No place like Inter for Romelu Lukaku as he gears up for another Serie A assault

The on-loan Chelsea striker is delighted to be back in Italy and adding to his fine goals record

Romelu Lukaku celebrates with Lautaro Martinez after the Inter Milan No 10 scored in a pre-season friendly against FC Lugano on July 12, 2022. Getty
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It’s hard not to feel for Lecce, the club from the heel of Italy, as they prepare for another season in Serie A, the division they have been relegated from twice in the past decade.

They were champions of Serie B in May, but have spent the least of any promoted club in fortifying the squad. And the fixture list has been merciless.

On Saturday, Internazionale will make the long trip south for match day one. Up against Lecce, fitness permitting, will be Romelu Lukaku, the centre-forward for whom more has been paid in total career transfer fees than any footballer in history.

Three seasons ago, following his €80 million move from Manchester United, he made his Serie A debut against Lecce. He scored the third goal in a 4-0 win. Over the next two seasons, Lukaku added a further 63 Inter goals in 94 appearances.

Those are the numbers Inter are looking for from Lukaku’s return, on loan from Chelsea, after his dispiriting, marginalised nine months in London. While he was away, Inter failed to defend their league title, conceding it to neighbours AC Milan after a compelling joust for the scudetto was settled on the last day.

Lukaku, who had joined Chelsea for over €100m, can barely conceal his delight at being back in Italy. “It’s like coming home,” he said at the prospect of reuniting with colleagues who formed the backbone of the 2020/21 Italian champions and reviving a celebrated striking partnership with Lautaro Martinez, the so-called ‘LuLa’ alliance.

Lukaku surveys a division in which several of his former combatants have moved on. There will be no muscular duels with Giorgio Chiellini, the veteran whose departure from Juventus for an end-of-career postscript in Los Angeles marks the end of an epoch.

Juve have sold Matthijs de Ligt, the Dutch defender, to Bayern Munich and although Gleison Bremer, the Brazilian signed from Torino, is an accomplished centre-back, he cannot expect much patience from Juve supporters anxious for standards to be raised quickly. Juventus, Serie A winners in every season between 2012 and 2020, are coming off successive fourth-placed finishes.

Like Inter with Lukaku, Juve have sought out a leader from the past to help them again walk the walk of champions. Paul Pogba, who left Italy for Manchester United for a similar fee to that paid by Chelsea for Lukaku, has come back for free, though his vast salary will feel that bit heavier during the seven or eight matches he is to miss before his second debut for the club.

Lukaku's career in pictures

Pogba picked up a knee injury in practice and by the time he is fit for action, he will note that Juventus have been busy around him. Besides Chiellini and De Ligt, Paulo Dybala has departed. Into Juve’s creative hub come Angel di Maria, and, subject to final details being agreed, Filip Kostic. Memphis Depay, who Barcelona are pushing to sell, may join them.

Dybala’s choice of Roma as his destination boosts optimism in the capital that a sustained Serie A challenge is possible. In Jose Mourinho’s first year as their head coach, Roma broke a long trophy drought by winning the inaugural Europa Conference League.

They fell short of the target set to Mourinho by finishing only sixth in Italy’s top division. Dybala, Nemanja Matic and Gini Wijnaldum, the summer additions, now add pedigree to the squad, while Tammy Abraham will be keen to remind Lukaku that there is more than one former Chelsea striker who finds Italian football very much to his liking.

Most centre-forwards outside Napoli will welcome the fact that Kalidou Koulibaly is no longer going to be marking them at the San Paulo. In Naples there is concern that Koulibaly’s sale to Chelsea was part of a procession. Fellow legends of the club, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens have also said farewell.

“It will be a strange season,” admits Luciano Spalletti, the Napoli head coach, “and I sense some scepticism about us.”

Napoli have finished in the top three seven times in the past 10 seasons. The sceptics wonder if they can be relied on to maintain that standard.

AC Milan, who kick off the season at home to Udinese on Saturday, have been shorn of key contributors to their title.

Franck Kessie leaves a hole in midfield, and although Zlatan Ibrahimovic has extended his Peter Pan career by signing a new contract, the 40-year-old Swede is recuperating from an injury that will keep him out until the new year.

But the capture of the young forward, Charles de Ketelaere, from Bruges, excites milanisti. De Ketelaere will be keen to remind compatriot Lukaku there is now more than one Belgian star in the city of Milan.

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Updated: August 11, 2022, 3:25 AM