Inter Milan ready to forgive Antonio Conte's past if he can help them move on from theirs
Conte takes charge of Serie A giants for the first time on Monday when they face promoted Lecce
There’s a saying in Italy that Inter Milan "win" the title in August, and then Juventus go on to celebrate it in May. Hope at Inter tends to glow brightly in summer, as seductive, stellar signings are fitted with their blue-and-black jerseys. By spring they look bruised by too many collisions with reality, and, in recent years, find themselves scrabbling merely to make it into Serie A’s top four.
Antonio Conte knows the pattern. For most of his career, he watched it unfold with glee. Conte’s 12 years as a Juventus midfielder coincided with the extended, debilitating spell in which Inter were kept from the scudetto for longer than at any time in their history, the period between 1989 and 2006. Conte’s Juve were the most consistent nemesis: He won five league titles and a Champions League; Inter won neither.
In 2011, Conte the coach then set about cutting a revived Inter down to size. He won successive league titles in charge of his old club, rendering the renaissance of Inter, treble winners in 2010, an isolated peak, an episode that now works mainly to nourish Nerazzurri nostalgia.
Which is precisely the symptom Conte has set about treating as he takes his place in a notoriously rickety seat, as Inter’s latest manager. “The future is built on the present, not on any rewards in the past,” Conte declared on becoming the 12th Inter boss since Jose Mourinho said farewell after their most recent league title, 10 seasons ago. Conte added he too should be assessed by the same clean-start criteria. “I feel like a coach in charge of a big club for the first time, not like the winner of titles.”
No backward glances, then, at Conte’s breakthrough successes, in his early 40s, as Juventus manager; nor at his admired two years in charge of an Italy national team that came within a penalty shoot-out of the Euro 2016 semi-finals; nor his surprise Premier League title in 2017 with Chelsea. Conte has had a year off since quitting Chelsea, acrimoniously, in 2018. Anyone who saw him at his tetchiest in that last year at Stamford Bridge will believe 11 months of calm disengagement were probably beneficial.
Inter will quickly bring back his adrenaline. On Monday, Conte can gauge the heightened expectations around San Siro about his arrival, as he takes charge of his first Serie A match in more than five years, at home to promoted Lecce, the club where he began his playing career, 34 years ago.
He will select an Inter that looks distinct from the team that scraped into fourth place last May: High-profile men such as Radja Naingollan and Ivan Perisic have departed - to Cagliari and on loan to Bayern Munich - while the soap opera that is Mauro Icardi, leading goalscorer for the last five seasons and former captain, has been very deliberately put in the background.
Icardi, after a series of fallouts with the club hierarchy, may well leave before the transfer window shuts at the end of the month. He knows he is no longer Inter’s go-to centre-forward, with the No 9 jersey now the property of Romelu Lukaku, and Inter also pursuing the possibility of hiring Alexis Sanchez from Manchester United, to whom they paid an initial €70 million (Dh289m) for Lukaku.
Lukaku describes Conte as “the best manager in the world”, a remark that might be regarded as standard corporate PR from a new recruit, were Lukaku not such a devoted student of the game and ready to cite in detail his experiences of Conte’s tactical nous in Italy-Belgium fixtures from the recent past. The pair also have personal history: Conte wanted Lukaku to rejoin Chelsea, who bought the striker as a teenager, when he was at Stamford Bridge.
The Conte-Lukaku alliance will be key to whether Inter’s hopes of a serious challenge to Juventus can last into 2020. So will a productive Lukaku partnership with Lautaro Martinez, the Argentina forward.
The authority in defence of former Atletico Madrid defender Diego Godin, whom injury may prevent making his Inter debut against Lecce, also inspires optimism among Interisti, a tribe wearied after a decade as also-rans, and just about ready to forgive their new manager’s ties to their domineering rivals.
Updated: August 26, 2019 08:31 AM