Oliver Birkner was born in Gelsenkirchen in 1970 and supported VfL Bochum from an early age. He went on to study in city of his favourite club after he left school with parts of his time at university spent in Glasgow and Bologna. By his own admission, he fell in love with the country and its people during his stay in northern Italy. He then had to return to Germany due to work commitments. Birkner has worked for kicker since 2004 and has been their Italy correspondent since 2007. “I could hardly wait to be able to move back there,” said the now 50-year-old, who has lived in Florence with his family for 13 years.
Mr Birkner, Inter Milan carried on against Getafe in the Europa League Round of 16 where they left off against Atalanta Bergamo on the last matchday in Serie A: with a 2-0 win. What did you think about the ‘Nerazzurri’ performance in the knockout match on Wednesday night?
The match once again sums up the whole season for Inter. This team has two sides. They were taken by surprise in the opening fifteen minutes by Getafe’s high press but then took control of the game with their technical class. There was a slight variation in Inter’s performance levels over the course of the game. You could see how a side, weaker on paper and in terms of individual quality, could pose problems for Inter with a solid team performance.
Just one defeat after the restart and qualification for the Champions League wrapped up early – What are Inter’s good results down to after the break enforced by the coronavirus pandemic?
Of course, the results have been good. But Inter haven’t always been particularly impressive on the pitch. There were great displays with convincing wins but also points dropped against mediocre teams. The typical pattern of games with this team is a fantastic first half followed by a complete drop off after the break.
A lot of money was spent in the fashion capital last summer, including for star striker Romelu Lukaku. Has the investment in the new signing from Manchester United paid off?
Lukaku was absolutely the first player Conte wanted when he took the job at Inter; he wanted to bring him to Chelsea. But then Manchester United snapped him up. Then, last summer, Inter bought the player Conte wanted for a club record fee. Lukaku has definitely impressed this season up to now and he set a personal record for the season with his 30th goal against Getafe, which also puts him level at Inter with a certain Samuel Eto'o. If Lukaku scores against Leverkusen then that would see him overtake Alan Shearer's record in the Europa League. Then he would have scored in his ninth Europa League or UEFA Cup game in succession.
Ahead of the season, they didn't just invest in new players. In Antonio Conte, who coached Chelsea for the last two years, the management spent a lot of money recruiting a new coach. How do you think Inter Milan are doing under the 51-year-old?
The team had really gone downhill since the treble under José Mourinho in 2010. Conte is the eleventh coach since then. Suning (the Chinese group have been the owners of the club since 2016, ed.) have succeeded in restoring order to the club and the turnover has doubled within four years. They looked for a world-class coach and found him in Conte. He's somebody who always enjoys quick success. The way he motivates players and improves them in such a short space of time is unique. Conte has given Inter a style of play again and, up to now, achieved fantastic things with this squad.
The team from Milan face the Werkself on Monday: Which side do you think are the favourites to win this game?
I wouldn't put money on either of the two teams. The question comes up again of who can transition better into the competition after seven double fixture weeks or having had a month's break. But one thing is clear: Inter against Leverkusen is definitely not Inter against Getafe. Leverkusen won't hesitate in front of goal and waste chances like the Spaniards. With a performance like the one against Getafe, Inter will go out against Bayer.
Do you think Milan can win the Europa League this year after nearly a decade without a title?
If they can overcome Leverkusen then I think Inter can make it all the way to the final. Of course, looking at the tournament fixtures makes a final between Inter and Manchester United probable. But the chances for underdogs have never been so great as this year, above all with one instead of two games per round. I'd be surprised if the favourites win every game.
Inter are looking to the future. With Achraf Hakimi, who was on loan at Borussia Dortmund from Real Madrid recently, the Italians have brought the next top player to the country after Lukaku and winter signing Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur). Do you see this transfer as a message to their rivals?
Definitely. Since the takeover in 2016, Suning's aim is to take on the Italian giants Juventus. Winning the Europa League would be the next piece of the jigsaw on the way to rejoining the group of the best clubs in the world.
You talked about the club's management. The Chinese businessman Steven Zhang, the son of the Suning owner, has been president since October 2018. How much is the 28-year-old involved in the football side of the club and how does he get along with the vice president and former Inter player Javier Zanetti as well as the long-standing sporting director Piero Ausilio?
Their partnership works. I think it's important in football to have a representative from foreign owners at the club – particularly in such a football mad country as Italy with its emotional fans. Zhang is visible, at the club every day and he acts as a middleman between the owner and the club. In addition, Inter have brought in an absolute top man in the new chairman of the board Giuseppe Marotta, who has already worked with Conte at Juventus. Calm has returned to the club after years of chaos.
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