Football

Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez lead Inter back among Europe's elite

Nerazzurri reach first European final in a decade, thanks to deadly partnership between Lukaku and Lautaro

Romelu Lukaku did his bit, but there will be no reunion between the Belgian and Manchester United in the Europa League final.

Lukaku's Inter Milan will face Sevilla in the final in Cologne on Saturday morning (Singapore time), after he and strike partner Lautaro Martinez took their combined tally for the season to 54 goals, each scoring twice in a 5-0 demolition of Shakhtar Donetsk.

A day earlier, United had 20 attempts on goal, but found the net only once, from the penalty spot, in losing 2-1 to Sevilla.

United might have been able to use Lukaku's predatory instincts, but it is hard to argue with the striker's belief that his 75 million-euro (S$121.8m) move to Inter last summer has worked out well for all parties.

United recouped most of the £75 million they paid Everton for Lukaku in 2017 and have rebuilt with the more flexible attacking trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood, who combined for 62 goals.

"I think I made the right decision and I think Manchester United now has made space for the younger players to come through, so I think it was a bit of a win-win situation for both of us," Lukaku told Sky Sports.

His 33-goal debut season in Italy has taken Inter back to a European final for the first time in 10 years, while Antonio Conte's men finished the Serie A season just a point behind perennial champions Juventus.

"Only I know what I went through to get him here," said Conte, who had previously tried to lure Lukaku to Chelsea before the striker chose to join United.

Lukaku's double in the closing stages in Duesseldorf against Shakhtar extended his record of scoring in 10 consecutive Europa League games and took him to within one of matching Brazilian idol Ronaldo's debut 34-goal season for Inter in 1997/98 - the last time the Nerazzurri won the Uefa Cup.

In Martinez, Lukaku has the perfect foil. The pair, nicknamed "LuLa" in the Italian press, quickly forged a deadly partnership.

The Argentine struggled in his first season at the San Siro, scoring just six Serie A goals, but Conte and Lukaku's arrival has helped turn the 22-year-old into one of European football's hottest properties.

"I've always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed polishing. Lautaro Martinez is the same," said Conte.

Martinez's double in Duesseldorf took his tally for the season to 21, making him and Lukaku the first pair of Inter strikers to reach 20 goals each in a season since Adriano and Obafemi Martins in 2004/05.

It was not quite enough to reel in Juventus, but after the lean decade that followed the Treble triumph of Jose Mourinho's side in 2010, "LuLa" are leading Inter back among the European elite. - AFP

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George help Clippers rally to beat Mavericks

Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points and had 12 rebounds and Paul George tallied 27 points, as the Los Angeles Clippers held on to beat the Dallas Mavericks 118-110 in the opening game of their play-off series yesterday morning (Singapore time).

"This is my 10th year in the league and I still get butterflies," said George. "It took the second half for me to get going but I understood just to let the game flow."

Dallas' 21-year-old star Luka Doncic scored a game-high 40 points to become the first player in NBA history to record a 40-point performance in his play-off debut.

"He is the future," said George of Doncic, who also had nine assists and seven rebounds. "We didn't expect to stop him but we wanted to wear him down as much as possible."

Marcus Morris had 19 points for the Clippers, who will try to go up 2-0 in game two of the best-of-seven series tomorrow.

Dallas had to play much of the second half without star player Kristaps Porzingis, after he was ejected while trying to intervene in a skirmish between Doncic and the Clippers' Morris.

Porzingis, who argued against the ejection, appeared to give Morris a light push in the chest. It was his second technical foul of the contest.

In another match, Jamal Murray scored 36 points, including 10 in overtime, as the Denver Nuggets overcame a 57-point performance from Donovan Mitchell to beat the Utah Jazz 135-125 in their first-round play-off series.

Nikola Jokic finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds for Denver, who were taken to overtime by the Jazz for the second-straight contest. - AFP

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