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Thursday, June 1, 2023

How Antonio Conte made Inter champions again and gave fans their club back

Inter Milan Serie A champions
Antonio Conte took Inter back to the top in merely two seasons. Matteo Bazzi/EPA.

The sight of 30,000 Inter fans in front of the iconic Duomo di Milano on Sunday hinted at the scale of what Antonio Conte and his team had achieved. Not for 11 years, since the days of Jose Mourinho, had the Nerazzurri been Italian champions. They’d sat on the sidelines as Juventus dominated Serie A for nine straight seasons. Now, though, the stranglehold has been broken.

It had been coming for weeks, but Inter’s Scudetto triumph was made official with second-place Atalanta’s draw against Sassuolo, making Conte’s team mathematically untouchable at the top of the Serie A table. Brought to San Siro to turn Inter into champions, the 51-year-old delivered on his objective.

This is, after all, what Conte does. Ironically, he was the one who started Juventus on their run of nine Scudettos in succession, leading the Bianconeri to their first three. When he swapped Turin for London in 2016, he also turned Chelsea into champions, winning the Premier League title in his first season.

Inter’s appointment of Conte two years ago was a statement of intent. Widely seen as the best Italian coach of his generation, it was a sign that Inter’s backers, the Chinese conglomerate Suning Group, wanted to take on Juventus. And yet there was complacency in Turin. There’s a sense Juventus never expected Inter’s challenge to amount to much.

Financial issues currently being experienced by Suning could compromise what Conte has built at San Siro, but if he can keep the core of his group together, Inter will stay competitive. In Alessandro Bastoni, Nicolo Barella, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, the Nerazzurri have the spine of a team that can still achieve much more.

In particular, Lukaku and Martinez have the potential as a pairing to take Inter further. The two forwards are on the same wave length, scoring 36 times between them in Serie A this season. If Lukaku isn’t creating for Martinez then Martinez is creating for Lukaku. There isn’t another strike partnership in Europe right now at their level.

Lukaku is the greatest icon of this Inter team. The impact he has had on the club since arriving from Manchester United two summers ago has been profound. It could be argued that his impact at Inter has been greatest than any player since Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is somewhat ironic given the personal rivalry that has developed between the two in Milan this season.

While others have misunderstood Lukaku, Conte saw the Belgian for more than just his finishing ability. This has unlocked areas of the 27-year-old’s game that others failed to recognise – see how Lukaku has reached double figures for assists this season. This says a lot about Conte’s capacity as a coach. He sees things others don’t.

Conte has instilled a winning mentality at the club. This is evident in the likes of Christian Eriksen, previously targeted for his perceived lack of a winning edge as a Tottenham Hotspur player. While the Dane struggled initially to find a role at Inter, he produced a series of big moments for Inter down the home straight, including in Saturday’s win over Crotone.

It’s true that Inter might be forced to trim their squad this summer to pull themselves back from the financial cliff edge, but with some shrewd decision-making, Conte can continue to build. There’s already speculation that Arturo Vidal, Aleksandar Kolarov and Ashley Young could be on their way out to cut the wage bill.

Juventus will be better next season. It appears unlikely that Andrea Pirlo will be in charge beyond the summer, with Max Allegri reportedly close to agreeing a return to the Turin club. This will instantly raise the stakes at the top of Serie A. What’s more, Conte will also have Mourinho to contend with following Roma’s bombshell appointment of the Portuguese coach this week.

Mourinho, of course, is an Inter legend, but Conte has similarly forged a connection with the club’s fanbase and with Milan itself. This was clear in the way fans and players celebrated over the weekend, with Lukaku clambering through the sunroof of his car to spin his shirt above his head while leading the crowd around him in a chant of ‘campeones.’

Conte might never achieve what Mourinho, a Treble winner, did at San Siro, but Inter fans feel they have their club back after years of detachment. For this, and for stopping Italian soccer from becoming a one-party state, the 51-year-old has already earned his place in the pantheon of great Inter leaders. “We overthrew a kingdom,” Conte said on Italian TV after Inter’s Scudetto win was confirmed. That makes him the king.

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