After losing to them in last weekend’s FA Cup final, Manchester United needs help from elsewhere to protect their treble-winning legacy and prevent the Manchester City side of 2022-23 from emulating Sir Alex Ferguson’s class of ’99.
Step forward the familiar but unlikely trio of Romelu Lukaku, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Matteo Darmian.
Three former United players — some might say United rejects — are in the Inter Milan squad that is the last obstacle between City and a footballing feat that currently belongs only to the red side of Manchester.
Finals have a habit of throwing up intriguing subplots, but nobody at Old Trafford could have imagined Lukaku, Mkhitaryan and Darmian would end up playing for the biggest prize in club football, in the same team, so long after leaving United.
In theory, the best days of all three should be behind them, bearing in mind Lukaku turned 30 last month, Darmian is 33 and Mkhitaryan a year older.
Then again, it is hard to make a case that their best days were spent at Old Trafford. Signed for a combined total of £114million ($142m at current exchange rates) between 2015 and 2017, all three had moved on by deadline day in the summer of 2019 after making little impression in the United shirt.
The last time they played together for United was just before Christmas 2017, in a loss to Championship side Bristol City in the Carabao Cup.
Mkhitaryan joined Arsenal five weeks later as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, Darmian spent another 18 months at United, during which he started only eight Premier League games, and Lukaku left under a cloud in that same 2019 window.
Indeed, the easy line with this kind of narrative is to say that Lukaku, Mkhitaryan and Darmian will have extra motivation to beat City in the Champions League tomorrow (Saturday) because of their United links. In reality, Old Trafford will be a long way from their minds because all the incentives they need can be found much closer to home.
Darmian, for starters, is a local lad and lifelong Inter fan, despite coming through the academy of neighbours AC Milan.
Lukaku, who is on loan from Chelsea, grew up idolising then-Inter forward Adriano and has forged a deep bond with the Serie A club, where he has played for three of the last four seasons, scoring 78 goals in 131 appearances.
Mkhitaryan’s situation is slightly different. He had the shortest but arguably most productive time of any of them at United, winning three trophies in his 18 months. “You know, some players have been playing in Manchester for ages but they haven’t won anything,” Mkhitaryan told The Athletic in 2021.
At the same time, he was not exactly a central pillar in two of those successes. He only came on in stoppage time in the 2-1 Community Shield victory over Leicester City in August 2016, making his debut after a move from Borussia Dortmund the previous month, and missed the 3-2 defeat of Southampton in the League Cup final the following February through injury.
The Armenian came to life in that season’s Europa League, though, scoring six times, with five of those in the knockout phase, including the vital second in the 2-0 win over Ajax in the final. But overall, it was a brief and largely underwhelming period for him in Manchester, where the flashes of brilliance (that wonderful scorpion kick against Sunderland comes to mind) were fun but fleeting.
In truth, exploring the parts they have played in Inter’s successes this season is much more interesting than reflecting on where things went right or wrong for them at United.
In the case of Lukaku, it is complicated.
Although he has finished the season like a train, scoring or assisting 12 goals across the last 10 Serie A matches, the Belgian was a passenger for six months after returning from Stamford Bridge. Ironically, Lukaku could not have got off to a better start back at Inter — he scored within 81 seconds against Lecce in the opening game of the season. Incredibly, it was another 253 days before his next goal from open play in Serie A.
In between, Lukaku was part of the Belgium squad that imploded at the World Cup, where his lack of match fitness — he had not long returned from a hamstring injury — did him no favours. He came off the bench against Croatia in the final group game and missed four glorious chances. Belgium, having finished third at Russia 2018, failed to even make the knockout phase in Qatar. Lukaku was crestfallen and the psychological scars are still there.
“I let my country down,” Lukaku said to CBS last month, reflecting on that World Cup experience.
Despite that recent upturn in form, everything points to Edin Dzeko rather than Lukaku partnering Lautaro Martinez on Saturday because of the faith that Simone Inzaghi, Inter’s coach, has in the 37-year-old former Manchester City striker when it comes to big games.
Naturally, everything also points to the Italian press holding an inquest into why Lukaku didn’t start if Inter are beaten.
Either way, it will be curious to see what happens with him afterwards. He is, after all, still a Chelsea player, albeit with no future at that club. Another season on loan at Inter is possible, but Chelsea would have to be willing to subsidise his wages again.
Darmian, who played here, there and everywhere for United without ever really convincing anyone at the club that he should be a regular in their first XI, definitely will start against City.
Signed from Parma by Antonio Conte, initially on loan, in the summer of 2020 as a squad player, Darmian has more than proved his worth. Versatile, dependable and schooled in the art of Italian defending, he has earned the respect of Conte and now Inzaghi, as well as his Inter team-mates and the supporters, with his performances.
Deployed as a wing-back initially, he scored a couple of crucial goals in back-to-back 1-0 home wins towards the end of Inter’s 2020-21 title-winning season. More recently, he has been playing at right centre-back and defended heroically in the Champions League round-of-16 victory over Porto in March.