Conte’s Internazionale finally puts an end to the monopoly of the old lady of Turin
It was Sassuolo who applied the last coat of paint to Antonio Conte’s masterpiece. The Internazionale manager had warned for weeks against the presumption, insisting that his team were not yet champions even though they had withdrawn at the top of Serie A. “We hope to finish what we started this season, ”he said. “It would truly be a work of art.”
A 2-0 victory at Crotone on Saturday brought Inter to one point behind the Scudetto. Scenes in the dressing room looked like a title celebration, as players bounced off the benches and sang chants on the terrace about the league leader’s withdrawal. Mathematically, however, it was not over yet. If second-placed Atalanta beat Sassuolo, they could stay in touch for another week.
They did not do it. An entertaining and stretchy game ended 1-1 with both 10-man teams and Luis Muriel missing a late kick. At the final whistle in Reggio Emilia, the streets of Milan became a cacophony of car horns. Inter fans have taken to the streets, with thousands rallying in defiance of social distancing laws to celebrate a first league title in more than a decade.
Romelu Lukaku came out to join them, climbing through the sunroof of his car, twirling his shirt around his head and yelling “campeones” as he embarked on a tour of the city. The forward was transformed into a literal work of art last week, pictured celebrating with his arms raised on a new mural near the racetrack. “Dear Milan,” read the accompanying slogan, “You’re welcome.”
It is only natural that Lukaku becomes a symbol of this triumph: a man who leads the team with 21 goals and 10 assists. Even those numbers don’t fully reflect his impact: the way he has imposed himself on Serie A defenders and led by example, sometimes appearing to lead his team-mates on the pitch by force of will. Inter have won just one of the four league games they have started this season without him.
He is a player who embodies the transformation that took place under Conte. Lukaku, for all his abundant talent, hadn’t claimed a major silver coin since lifting the FA Cup at Chelsea in 2012. Inter’s latest addition to the trophy cabinet was the one-year-old Coppa Italia. before.
That’s Conte’s gift: knowing how to raise good footballers into winners. How many regular Inter starters had conquered one of Europe’s “big five” national leagues before this season? Neither Lukaku, nor Samir Handanovic, Stefan De Vrij, Lautaro Martínez, Nicolò Barella, Alessandro Bastoni, Milan Skriniar, nor Marcelo Brozovic either. Not even Achraf Hakimi, although he had a cameo role in a Champions League-winning side at Real Madrid.
Conte described the challenge he faced at Inter as the most difficult of his career. Not only did he need to break a cycle of underperformance for the club he now managed, but also to end an era of unprecedented success for Juventus – a streak of nine consecutive league titles he has had. launched. All this, in the midst of a pandemic, without fans in the stands.
Last season, it looked like the task might overwhelm him. Despite leading Inter to second in Serie A and a Europa League final, Conte was constantly on the lookout, accusing reporters of expecting too much and his club of not supporting him enough. . He considered moving away before receiving assurances during a meeting with Inter chairman Steven Zhang in August.
Still, this season had the potential to further test his patience. Inter added Hakimi and Arturo Vidal this summer, but the financial realities of the pandemic were starting to bite on Inter owners Suning. Salaries were delayed and the January transfer window closed without backing. Inter’s neighbors Milan were still leading the league.
Conte adapted, bringing marginal players back into the fold. Christian Eriksen, having struggled to establish himself in a No.10 role early in the season, has been reinvented as a register / box-to-box hybrid midfielder. Ivan Perisic has been redesigned as a wingback.
Inter have not always dazzled. Conte started this season with plans for a more expansive approach, but the game-winning imperative prevailed as he shifted the focus from possession to a fast-hitting philosophy aimed at minimizing his team’s mistakes. and to punish those of their adversaries. Skriniar, dropped early in the season to make way for more expansive ball players, has been reinstated as a defensive mainstay.
Inter have conceded 23 goals in their first 17 games, then six in 17. They turned the title race into a procession, taking 41 points out of a possible 45 since the end of January. How is someone supposed to follow a favorite who never misses a step?
Their rivals made the trip serene, Milan and Juventus collapsed. Here too, however, Inter played their part. They dominated Juventus in a 2-0 victory in January, then struck Milan 3-0 a month later, leaving psychological injuries from which neither side fully recovered.
The triumph over Juventus was a defining moment, with Inter producing their most convincing performance in Conte’s tenure against the club he has served for so long but never beaten before. The Bianconeri would get some rematch in the Coppa Italia semi-finals, but even that competition had provided Inter with another iconic image, of Lukaku facing Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the previous round.
This too was immortalized in a mural outside San Siro. More than just winning the medal of a Serie A winner, Lukaku has secured his place in Inter club tradition forever.
Conte, however, did better, writing his name in the history books as the man who restored Juventus to the top of Italian football after the Calciopoli scandal and then returned to topple them.
“We have overthrown a kingdom,” he beamed in a television interview on Sunday. The Old Lady of Turin had reigned as champion of Italy for 3,283 consecutive days.
Already, Sunday evening, journalists were wondering what he would do for an encore. Suning’s financial woes have not gone away, although reports in recent days indicate that they are close to securing a $ 250 million loan from Bain Capital. Will he stay to win more titles at Inter? After leaving the Champions League in the group stage, is a better performance in this competition the next goal on his list?
“We are going to take advantage of this victory, deserved by a lot of sweat,” said Conte. “It’s right to celebrate; there will be time to talk about the future. For him and his team, it was a title in the making for two years. For Inter fans, it has been an 11-year wait. A great work of art deserves to be appreciated by those who have invested time and passion to see it made.