Milan start their title defense in style as Inter leave it late in Serie A

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The only thing missing from Serie A’s opening weekend was a vigilante traveler bursting into the room demanding to know what year it is. Rodrigo Becão scored a header against Milan? How did it become a story that so improbably stuck with repetition? The Udinese centre-back’s three goals in four seasons against Rossoneri is 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, just 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’s about where many seconds. he needed to make history repeat itself, heading home from close range to open the scoring at the Stadio Via del Mare.

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A day later, Ionut Radu found himself caught in a less happy replay. The goalkeeper swapped Inter for Cremonese in the summer, seeking a fresh start with a newly promoted side after his howler against Bologna cost Nerazzurri control of last season’s title race. But after a largely 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 the San Siro, but did not trouble the reigning champions. Milan equalized from a contested penalty and took the lead through Ante Rebic before being hit back by an Adam Masina goal just before half-time.

The same player would give them a chance to regain 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 victory, nut Bram Nuytinck and serve his team-mate an invitation to finish on the edge of the six-yard box.

Milan weren’t perfect, but which team is on day one? There was sloppy defending at both ends and Rebic should have done a better job tracking Becão for Udinese’s opener, but his two goals more than made up for it. That’s 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. Photo: Shutterstock

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

Since Lukaku’s return, has Nerazzurri have been listed as favorites to win the Scudetto but struggled despite his early goals. Perhaps they were complacent against opponents for whom seven starters made their Serie A debuts. Certainly, a heavy pitch did them no favours.

Nevertheless, newly promoted Lecce faced the same conditions and showed greater courage for much of the first hour, 23-year-old Danish midfielder Morten Hjulmand carrying the match in midfield with Brazilian Gabriel Strefezza a whirlwind and threatening chaos on the right. Their equalizer came from the opposite flank, as Assan Ceesay – a free signing from FC Zürich – exchanged 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 all Inter forwards onto the pitch at once, Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez alongside Edin Dzeko and Joaquín Correa, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan behind.

Instead, it was 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 to secure a 2-1 victory. A mighty relief for Inter, and heartbreak for the Lecce fans who saw their team play a first Serie A game in three years.

While the rest of Inter’s players raced after Dumfries, Lukaku wheeled off in the opposite direction, heading alone towards 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, although the ultras who accused him of betrayal may not be so easily swayed.

Inzaghi found positives and negatives in the team’s performances, but aimed his biggest frustration at the media, who he accused of constantly reporting rumors of Inter players leaving, while at the same time proclaiming them as title favourites. No manager seems to be claiming that mantle for his team yet.

José Mourinho ridiculed suggestions that Roma could even be a dark horse for the title ahead of 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, he might be right – 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 Giallorossi would mind in that case. If he or Nicolò Zaniolo had been a little more clinical their margin of victory could have been much greater on Sunday night.

It was a completely 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 violaLuka Jovic had opened his account with a well taken goal.

Luka Jovic scores Fiorentina's second.

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

However, despite the man advantage, Fiorentina let the lead slip away. Pierluigi Gollini was caught out of position at a corner kick, forced to retreat quickly and punch the ball out as it swung towards goal. Matteo Bianchetti forced it back over the line and after that Cremonese had chances to win.

Instead, Radu’s mistakes deep into injury time meant they left Artemio Franchi empty-handed. This may be a new season, but the year is still 2022. It hasn’t been a happy one for a goalkeeper caught in a recurring nightmare.

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