Not since 2010 have Inter been on top of Serie A this late in a season. Not since 1949 had they come from two down to win a derby.
If there were any lingering doubts that Inter would be genuine title contenders, it was all cleared up on Sunday night after their stunning 4-2 comeback victory over neighbours AC Milan.
For much of the season, there have been doubts over whether this team had the mental capacity to go all the way.
Most of these players hadn’t been in a race this intense and proportionate, and most floundered during the disastrous Champions League campaign plus missed many opportunities to build an advantage in Serie A. Criticism of a weak mentality were fair, albeit bizarre for an Antonio Conte side.
And yet on Sunday, all those doubts were quashed.
The night before, Verona gifted Inter a chance to go top by beating Juventus and ideally, after going 2-0 down at half-time against AC Milan, there wouldn’t have been much expectation for them to turn it around.
This would’ve gone down as another opportunity spurned by the Nerazzurri, but the second-half was perfect.
If Inter do go on to win the league title, the win against the Rossoneri has to be seen as the catalyst for change, an inspiration for the rest of the season and an example of what they can do no matter the circumstance.
Sunday night was as good as it could get for them: from the comeback, the set-up in the second-half, the goalscorers and even a justification of the transfer dealings completed by Conte since he came in.
In February 2018, Marcelo Brozovic was substituted on against lowly Benevento to a chorus of jeers while his side were winning; two years later he is the captain and scored the derby goal of dreams to ignite the fightback.
Just six months previously, Alexis Sanchez was deemed the worst signing in Manchester United’s history by many, here he was on Sunday night working tirelessly, setting up the second goal and displaying his hunger to win – even setting off on a tiny tantrum when he was taken off the field.
Stefan de Vrij proved his worth and backed up claims that he was the best centre-half in Italy this season with a brave display – he capped it off with a great header which saw him stooping down low and striking the ball with power and accuracy.
To top it off, Romelu Lukaku, stupidly brandished as a player with just “pace and power”, stupidly brandished for lacking a “football mind”, stupidly brandished as being “lazy”, but here he was with an all-action display fit for a local derby and adding the cherry on top with a late goal.
Perhaps this is Conte’s biggest success so far: making a talented group of footballers recognise their true potential and making a title-worthy side with it.
He was often shadily critical of his bosses for falling short of his expectations in the summer transfer window, but those problems were repaired – even if it is for the short-term – in the winter transfer window.
The signings of Victor Moses, Ashley Young and Christian Eriksen were written off, but in their cameos on Sunday evening, they proved their worth.
Young started the game and played the most part at left-back, putting in a strong shift and controlling Milan’s attack with his smart pressing.
Moses played a 10-minute spell that Conte would be proud of, staying in position down the right side and helping out in defence before setting up Lukaku’s goal.
As for Eriksen, the glorious free-kick which hit the underside of the crossbar was a sign of things to come – whether it’s now or next season, he will be crucial to this team.
It’s also worth recognising that this was an Inter side without their some of their best performers this season: Lautaro Martinez, Stefano Sensi, Alessandro Bastoni and Samir Handanovic.
Perhaps a win like this was coming, a win to make everyone take notice. AC Milan aren’t the force they once were but any win over your fiercest rivals in those circumstances is worth celebrating and drawing optimism from.
There isn’t any smooth sailing after this. Inter’s next three league games are against Lazio, a point behind them in the title race, followed by Sampdoria and then defending champions Juventus.
A two-legged Coppa Italia semi-final against Napoli is sandwiched between this as well as a two-legged Europa League tie against Ludogorets. If Inter come out of this storm unscathed, it will say a lot about them and their credentials for, at least, a double.
This is a different Inter, one of retrospect to examine their failures of the past to build for the future and one of introspect to identify ones own errors and fix it when the time comes.
Post-derby Conte accepted responsibility for the terrible first-half and patched it up to create one of the most thrilling Milan clashes in recent times. That inspires a side worthy of being champions.
After scoring the fourth against AC Milan, Lukaku draped his famous blue-and-black shirt around the corner flag and hoisted it for the whole of the San Siro to see.
For the fourth successive game, Milan was Nerazzurri. For the first time in a decade, Italy could be too.
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