Chances like the one the striker got at the Ataturk stadium, a free header inside the six-yard box, don't come too often. Certainly not in a Champions League final. And especially not right at the end of the game to surely send it to extra time.

Yet, it did happen. Lukaku failed to score. The Expected Goals on Target (xGOT) of his chance, which was blocked by goalkeeper Ederson's knee, was 0.69. That means that seven times out of 10, when a player is in the same position as Lukaku hits the target, they score. Statistically speaking, it's more than twice as hard to not score that chance.

For a while after the final whistle, Lukaku stood on the pitch, alone, looking empty, feeling nothing. While his teammate, Lautaro Martinez, was in tears and being comforted by other Inter players, Lukaku didn't show much emotion. He never does. But he had to wait for City midfielder and fellow Belgian Kevin De Bruyne to cross the whole pitch while the title celebrations were happening to get a proper hug. The two go back a long way and De Bruyne wanted to be there for his friend. He will need it.

On Sunday, all the world of football is talking about is the miss. On every TV show, in every newspaper, on every radio station. The miss gets replayed, analysed and discussed. How didn't he score from so close, with most of the goal wide open? His attempt to convert Robin Gosens' cross failed, and the dream of Inter lifting the trophy for a fourth time in their history vanished with it. Should he have scored? Yes. Does this make him a bad striker? No.

In front of that exact same goal, 18 years ago, Andriy Shevchenko also missed an incredible opportunity to put AC Milan back ahead against Liverpool. In 2005, Jerzy Dudek made the miraculous save. In 2023, it was Ederson. On both occasions, the team from Milan lost the final to the team from England.

This one will hurt for a long time because Inter were so close, and yet so far. Their game plan worked perfectly for most of the game. They closed the half-spaces and defended very well -- especially against Erling Haaland, who himself had a big chance saved by Andre Onana in the first half -- and they unsettled the City midfielders and upset their opponents' rhythm. But they paid for the rare tactical mistake that they made. Alessandro Bastoni had to come out of his zone to engage Manuel Akanji, leaving space behind him in the box for Bernardo Silva to exploit, and the rest is history. Apart from that, the Milanese didn't do much wrong. They hit the crossbar as well as Lukaku missing his big chance.

In these circumstances, when you have the best chances and still lose the game, you would rather have lost 3-0 and have no regrets. Now, they will have plenty of them. The poring over of "What if?" scenarios will go on for some time. What if Lukaku had scored? What if Bastoni had not come out to Akanji? What if Matteo Darmian had blocked Rodri's match-winning shot? What if Edin Dzeko had not started? The list goes on.

Reaching the final was unexpected at the start of the campaign for Inter, and they can't let the loss define their season. Many thought that they would get knocked out by Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the group stage, but they weren't. Many thought that Benfica could cause them problems in the round of 16, but they couldn't. Many thought that last season's Serie A champions AC Milan would win their derby semifinal, but they didn't. Inter have exceeded expectations, completing a very good season with two domestic trophies (the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana.)

On Saturday, they made their club, their fans and their staff proud. To restrict this treble-chasing City team to an xG of less than 1 is remarkable. They showed commitment, organisation, passion and desire. They had to wait 13 years to reach another Champions League final, but after Saturday can hope that it won't be as long before their next one.

But can they follow through on coach Simone Inzaghi's postmatch pledge that they will be back for next season's final? Their starting XI on Saturday had an average age of 29.7 years old, and it felt like the last dance for players like Dzeko (37,) Francesco Acerbi (35) and Darmian (33.)

So it is a long shot, but they can reach these heights again. They have to build on this journey and believe they can take that final step, if they can only take their big chance next time it presents itself.