COLOGNE, Germany, Aug 21 – Antonio Conte may not welcome comparisons with Jose Mourinho given the bad blood between the two, but for the first time since the Portuguese’s departure, Conte has made Inter Milan a force to be reckoned with.
Friday’s Europa League final against Sevilla in Cologne will be the Nerazzurri’s first European final since Mourinho walked out on the high of securing the only ever treble of Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia in 2010.
It is nine years since Inter won any trophy, but Conte has developed a habit of making an instant impact in his managerial career.
He took Bari and Sienna into Serie A, began Juventus’ hegemony of the Italian top-flight by winning three straight titles, took an unfancied Italy to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and won the Premier League in his first season at Chelsea.
“You can tell he’s a winner. He wants to win, and he demands that from all the players, a winning mentality,” said Ashley Young, who has slotted seamlessly into Conte’s system since a January move from Manchester United. “He demands everything – not just in matches, in training as well.”
Conte’s demands, however, mean he rarely hangs around for the long haul. His three-year spell at Juventus is the longest of a career already spanning seven clubs and his country at just 51.
Even after a first season that saw Inter close the gap on Juventus to just one point at the top of Serie A after the champions eased off in the final weeks, Conte plunged his future at the San Siro into doubt when on the final day of the domestic season he claimed he and his players had been offered “little protection from the club.”
In a familiar complaint from his time at Juventus and Chelsea, Conte pointed blamed a Champions League exit at the group stage to a lack of investment even though the club had smashed its transfer record to sign Romelu Lukaku for 75 million euros ($89 million) as part of the fourth highest transfer spend in Europe.
While Conte’s words may antagonise his superiors, he tends to deliver a return on investment as he has demonstrated since the Europa League resumed in northern Germany earlier this month.
Inter swept aside Getafe and Bayer Leverkusen then thrashed Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0, a Europa League semi-final record.
“We worked really hard in the little training camp that we had before this tournament,” said Lukaku, who is one goal away from matching Brazilian great Ronaldo’s record of 34 in a debut season at Inter, the last time they won the then UEFA Cup in 1997/98.
“It was tough, but I think now we see the results of the hard work. Physically and tactically, everybody is at 100 percent.”
Even Diego Godin, the pillar of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side that broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s grip on La Liga and reached two Champions League finals, struggled to adapt to Conte’s standards as he was dropped either side of the coronavirus shutdown, but has regained his place for the Europa League run-in.
“I’ve learned so much from the coach. He is so incredibly demanding and I just realised that I had to work as hard as I could,” said the Uruguayan. “It’s totally different to the way I had played and moved for 15 to 20 years. I had to change mentally and also physically, change the way I looked at football.”
Conte has also changed the way others look at Inter. Sevilla coach Julen Lopetegui said on Thursday the Italians are good enough to win the Champions League, never mind the Europa League.
“We are now at the stage we can compete for significant trophies,” said Inter captain Samir Handanovic, who is hoping to lift his first silverware after eight years at the club.
“This should just be the starting point. Matches like these should become a habit like they were 10-15 years ago.”