Like all championship seasons, Inter’s 2020/21 campaign has had many memorable moments that you could point to as the tipping point in the Nerazzurri’s Scudetto charge. It could be the 3-0 win over a then-unbeaten Sassuolo that kickstarted a seven-game winning run that put Inter’s early-season troubles firmly behind it. Or maybe the 2-0 conquest of Juventus where the Nerazzurri showed their clear superiority over the nine-time champions. What about the back-to-back three-goal wins over Lazio and Milan? Perhaps the tight 1-0 victory against Atalanta deserves a mention. But one moment stands out above the rest.
Deep into stoppage time of Inter’s Coppa Italia quarter-final tie against Milan with both sides inches apart at the top of Serie A, extra time seemed inevitable. The derby was locked at 1-1 after Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku traded goals and blows. With Milan up 1-0 in the dying minutes of the first half from a Zlatan strike, the faces of each Milanese club locked horns in a confrontation that defined the season. Even the efforts of their teammates to separate them were barely enough to stop the Belgian and Swede from exchanging blows down the tunnel.
But when the two teams came out for the second half, the balance of power shifted. Zlatan picked up a second yellow for a cynical trip on Aleksandar Kolarov, while Lukaku blasted a spot-kick with ferocious pace into the upper ninety to level the score line. But as the minutes ticked on, Milan’s short-handed defense again and again stunted the Nerazzurri. Down to ten men, Stefano Piolo’s side was fighting tooth and nail for a result and advancement to the Coppa semis.
Enter Christian Eriksen. At the 88 minute mark, the Dane was brought on for a tiring Marcelo Brozovic in search of a late winner. Ten minutes later, he’s the most beloved man in the blue side of Milan. After six of the ten added minutes, Soualiho Meïté tripped up Lautaro Martinez 25 yards out. And it’s none other than Eriksen standing over the free kick by the time the dust settles. By this stage of the season, we’ve seen this story several times; Inter gets a late freekick in a deciding moment of the game, Eriksen takes it, Eriksen misses it. This time, though, was different. This time was a derby. The Dane steps up, and in one fluid motion lofts the ball beautifully over the wall and past a helpless Ciprian Tătăruşanu. The celebrations were immediate and fervent from the Nerazzurri. And for perhaps the first time since his signing, Eriksen smiled.
At the time, it did finally feel like Inter saw the real Eriksen. His first year in Milan had been a complete disaster. Brought in from Tottenham in the winter window of 2020 for €25 million and a €7m wage with only six months left on his contract, expectations were sky-high. Even Eriksen himself had lofty hopes for his time at Inter, saying the Nerazzurri offered a better chance at a trophy than Spurs. Inter was locked in a three-way Scudetto race with Lazio and Juventus when he arrived, and Eriksen seemed the man to push Inter ahead of its rivals. He got off to a rocky beginning, however, starting just one of Inter’s four league matches before the lockdown. The pandemic made his adaption to Italy even harder than usual and he continued to bounce between the bench and starting lineup once football resumed on the peninsula.
By the time the 2020/21 season ended his signing had lost the excitement that it arrived with. Eriksen had only one goal and two assists in 17 league appearances, plus 3g and 1a in 9 Coppa and Europa games. Not only were his production levels down from his time in England, but Eriksen never looked a natural fit in the 3-5-2 and fell below Roberto Gagliardini in the midfield pecking order.
Inter was rumored to be shopping him in the summer market, but his high wage meant there were few willing to take him on a permanent basis. Letting him leave on loan also was out of the question thanks to Inter’s financial problems and the difficulties of signing a replacement.
