With its massive spending power, Manchester City’s run to the Champions League final has hardly come as a surprise.
The same cannot be said for Inter Milan, City’s opponent on Saturday in Istanbul.
While Inter is one of European soccer’s most storied teams, it enters the game as an outsider, having somewhat surprisingly reached the final. After all, Inter is the third best team in Italy, a league that has long-since lost its shine after being considered the ultimate destination for the world’s best players in the 1990s.
Inter finished the season 18 points behind league champion Napoli, the team many expected to go far before losing to AC Milan in the quarterfinals.
Inter went on to beat its city rival in the semifinals to advance to the final of European club soccer’s elite competition for the first time in 13 years.
To put that achievement into context, this was the first time it had even been in the quarterfinals since 2011, when it was the defending champion. But it is also a club that has tasted success in recent years after winning the Italian league in 2021, back-to-back Italian Cups in 2022 and 2023, and the Italian Super Cup this season.
“Manchester City have won two trophies (this season), but so have Inter. They will be facing an opponent who deserve to be in Istanbul as much as they do,” Inter coach Simone Inzaghi said.
The power in European soccer has shifted considerably since Inter last won the trophy in 2010.
Back then City was still waiting for its first major piece of silverware since 1976. But backed by Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, it has since gone on to win 16 more trophies, including seven Premier League titles.
This year City is bidding to become only the second English team to win the three biggest trophies in one season — the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup.
Only Inter can stop City from emulating Manchester United’s treble from 1999.
Looking at the respective two teams on paper, some may consider it a mismatch.
While City has superstar signings like Erling Haaland, Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne, Inter has a mishmash of players who have managed to reboot or prolong their careers at the club.
Edin Dzeko, for instance, is 37 years old and left City eight years ago, having been part of its first title-winning team under Abu Dhabi ownership in 2012. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is 34 and disappointed at both Manchester United and Arsenal. Matteo Darmian, 33, also failed to make a major impact at United.
Romelu Lukaku was generally considered to have flopped after big money transfers for United and Chelsea, but is one of Inter’s players with genuine star appeal. Likewise Lautaro Martinez, who won the World Cup with Argentina in December.
But whereas Inter once had the pulling power to lure players like the Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Luis Figo, it cannot compete with the spending power of City, which has assembled arguably the strongest squad in club soccer through the wealth of its owners.
Inter has suffered as Italian soccer has been overshadowed by the Premier League, which has enormous popularity around the world and benefits from massive broadcast revenues.
Inter is owned by Retail giant Suning and reported a loss of $285 million for the 2020-21 financial year, which was the highest ever for a top-flight Italian club. That was largely blamed on the impact of COVID-19 and the fact it had to play inside empty stadiums.
In May 2021, it also secured a financing deal with American investment fund Oaktree Capital that reportedly entailed a cash injection of $336 million.
Win or lose, Inter’s run to the final should be lucrative.
Last year’s winner Real Madrid received $146.4 million in prize money, while runner-up Liverpool earned $131.4 million from UEFA’s Champions League prize fund of $2.2 billion.
But Inter’s fans will be dreaming of a fourth European Cup.
Inter was the last Italian team to win the trophy, when Jose Mourinho guided it to a treble of trophies along with the league title and the Italian Cup.
Inzaghi is the coach now, even though his position looked under threat as recently as April.
After an unlikely route to the final, he is aiming to pull off the biggest shock of all against a City team that looks unstoppable.