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Inter Milan vs. Juventus: Antonio Conte seeks to answer prayers in search for holy grail

Isabella Bonotto/AFP/Getty Image

Just over a week since it was announced that Inter Milan, along with its city rival AC Milan, plan to build a brand new $1.35 billion, 60,000-seat arena, another gleaming treasure has become a more pressing obsession, at least for those who follow the Nerazzurri.

That shiny obsession is the Scudetto — the Italian league title. For whisper it quietly, perhaps after all these years, Inter may be stirring.

September’s announcement that there will be a consultation over two architectural designs for the new stadium comes as Inter sits atop of Serie A, threatening to end Juventus’ dominance of Italian football.

The Cathedral design, by Populous, draws its inspiration from two of the city’s most famous landmarks — the Duomo and the Galleria.

Another, the “Rings of Milano” stadium, by Manica/Sportium, consists of “two iconic rings, interlocked and set apart in perfect balance … symbolizing the story of how two clubs, forever in opposition, and now united in their cause to preserve one of Milano’s most storied traditions.”

Both arenas would look even more spectacular with the league trophy in the cabinet.

Not since 2010 has Inter won Italy’s Serie A — a season in which it also won the the Italian Cup and the European Champions League by defeating Bayern Munich in the final under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.

Last season’s fourth placed finish, 21 points behind a Juventus team winning its eighth consecutive title, brought an end to Luciano Spalletti’s reign and opened the door for Antonio Conte to return after a spell at Chelsea.

Just five months later, Inter sits top of Serie A with six wins from six and represents a genuine threat to the monopoly that Juventus, which it plays on Sunday in the Derby d’Italia, has enjoyed for so long.

The change has been as rapid as it has been surprising given the overhaul of the squad and the number of new players. But according to Italian football expert Adam Digby, much of the success lies with Conte simply being Conte.

The Italian, who won the English Premier League in his first season in charge before leaving Stamford Bridge in July 2019, could yet have a similar impact in his maiden season in Milan.

“Just like Giovanni Trapattoni did in the 1980s and Mourinho almost a decade ago, he’s stopping Inter from being disjointed, self-harming force it has so often have been,” Digby told CNN

“This is a club whose anthem sings about “pazza Inter” (crazy Inter) and it usually does its best to live up to it, but Conte — who has banned that song being played before games as it was before — has driven home his message of professionalism, ridding the side of trouble-causing presences like Radja Nainggolan and Mauro Icardi, pushing the team to give 100% commitment at all times.”

The departures of Nainggolan and Icardi on loan to Cagliari and Paris Saint-Germain respectively gave an indication of Conte’s desire to revamp the squad.

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Big money was spent on the acquisition of Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United, while Alexis Sanchez followed his teammate to Milan on loan from Old Trafford.

Stefano Sensi, a 24-year-old midfielder, has impressed since arriving from Sassuolo while the vastly experienced Diego Godin has added steel to the defense.

But it has been Conte’s ability to improve players that has captured the eye the most, according to Milan football writer Vito Angele. He cites the recent performances of midfielder Antonio Candreva as a testament to Conte’s man-management.

“Conte’s secret is to know how to find the best from his players,” Angele told CNN.

“Look at Candreva, last year it was thought he was finished. With Conte, he is a different player, he runs and scores. Conte is a perfectionist, he takes care of the smallest details.”

That attention to the small details was illustrated by his side’s hugely impressive first-half display during the 2-1 defeat Champions League defeat by Barcelona on Wednesday.

After taking the lead through Lautaro Martínez’s second-minute strike, Inter played with a style and confidence that few teams visiting Barcelona would have had the temerity to display.

The defeat, owing to two wonderful goals from Luis Suarez, the second coming with just six minutes remaining, was particularly harsh on Conte’s side.

“We are hurting,” Conte told reporters in the aftermath of the contest. “There is bitterness and anger at the result. All we can do now is lick our wounds and prepare for Sunday’s match, but I saw courage and character.”

