Lukaku is on a mission: Win with Inter and prove Manchester United wrong

MILAN, Italy -- "This could be the team I need," Romelu Lukaku said. Sitting in a conference room in Porta Nuova, Milan's emerging business district, he was making the case that Football Club Internazionale Milano was the ideal setting for the resurrection of his career. "There's the love I have for this area," he said. "The love that I have for Inter. And it was the perfect moment for me to leave England. I didn't want to be there anymore."

It's not exactly coincidental that the club is counting on Lukaku, who spent the past two seasons struggling at Manchester United, to inspire its own revival. These are hard times for Inter, which won a Champions League trophy in 2010 to cap a five-year run of Serie A titles in 2010, but hasn't finished higher than fourth since then. Worse than that, despite a steadfast fan base that continues to nearly fill San Siro, one of Europe's largest stadiums, week after week, Inter has faded into international irrelevance. By winning each of the past eight scudetti and signing Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus is the Italian team that matters at the moment.

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Steven Zhang, a dilettante banker with a Wharton degree, has vowed to change that. In 2016, his billionaire father bought Inter. Nine months ago, he handed it to Zhang, who at 28 is only two years older than Lukaku. Under Zhang, Inter has invested millions of euros in the club's rebranding as a hip, dynamic organization, and millions more in the actual team. Antonio Conte, who has won both Serie A and the Premier League, was hired as manager. The stalwart defender Diego Godin signed on as a free transfer from Atletico Madrid. A loan agreement for Alexis Sanchez, who scored plenty of goals at Barcelona and Arsenal and then a lot fewer of them at Manchester United, was secured at the end of the transfer window. But Lukaku, who seemed destined for superstardom when he left Everton two years ago, was the big catch. The 65 million transfer fee Inter paid broke the club record.

Lukaku's allure was never difficult to explain. You didn't even have to watch him play. Just seeing his cast-iron physique -- he stands 6-foot-3, broad-shouldered, rippling with definition -- was enough to conjure up images of him establishing a position at the edge of the box, holding off defenders to receive the ball, then wheeling toward goal. He also had surprising speed for his size; at Everton, it wasn't uncommon for him to beat a defender to a loose ball, then rumble down the periphery like a winger, or an NFL running back. "You can look a long time," says Sanchez, who played beside him at Manchester United, "and you won't find anyone else like him, anywhere in the world."

The problem is, Lukaku hadn't looked himself on the pitch for more than a year. Estimates vary, but he gained at least 15 pounds while in Manchester. His bloated body turns out to have been the result of a gastrointestinal problem, but at the time it seemed the perfect symbol of the club's dissolution. "Unforgivable," sniffed Gary Neville, the former Manchester United standout, who accused Lukaku of being unprofessional. "You can't be overweight."

What happens next for Lukaku will serve to define a career that so far has been more about his potential, and his eloquent responses to racial taunting, than any tangible achievement. Lukaku insists he's up for it. "This group of players we have here is a special group," he said. "And we have the right leader in front of us to take us to the right places. Inter is an ambitious club. It wants to get back where it needs to be."

Lukaku leaned forward in his chair. "I want to help them build something here," he said. "It's the right move for me."

The intensity that Conte brings to a club, both physical and philosophical, tends to have immediate effects. Bari was sinking fast in 2007 when he reversed its course and led it to promotion in 2009. In his first season at Siena, 2010-11, he returned the club to Serie A. The following year at Juventus, he won the first of his three scudetti there and added the Coppa Italia. His greatest bit of conjuring involved the jaded Chelsea squad he inherited from Guus Hiddink, who had inherited it from Jose Mourinho. Under Conte, Chelsea equaled a Premier League record by winning 13 games in succession, then won the 2016-17 title.

As at Chelsea, Conte has taken over a fractured Inter changing room and has brought it together with the force of his personality. "The guy can make a team," Lukaku said. "It's already like the guys have been there for many, many years together, even the ones who just arrived. It's the strangest thing." Conte does it, at least for a while, because he has a knack of convincing even the most hardened veterans to buy in. "When Conte speaks, his words assault you," Andrea Pirlo, who played for him at Juventus, wrote in his autobiography. Pirlo added, "I've lost track of the number of times I found myself saying, 'Hell, Conte said something really spot-on today. I was expecting him to be good, but not this good.'"

Conte had coveted Lukaku since 2014. He saw him as a unique brand of attacker --versatile, adaptable, a force of nature. Conte was at Juventus when he called Lukaku that summer. "Come play for me," Conte told him. Lukaku admits he was flattered, but he'd only just been transferred to Everton after playing there on one of Chelsea's endless loans, and he'd also just turned 21. He was turning heads playing for Belgium at the World Cup. "There was a side of me saying 'Just wait a little bit,'" he said. "In the end, I told him, 'I'm not coming to you now. But the next opportunity, I will be there.'" That turned out to be fortuitous. By the end of that summer, Conte had left Juventus and was coaching Italy.

