Internazionale can finally win another cup tonight in the Europa League final against Seville after nine years without a prize. This is largely thanks to coach Antonio Conte, who forged a close-knit team from Inter in his first season. Nevertheless, the final in Cologne could just be his last trick at the Nerazzurri.
In spite of a good season, both in the Serie A and the Europa League, it doesn’t bump between Conte and the Italian club. “The big question is whether Conte will still be the trainer next season. Because with Conte you never know”, says Davide Stoppini, international follower of the Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.
The bomb burst early this month, when Inter secured second place at the expense of Atalanta on the last game day. It was the best performance since 2011, but there was no sign of any satisfaction: the hot-tempered Conte went full on the attack on the board of Inter.
“For months we’ve had to eat shit and we’ve seen nothing of any protection,” says Conte. “The players didn’t get enough recognition for their achievement and neither did I. We still have to grow on all fronts, even off the field. A big club needs to protect its players more.”
Conte’s press conference was grist to the mill of the Italian media, where the rumour machine immediately started running: the unemployed Massimiliano Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino were already mentioned as successors, and Conte himself was – to his own annoyance – already associated with Juventus.
A furious Conte announced legal action against La Repubblica, the newspaper that suggested the coach would have offered himself to Juventus. The job in Turin has now been awarded to Andrea Pirlo.
“Conte’s anger was also about the fact that he has been under a lot of pressure in the media throughout the season, without the club protecting him”, says journalist Stoppini. “But he also wants the club to attract good players this summer so he can win Serie A next season.”
After Conte’s tirade on August 1, a first conversation followed with chairman Steven Zhang, in which it was agreed to talk further after the Europa League stay in Germany. At the press conference for the final against Seville Conte dodged all questions about his future.
“I’ve learned in my career to live in the here and now,” said 51-year-old Conte. “And right now, I’m preparing for an important race. We should be proud that we are back in the finals with Inter after ten years. But people only remember the winners. That’s an extra motivation to make the most of it.”
The very young Inter Chairman Zhang – he is 29 years old and the son of the founder of the Chinese retail group Suning, which took a majority stake in the club in 2016 – travelled from China to Germany earlier this week for the semifinals against Sjachtar Donetsk. The meeting with Conte was cordial.
And after the impressive 5-0 victory of Internazionale, which reached the Europa League final, the mood will only have improved.
Inter seems to be the favourite in the final against Seville tonight, although the Spaniards have been allowed to hold the UEFA Cup five times since 2006.
Conte managed in his first season in Milan to forge a close-knit team from Inter, which ended at one point from Juventus after a series of lousy years. “Over the past few seasons Inter has fallen far back after the winter break, but under Conte the team is much more stable and much more of a unit, even after the lockdown”, says Stoppini.
For the final tournament of the Europa League everything seems to have fallen into place. “The players are in excellent physical condition,” said the Gazzetta journalist. “For example, attacker Lautaro Martínez plays much better than a month ago. And men like striker Romelu Lukaku and defender Diego Godín are also in top form.”
But is tonight’s final the last game of Inter under Conte? Next week in Milan there will be a conversation between Conte and Zhang. “The result of the final doesn’t matter then. What matters is what Zhang can promise him for next season”, says Stoppini.
For as great as winning the Europa League can be: for Inter, winning the Series A and ending Juventus’ nine-year title series is more important.
Stoppini suspects that both men will eventually bury the hatchet. Zhang doesn’t want to lose Conte, but will insist that outbursts of anger like after Atalanta must be a thing of the past. And Conte?
“With Juventus he also suddenly stepped up after three titles in a row. And he often talks about how great he thinks the Premier League is. So never say never at Conte’s.”