Inter hoping bust-up frustrations between Romelu Lukaku and Marcelo Brozovic will be channelled into winning Milan derby
After testing night in the Champions League on Wednesday, new manager Conte heads into weekend's big game with plenty to think about
Perched at the top of Serie A, with a two-point cushion over champions Juventus, Antonio Conte's Inter Milan could hardly look better placed for the first Milan derby of the new manager's tenure. But this being Inter, things can never be quite so simple.
The most crackly fireworks of Conte’s reign have just gone off. They did so in the dressing-room at San Siro hot on the heels of the first significant on-the-pitch setback since Conte’s summer return to Italy.
According to leaks from within, Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Slavia Prague, achieved only via an injury-time equaliser in Inter’s opening Champions League game, created such tension that two senior players, Romelu Lukaku and Marcelo Brozovic confronted one another and had to be separated.
Reports had Alexis Sanchez – who, like Lukaku, joined Inter from Manchester United – playing principal peacemaker. (If so, it was the Chilean's most most important contribution to his new club so far). Fuelling the dispute was a row over Conte’s tactical instructions. Brozovic apparently thought Lukaku was singling him out for criticism for not following the gameplan.
Conte will not mind seeing his players inflamed; but he will want the anger channelled, and any grudges resolved in time for Saturday’s meeting with AC Milan.
Since the tetchy exchanges in the dressing-room, Conte has been at pains to take responsibility on himself for Tuesday’s anxious display, and a result that seems to put Inter at an immediate disadvantage in a tough Champions League group also including Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.
“You think I can come in here, apply my touch and we'll turn straight into swans?” Conte asked afterwards. “We struggled, we have a long way to go. But I won’t point to individuals. I’m the biggest dunce, the one who picked the team and obviously didn’t make it clear to the players what I wanted.”
If Inter are the ugly ducklings merely squatting at the summit of Italy’s top division, the next two weeks will find them out. On Saturday, the derby; in midweek, the hosting of Lazio, followed by Sampdoria away, Barcelona at Camp Nou and Juventus at home on October 6.
Given those tests ahead, Conte does not mind if the scraped draw against Slavia serves to temper elevated expectations. But if the night reactivated old doubts about Conte’s supposed blind spots in European competition, he is less happy.
His high reputation has been built largely on his domestic successes with Juventus – three successive titles from 2012 to 2014 – and on the against-the-odds 2017 Premier League triumph he engineered with Chelsea, in his first effort managing abroad.
In three seasons of Champions League football, in charge of the champions of Italy or of England, the best Conte achieved was a quarter-final.
So when he praises an unsung opponent in Europe, as he did Slavia, for “playing in a European way”, Conte speaks as a chastened student of the competition’s rigours.
“We spent too much time chasing after long balls,” he said, “which is not part of our plan. We were made to run more than they were and beaten in everything, including intensity.” A Conte team made second-best in intensity is not a Conte team this manager likes to publicly recognise.
What he does recognise are the key men he thinks can solve it. Diego Godin, signed in the summer from Atletico Madrid, is ready to cement his place the heart of Conte's back three after injury postponed Godin's start as Inter’s new defensive leader.
One plus from the Slavia salvage operation was a first European goal for Nicolo Barella, whose scuffed volley earned the late point after Stefano Sensi’s free-kick had rattled back off the crossbar. Barella, from Cagliari, and Sensi, from Sassuolo, are both shrewd close-season recruits. The major signing, Lukaku, has two Serie A goals already.
As for Sanchez, taken on loan from United at the tail-end of the transfer window, so far he has played just a 10-minute cameo, at the end of last weekend’s 1-0 win over Udinese.
“I’ll be ready to bring him in when he’s found his best form,” says Conte. “He is coming out of two difficult years.” Sanchez should expect to view the kick-off of his first Milan derby from the bench, while hoping for a role beyond that of peacemaker before the end.
Updated: September 19, 2019 09:27 PM