Juventus, which has won five of its six league games so far this season with a draw at Fiorentina the only blemish on an otherwise impressive start, will be only too aware of Conte’s ability to channel the anger and frustration of defeat into positive energy.

While there has been changes over the past years in terms of coaches, a new stadium and new players, one thing has remained constant at Juventus — success.

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A perennial champion, last year by 11 points, Juventus has been a machine built for one thing — winning. But sometimes simply winning is not enough, ask former coach Massimiliano Allegri.

Under Allegri, who arrived in 2014 following a four-year spell in charge of Milan, Juventus won five consecutive Serie A titles. It won the league and cup double in his first four seasons in charge and reached the Champions League final in 2015 and 2017, losing out on both occasions.

An overall win percentage of 71% — with 191 victories in just 269 games — was an indication of his his side’s dominance. In fact, in five years, Allegri suffered just 19 defeats in Serie A.

Perhaps it was his failure to win the Champions League — beaten in the final by Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid in 2017 — and then knocked out at the last-16 stage by Ajax, that eventually proved his undoing at a time where fans yearned for a more stylish brand of football.

Even the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at the start of the 2018/2019 season couldn’t fulfill Juve’s grand design to win the Champions League.

Either way, Allegri’s departure at the of last season opened the door for Maurizio Sarri to return to Italy following a one-year spell in charge of Chelsea.

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Sarri, who led Chelsea to third place in the Premier League, albeit 26 points behind champion Manchester City, and guided the club to victory in the Europa League, endured a difficult time in England where supporters were unhappy with the team’s performances.

Of course, it was Sarri, fresh from his success in Italy with Napoli who replaced Conte at Stamford Bridge in July 2019.

It was at Napoli that the Italian forged his famous “Sarriball” — a philosophy that brought 94 goals during the 2016-17 league campaign, the highest number scored in a Serie A season since the turn of the century. In fact, during his three years in charge in Naples, the team scored 251 league goals — more than any other side in Serie A.

A second place finish in 2018, where Napoli finished just four points behind Juventus, persuaded Chelsea to take him to London.

Now back in Italy and charged with adding some extra style to this Juventus side, Sarri has made a steady if not spectacular start in Turin.

And according to Digby, Sarri’s arrival and the emergence of Inter could reinvigorate a Juventus side that has dominated the domestic scene for the past eight years.

“For five years, Juventus was led by Max Allegri, he’s ultra-professional, thoughtful, calculated and, crucially, calm in his decisions,” Digby, author of “Juventus: A History In Black & White,” told CNN.

“As we know, Maurizio Sarri is very different. Yes, he’s well prepared, but he’s passionate, fiery, and puts his footballing ideals above everything else, he wants to see the game played his way, then winning is almost a secondary consideration.

“That shift should see the players — after listening to the same voice for so long — having to refocus themselves and tune in to Sarri’s approach.

“We’ve already seen an established performer like Miralem Pjanic say he’s having to refine his approach to play the way the coach demands and I think all those factors should see Juve retain the determination they need to compete with Conte’s Inter.”

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With Juventus searching for a new style under Sarri and Inter’s impressive start under Conte, Sunday may yet prove a rather intriguing affair.

Freeelance football writer Chloe Beresford believes Inter may be able to take advantage of Juventus’ attempts to change its style under Sarri, though adds the emergence of Inter could actually be to its advantage further down the line.

“It’s so refreshing for everybody who is watching the league,” Beresford said of Inter’s emergence as title rivals.

“It’s also important for Juventus to have a challenge during the week and keep them on their toes in the Champions League.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Inter won. It’s a bit of a strange one because Inter under Conte has become a bit like Juventus were in not being pretty to watch but getting results. With Juventus’ style being perfected, there’s a gap for Inter.”

Whether that gap is large enough for Conte’s side to topple the giant of Turin, time will only tell.

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