But rather than confirm his stay in Milan, the lack of a sale only increased the likelihood of a January departure. And Conte treated Eriksen as a player on the out. He made only six starts in Inter’s 26 games in all comps prior to the Milan quarter-final, registering 0 goals or assists. Even when on the pitch, the 29-year-old looked a husk of the player in the highlights video that wooed Inter in January 2020. He was timid with the ball and lacked the defensive awareness to earn Conte’s trust. Furthermore, his body language was of a defeated man. Conte humiliated him by repeatedly subbing him on with only minutes left before the final whistle. Even when Inter was in desperate need of a goal against Shakhtar Donetsk in the UCL, it took until the 85th minute for him to see the pitch. But despite clear evidence that Eriksen was far from home in Milan, Inter again failed to offload him in the winter window. No one would take him on a permanent transfer and even the loans only offered to partially cover his salary. By then you could easily wonder whether Eriksen himself was the problem, rather than just the struggle of adapting to a new style and country.
But it all changed that fateful night in January. Eriksen needed to turn over a new page in black and blue stripes, and what better way than a 97th-minute derby game-winner? The Dane got his first start since early December the following weekend and was unrecognizable from the pre-Coppa derby Eriksen. He even earned man-of-the-match plaudits on the match recap, and deservingly so.
Eriksen - 8 (Man of the Match): Followed up his spectacular game winner against Milan with an equally impressive showing versus Benevento. Though he didn’t register a goal or assist, it was his free kick that forced Improta into scoring the opener. He played with confidence, trying shots from distance and causing all sorts of problems to the visitors. Eriksen tallied 130 touches (the most on Inter), 2 key passes, 9 long balls. Is this the start of what we’ve all been waiting for from the Dane. At the least, it poses some interesting questions over who should get the start in midfield to Antonio Conte.
The Dane’s next league starts came against Lazio and Milan and with Vidal and Gagliardini injured/out of form, Eriksen suddenly had become a locked-in starter. From getting rare chances against the likes of Brescia and Cagliari to lining up in the XI in two of the biggest games of the season, Eriksen’s fortunes had made quite the turnaround. His player rating was equal to Barella and Brozovic’s from both of those games and he looked an integral part of the team.
Eriksen - 7: It only took a year, but it now looks like Eriksen fits into the Inter team. His presence as a creator takes a lot of pressure off of Brozovic in creativity and in the fact that the opposition have to worry about all three of Inter’s central midfielders in buildup and attack. His renaissance is invaluable to this team.
Eriksen - 7: Wasn’t quite as good as he was against Lazio, but that’s a high bar to clear. Calhanoglu was able to beat him more often than not in their midfield battle, but Eriksen still had his say. His vision to lay off the ball to Perisic helped create Inter’s second, while he had the third-most touches (59), 90% of which were successful, and 2 key passes.
It’s hard to imagine Inter taking six points from those games with Gagliardini in the lineup. Eriksen’s vision in the final third was crucial (especially on the all-important second goal vs Milan), while the defensive side of his game was up to Conte’s standards. Eriksen has since started nine of Inter’s past twelve games. Even while Inter has been grinding out victories by margins of a single goal, he still finds a way to make an impact. Against Atalanta he delivered the corner that Milan Skriniar eventually blasted home; against Torino it was his line-splitting pass that created Lukaku’s penalty. He finally opened his Serie A account with a well-taken equalizer versus Napoli, while it was his strike that proved to be the game-winner at Crotone. Both goals came from outside the box, a skill that had been rarely evident in Inter’s midfield prior to his revival.
While Eriksen won’t get MVP shouts at the end of the season and isn’t even Inter’s best midfielder, this Scudetto very well might not be happening had one of the many rumored departures come to fruition. His technical skills and final third vision have won Inter the points it needed to take it into the promised land. Now that the ex-Ajax man has found his old self and is at home, he offers qualities that no other Inter player can stake a claim to. It took a year longer than advertised, but at long last are the big bucks that Inter shipped to England paying off. Eriksen deserves every last bit of his Scudetto medal for all of the hard work in persevering in an environment that didn’t suit him one bit. Thanks to Eriksen’s resolve and Conte’s ability to develop players, we are finally seeing his best. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Pazza Inter reared its head once again, but in the end Eriksen and Inter have found success.
Every last player on the roster is a worthy-Scudetto champion but seeing Eriksen lift the trophy will have a special feeling to it. And if not for that Meite foul back on January 26th, who knows what colors the Scudetto would be donned in come Matchday 38.