Following in the footsteps of greatness - Romelu Lukaku bidding to emulate Ronaldo and deliver European glory in his debut season at Inter Milan
Romelu Lukaku is looking to cap off a phenomenal first season as an Inter Milan player with a Europa League crown, just as a certain star striker did back in 1997/98.
When Inter Milan square-off against Sevilla in the final of the Europa League on Friday evening, the Nerazzurri will be looking to put the icing on the cake of a season where they've regained their big-club swagger.
The behind-closed-doors showpiece in Cologne will be their first appearance in a major European final since they won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho in 2010.
It's been a long wait for a club of Inter's prestige and history.
Ashley Young, Alexis Sanchez, Victor Moses and Christian Eriksen have all enjoyed productive first seasons in Milan but it's been the form of ex-Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku that has really caught the eye.
Twenty two years after a fresh-faced Ronaldo powered Inter to victory in the Uefa Cup final, Lukaku is primed and ready to follow in the footsteps of the Brazilian icon and write his name into the club's folklore.
The Belgian took his tally for the season to 33 goals in 50 games as Conte's side thrashed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 to set up a showdown with United's conquerors, Sevilla.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a player who many believed was surplus to requirements at Old Trafford.
Lukaku hit the ground running at United, scoring 27 goals in his first season following a £75 million move from Everton.
But the striker struggled to replicate his first season form as a string of poor results cost manager Mourinho his job.
The former Chelsea forward enjoyed a brief renaissance under Mourinho's successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, scoring in an unforgettable victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the 2018/19 Champions League, but those moments were few and far between.
Lukaku managed just 15 goals in all competitions in his second season, a disappointing return that led to scrutiny, amongst other things, over the striker's weight.
In August 2019, following reports he had shown up for pre-season training nine pounds heavier than expected, Lukaku left for Italy claiming he was being made a scapegoat for United's poor finish to the season.
"They have to find somebody [to blame]," he told an American sports podcast.
"It is [Paul] Pogba, it is me or it is Alexis [Sanchez]. It's the three of us all the time. For me, I just see it in many ways."
Since his £74m move to Inter though he has thrived, scoring in every Europa League game he's played this season, including a double in their 5-0 demolition of Shakhtar in the semi-finals.
If he scores in the final, he will equal the 34-goal tally Ronaldo managed in his debut season with the club in 1997-98.
I think he got a raw deal at United for whatever reason. I think he felt he had a point to prove all the time. He deserved a little bit better.
- Hargreaves on Lukaku
That season the man who came to be nicknamed R9 took the Uefa Cup by storm, terrifying defences across Europe.
The former Barcelona striker netted five goals in 10 games before producing a man of the match display to down Serie A rivals Lazio in the final.
Lukaku's most recent eye-catching display came just a day after a wasteful United side blew a one-goal lead in their semi-final defeat to Sevilla.
It left former United and Inter midfielder Paul Ince suggesting the Red Devils may be regretting their decision to let the 27-year-old leave.
"He looks fit, lean. At Manchester United he didn't look like he could get around the park - here he's just running past people," said the BT Sport pundit.
"You wouldn't see him do this at United. I was fitter when I was at Inter - whether it's the climate, the food.
"He looks like a different animal. We know he can finish but wow, I bet they wish they had him now.
"Lukaku didn't struggle; he scored goals for Manchester United. But I felt under Mourinho he wasn't happy. Sometimes you find the right fit, the right country, the right club, the family is happy. If you're happy you will perform."
"I think he got a raw deal at United for whatever reason. I think he felt he had a point to prove all the time. He deserved a little bit better," added ex-United midfielder Owen Hargreaves.
"He almost played like he was carrying a burden and now he looks like he's in a place where he's really confident."
Lukaku's exit came amid rumours that Solskjaer had deemed the striker surplus to requirements with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood at his disposal.
But contrary to those reports, Lukaku recently revealed he ignored Solskjaer's overtures and took the decision to leave Old Trafford in a bid to restore the confidence that had made him one of the Premier League's most deadly marksmen.
“One bad year can happen to everybody in their career. It was just done for me. You know what happened behind the scenes, it was just done. For me, it was done," he said.
“It was a difficult situation where for myself I had to make a decision where I have to go somewhere where I can learn other aspects of my game and work with somebody that wanted me as well.
“Ole wanted me to stay, but I told him I was over. I didn’t have the energy. All credit to him because he’s been a man and he helped me make the move away.”
One man who was desperate to link up with Lukaku was Conte.
The Italian wanted to bring him back to Stamford Bridge in 2017 but the Belgian instead chose to link up his former Blues boss Mourinho at United.
“Obviously when Inter came, the club, the manager Conte that wanted me at Chelsea and when he was at Juve as well, I was like now it’s time to go over there and see what it’s like, but just keep my head down and work.”
And work he did.
In a short video clip that went viral following his move to Inter, the striker admitted he was finding the training regime under Conte 'tiring', but the hard graft soon paid off.
"It's hard, man," he told a friend. "I'm tired!"
"It's different. In England, it's a lot of work but over here, it's real work!"
When asked what he was enjoying about the Italian cuisine, he joked: "Salad!"
In an interview with Spanish newspaper AS, Lukaku admitted he was the subject of a Conte dressing-room tirade that served to kick start his spell at the San Siro.
"I remember one of my first games against Slavia Prague when I played really bad and I really got it from him in front of the whole team," he said.
"[He was] telling me that I was really trash and that he would take me off after five minutes if I would have done it again.
"We played the Milan derby just after that, and I played one of my best games of the season.
"He stepped on my confidence but it woke me up at the same time. He does it to everybody, it doesn't matter who you are. Everybody is equal."
The early season pain is paying off and Lukaku is on the cusp of writing his name into Inter Milan history alongside Ronaldo.
When Lukaku takes the field on Friday evening, United fans will be forgiven for wondering what might have been.
Watch the Europa League final live on BT Sport 1HD and Ultimate from 7pm on Friday 21 August.