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Lukaku, Lautaro lead Inter back among the European elite

Cologne (Germany) (AFP) – Romelu Lukaku did his bit but there will be no reunion between the Belgian and Manchester United in the Europa League final.

Lukaku’s Inter Milan will be in Friday’s final in Cologne after he and strike partner Lautaro Martinez took their combined tally for the season to 54 goals, each scoring twice in a 5-0 demolition of Shakhtar Donetsk.

A day earlier, United had 20 attempts on goal but only found the net once, from the penalty spot, in losing 2-1 to Sevilla.

United might have been able to use Lukaku’s predatory instincts, but it is hard to argue with the striker’s belief that his 75 million euro ($89 million, £68 million) move to Milan last summer has worked out well for all parties.

United recouped most of the £75 million they paid Everton for Lukaku in 2017 and have rebuilt with the more flexible attacking trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood who themselves combining for 62 goals.

“I think I made the right decision and I think Manchester United now has made space for the younger players to come through so I think it was a bit of a win-win situation for both of us,” he told Sky Sports.

Lukaku’s 33-goal debut season in Italy has taken Inter back to a European final for the first time in 10 years, while Antonio Conte’s men finished the Serie A season just a point behind perennial champions Juventus.

“Only I know what I went through to get him here,” Conte said, who had previously tried to lure Lukaku to Chelsea before the striker chose to join United.

Lukaku’s double in the closing stages in Dusseldorf on Monday extended his record of scoring in 10 consecutive Europa League games and took him to within one of matching Brazilian idol Ronaldo’s debut 34-goal season for Inter in 1997/98 – the last time the Nerazzurri won the UEFA Cup.

“Romelu is doing something extraordinary,” added Conte. “But he is supported by the team.

“I’m happy for him because he deserves it, but he has to thank the team for putting him in a position to express himself in a way he has never expressed himself in the past.”

In Martinez, Lukaku has the perfect foil. The pair, nicknamed “LuLa” in the Italian press, quickly forged a deadly partnership.

“The guy is really a beast,” said Lukaku on an Instagram Live during football’s shutdown for the coronavirus pandemic. “He is doing so well, he keeps improving, I love him”.

The Argentine struggled in his first season at the San Siro, scoring just six Serie A goals, but Conte and Lukaku’s arrival has helped turn the 22-year-old into one of European football’s hottest properties.

Barcelona were keen to unite Martinez with compatriot Lionel Messi as Luis Suarez’s successor, but could not afford the 111 million euro buyout clause that expired in July.

“I’ve always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed polishing. Lautaro Martinez is the same,” said Conte.

Martinez’s double in Dusseldorf took his tally for the season to 21, making him and Lukaku the first pair of Inter strikers to each reach 20 goals in a season since Adriano and Obafemi Martins in 2004/05.

It was not quite enough to reel in Juventus, but after the lean decade that followed the treble triumph of Jose Mourinho’s side in 2010, “LuLa” are leading Inter back among the European elite.

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