Two years later, Conte came after Lukaku again. Conte's urgings had brought Chelsea that magical season, but he saw a juggernaut emerging on the horizon in Manchester City. He needed a special player, and he knew the one he wanted. Lukaku had emerged as one of the Premier League's brightest young stars, and Everton clearly didn't have the resources to keep him. "I thought it was done," Lukaku said. It wasn't. "Circumstances," Lukaku explained with a shrug. "Not my fault, not his." When he landed at Manchester United in 2017 instead, it was the shock of England's summer.

Earlier this year, when he heard that Conte might be headed to Inter, Lukaku took it as a sign that the planets were finally starting to align. He remembered watching the club win the UEFA Cup in 1998 and deciding the black and blue stripes were for him. "The first final of any kind I can remember watching," he said. "You never lose that." As unlike everyone else off the field as he is on it, Lukaku prepared for a move in his own way.

He started learning Italian.

Lukaku collects languages like supporters collect scarves. He grew up in Belgium speaking French at home, and Flemish, a variation of Dutch, at school. He communicated with his Congolese relatives in Lingala. Along the way, he absorbed English and Portuguese, Spanish and a little German. "Sometimes I get a headache," he said.

Lukaku had been watching Italian television off the satellite because his younger brother, Jordan, plays for Lazio. But he began his immersion in earnest in April, as the Conte rumors solidified. By May, he could express a few thoughts. By June, his command of Italian was limited only by his vocabulary. By July, he could "have a conversation with anyone," he said. When he arrived at Inter in August, he urged teammates to address him in Italian, not English, as if he'd come to Milan from Frosinone or Sassuolo. He wanted to meet them on their terms, not his. "They embraced me and I embraced them," Lukaku said. "It's like I've been part of it for many months."

He insists that speaking the local vernacular helps him on the field. "It's important for me to express myself to my teammates," he said. "It's important for me as a player that they understand me perfectly. How I want the ball. Where I want the ball. In front of the defender, beside the defender, behind the defender. I have to know those exact words in Italian because the subtleties are different in every language. There's no substitute for that."

The words have worked, in one language or another, nearly everywhere he has gone, from Belgium's Anderlecht to West Bromwich Albion, where Chelsea loaned him first after acquiring him in 2011, to Everton, where he punched home 68 goals over four seasons. He had played, if sparingly, under Mourinho at Chelsea in 2011, and after Mourinho signed him at Manchester in the summer of 2017, the reunion seemed mutually beneficial. Lukaku scored 11 goals in his first 10 games. But like everything else at Old Trafford during Mourinho's unsettled final months, Lukaku's play deteriorated. By the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over last December, he was playing like a shadow of himself.

A shadow, too, in the sense of bigger, wider, all but formless. With the added weight, that ability to collect a ball and carry it into the attacking zone, which had served as a counterpoint to his strength as a target man, all but vanished. Instead he seemed plodding, a step behind. Solskjaer didn't start him in his first game after taking over, nor in the five that followed. "Solskjaer wants someone with a bit of energy, a bit of speed, someone who is going to work hard," former United standout Paul Scholes said of Lukaku, and he didn't mean it as praise.

As the team's designated star, Lukaku was being blamed for its failure by the time Mourinho was fired. "Scapegoated," Lukaku says now. "Meaning 'You. Are. The. Reason.'"

Under Solskjaer, who was committed to rebuilding, he never had a chance. "Lukaku and I trained very well," said Sanchez, who didn't score a Premier League goal under Solskjaer. "But we needed to play more in games to get to our best." In retrospect, Sanchez added, the situation wasn't suited for either of them. "It wasn't the right time for us to be at Manchester," he said. "Too many changes. When you change that much, it's tough."

Inter is working on a different kind of transition, one with the aim of winning now, or at least soon. Lukaku is only 26, but in Manchester he seemed part of the previous generation. Conte perceives him differently, as a talent who is still emerging. "I'm really pleased about the commitment that Romelu has made, the way he has behaved," Conte said. "He still has a lot of places to improve both technically and physically, and also tactically. But because he has the desire to improve, he could become one of the best strikers in the world."

As soon as Lukaku arrived in Milan, Conte sent him to a nutritionist for a consultation so detailed that it included a study of the decomposition of his body waste. Within hours, the determination was made that something was wrong. "Normally I have a fine digestive system," Lukaku said. "I digest everything very quickly. That's how it had been my entire life. But what the nutritionist said to me was, it had stopped working."

