Inter Milan were one goal shy of edging Bayern Munich in Germany when in the 87th minute coach Leanordo looked to the bench for a spark. His solution: newly arrived Japanese left-back Yuto Nagatomo.
The Japan National Team star, currently facing one of the greatest off-pitch challenges of his life with the recent tsunami disaster in his homeland, breathed immediate life into the game and Inter’s crucial 3-2 winner was found just two minutes later.
In a team build-up involving Nagatomo, Cameroonian striker Eto’o dribbled around two defenders in the box before slipping the ball outside for Goran Pandev to expertly bury home.
The recently out-of-form striker’s goal gave Inter its prized third away goal, sending them through to the Champions League quarterfinals on away goals (a 3-3 aggregate scoreline).
Having fallen 1-0 to Bayern Munich in Italy two weeks through a last minute blunder goal, many had vocalized doubt in the club and whispers of the “Mourinho Effect” had begun to spread.
Inter has now silenced their critics and has moved one step closer to what no football club is yet to accomplish: to win the Champion’s League two years in a row.
The last-minute inclusion of Nagatomo, only one of two Japanese players currently in Serie A, roused the Nerrazzuri to defeat Bayern once again. The two clubs last met in last year’s Champions League final, with Inter securing a 2-0 victory through a Diego Miltio brace.
But today there was no Diego Miltio, no club icon in Argetnine Javier Zanetti, nor cup-tied striker Giampaolo Pazzini. The club’s faithful longed to praise the name of a new hero.
He came in the form of a 5 foot 7 inch determined lighting bolt, the first Japanese player to ever don the Internazionale uniform. Having only arrived at the club on-loan in January from newly promoted club Cesena, Nagatomo seems to have won the support of not just the club’s supporters but that of his teammates as well.
Sporting black bands in a sign of solidarity since the Asian nation’s tragedy one week ago, the team rallied behind the high-flying starlet.
Leading Italian paper La Gazetta dello Sporto recently had this to say after the 25-year-old secured his first goal in Blue & Black against Genoa:
“The little samurai became Inzaghi at that instant, spinning to score,” it read. “When he touches the ball, the San Siro comes to life.”
Inter Milan now persists as the only Italian club left in the competition and awaits the quarterfinal draw in one week’s time. Their possible opponents include in-form Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid and a handful of other top clubs.
Written by Mickey Hennessey.