A little before the midway point of the season, heading into Sunday’s Derby d’Italia, you could argue Inter have Juventus just where they would have wanted them.
Antonio Conte was brought to San Siro in 2019 and strongly backed in the transfer market with the primary aim of ending the dynasty he launched back in 2011-12 in Turin.
Juve have won every Scudetto since then but are four points behind Inter having played a game less.
Unfortunately for Conte, the Nerazzurri aren’t the only side with designs on ripping away the Bianconeri’s long-held crown.
Milan remain top of the table despite succumbing to a 3-1 defeat to Juve earlier this month, where they were subjected to arguably the most authoritative display of the fledgling Andrea Pirlo era.
Nine points separate Milan from Atalanta, Napoli and Lazio in fifth, sixth and seventh. Like fourth-place Juve, the former two have a game in hand on the leaders.
Inter are their local rival’s nearest challengers, three points from the top and three better off than third-place Roma, who were left with wounded pride by Friday’s 3-0 derby defeat to Lazio.
Struggles for consistency and congested title races can be seen across Europe as the effects of truncated pre-seasons and packed schedules continue to shake out.
However, the firepower up front for Inter and Juve provides a strong case for both breaking clear of the pack, while promising a thrilling high-stakes shootout at San Siro.
Lukaku-Martinez partnership brings joy
Conte’s second and final season in charge of Chelsea in 2017-18 was soured before kick-off as Manchester United beat him to the signature of Romelu Lukaku.
It was clear that state of affairs did little for either man by the time they finally came together at Inter before the start of last season.
Had Lukaku ranked himself as being among the top five strikers in world football, as he did last month, during the 2019 transfer window, plenty would have sniggered.
But the big Belgian has put a patchy spell at Old Trafford behind him to shine at San Siro.
Since the start of last season, Lukaku has 51 goals in all competitions – placing him fourth among players across Europe’s top five leagues during that period, in between Lionel Messi in fifth and a certain prospective weekend opponent who is five goals better off.
While not quite as prolific, Argentina international Lautaro Martinez has been a more than able accomplice, racking up 31 in 73 matches over the past season and a half.
Nevertheless, despite this mountain of goals and Inter being Serie A’s top scorers, there is a sense that Conte’s front two could be more clinical.
No player in the big five leagues with 25 goals or more to their name since the beginning of 2019-20 has a lower shot conversion rate than Martinez’s 12.4 per cent.
While Lukaku’s conversion rate in 2020-21 is comparatively healthier at 27.9 per cent, in Serie A alone his nine goals from open play come in below an expected goals (xG) figure of 9.8 (Lukaku’s three converted penalties do not figure in Opta’s xG calculations).
The concern for Conte is that this relative wastefulness takes a heavier toll on the big occasion.
Inter crashed out of the Champions League after winning a solitary group match and have failed to win any of their four Serie A matches so far against last season’s top six – a run continued by the raucous 2-2 draw with Roma last time out.
Ronaldo finds ideal foil in Morata
An obvious fear from an Inter perspective is that issues Martinez and Lukaku might have on the grandest stages will only be magnified by comparison to who they face this weekend.
No man in the 21st century has hit the heights of goalscoring obsession known by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Even if Juventus do not have the rampaging version that thrilled at Manchester United and Real Madrid, Ronaldo is raging against Father Time with utter conviction when it comes to putting the ball in the net.
Only Robert Lewandowski – way out in front on 78 – has more than the Portugal great’s 56 in the big five leagues from August 2019 onwards.
Among that group of attackers with 25 goals or more, Ronaldo has fired off the most shots with 354. Messi (329) and Lewandowski (297) are not particularly close behind.
Chillingly for opponents, he has found much greater efficiency this season. Ronaldo’s shot conversion rate is 23.5 per cent in 2020-21 so far, a 10 per cent increase on the prior campaign. His 11 open-play goals in Serie A have an xG value of 7.9.
If there is a new level of serenity to Ronaldo’s play, part of the credit can perhaps go to the man alongside him.
Alvaro Morata was the third corner of the tangled Lukaku-Conte transfer triangle back in 2017, his time at Chelsea proving to be as sapping as Lukaku’s at United. A loan to Atletico Madrid arrived midway through 2018-19.
Despite that move being made permanent, another loan back to Juventus came prior to the current campaign.
Under his old team-mate Pirlo, Morata looks like a player reborn, scoring 11 times in all competitions. Only four of those have been in Serie A but his seven assists over the course of the campaign are already more than he managed in the past two completed seasons – casting him as the ideal supporting act to Juve’s indisputable lead performer.
One of the best five in the world, one of the greatest of all time, Argentina’s next superstar striker or the quiet man from Madrid. On Sunday, one of them is set to step forward and add a key twist to a gripping Scudetto race.