Limited to a highly specific regimen of mainly fish, sweet potatoes, shiitake pasta, and cooked and raw vegetables, Lukaku experienced a transformation. In 12 days, he lost nearly 10 pounds. When body fat was measured at the training facility in the first week of September, he was told that his ranked among the lowest on the team. "I'm good now," he said. "My body is in the zone."

But fitness is just the start of the process. Though Lukaku has mostly played as a single striker in various formations during his professional career, Conte wants to use him in his favored alignment, a fluid, pressurized 3-5-2. "Because of his physicality, he is well-suited to lead the line as a sole number 9," Roberto Martinez, who manages Lukaku with the Belgian national team and also managed him at Everton, noted in an e-mail to ESPN. Martinez did point out that Lukaku spent time playing right wing as a teenager in Belgium, and also partnered successfully, if briefly, with Arouna Kone at Everton. But that's not the same as sharing space in the box with a second striker week after week.

The other starting striker is Lautaro Martinez, who had nine goals across all competitions last season but managed to impress almost everyone who watched him play. At 5-foot-8 and not much more than 150 pounds, he is an entirely different kind of attacker, a burgeoning master of nuance and feel whose skills complement Lukaku's. "I can play one-touch to him and make another move," said Lukaku. "Go into certain spaces where I want to go, and he'll get me the ball."

Lukaku scored in Inter's opener, a 4-0 victory over Lecce. Then Lautaro scored in open play at Cagliari, where Inter rallied after falling behind. But Lukaku often seemed frustrated, pointing across the field when his passes to where he thought Lautaro would be heading turned out to be giveaways because the Argentine stayed back.

"If you analyze Conte's teams, you see there's a lot involved on every play," Lukaku said. "When the ball is in a certain area, we make a certain type of movement. If I make a movement, Lautaro should make the opposite movement. And if he makes a movement, I should make the opposite. We should know perfectly well where we need to go."

It was during that Cagliari match, which Inter won 2-1, that Lukaku was racially abused, after which Inter's Curva Nord Ultras issued a statement claiming that monkey noises and gestures aren't racist but a way for fans to help their club. "Football is a game to be enjoyed by everyone and we shouldn't accept any form of discrimination that will put our game in shame," Lukaku posted on Instagram. "I hope the football federations all over the world react strongly on all cases of discrimination ... Ladies and gentlemen it's 2019. Instead of going forward, we're going backwards and I think as players we need to unify and make a statement on this matter to keep this game clean and enjoyable for everyone."

This October, Inter plays Juventus in Serie A and Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. While making up the 21 points that fourth-place Inter finished last season behind Juventus isn't necessarily a mandate, there's a growing sense in both the changing room and the boardroom that, after eight years, the opportunity is there for an enterprising team to topple Juventus. "I don't think you say 'You have to win,' Lukaku said. "New coach, new team, new way of playing, so it's one game at a time. We're learning. But we have to move the right way. And we have to make it clear that that every time you face Inter, it's a battle."

"I can feel the will here to achieve," Sanchez added. "This is why I'm here. That's why Romelu is here. Will it work? We will have a lot more to say about that at the end of the season."

Inter's trouncing of Lecce led to jubilant postings from supporters all over social media, as though it proved that the scudetto was all but theirs. But they would be wise to consider club history, in which almost nothing turns out quite as it should. "Not For Everyone," the club's new slogan, is tacit admission that Internazionale is in no sense a normal football club. "Pazza Inter," it's called -- Crazy Inter. Crazy in how it too often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Crazy in the head-shaking transfer decisions that management seems to make, bringing in the wrong player at precisely the wrong time. Crazy for firing Luigi Simoni in 1998 on the day after he received the award as Manager of the Year, for example, or for employing four managers in 2016 alone. Or, alternatively, in the utterly unexpected way that Mourinho led a conventionally talented but not exceptional team to the Champions League title in 2010. Conte has taken pains to establish that, under his reign, Inter will mature. To emphasize that, he has decreed that "Pazza Inter Amala," or "Crazy Inter, I love it!" the traditional team song that begins, "You know, for a goal I would give my life," will no longer be played before home games. It's as if he is trying to have the same effect on the entire culture of the club that he does in the changing room.

When the team clicks on the field, as it did against the admittedly nominal opposition of Lecce, it looks unbeatable. Even when it doesn't, it can be impressive to behold. In the 84th minute at Cagliari, winger Matteo Politano took the ball down the right wing and somehow found an opening to cross the ball to Lukaku, who was charging through the box like the those years in Manchester had never happened. The connection was exemplary, the diagrams on Conte's chalkboard coming to life, except that Lukaku steered the ball just wide to the right.

He turned away and hung his head for a moment, but only a moment. New coach, new team, new way of playing, he seemed to be saying. Then he headed back up the field to try again.