Romelu Lukaku was "really close" to joining Juventus last year, but the chance to work with Antonio Conte proved pivotal in his decision to sign for Inter.

The Belgium international ended a mixed two-year spell with Manchester United by joining Inter for a reported €80million (£74m) fee in August 2019.

Lukaku has excelled in his debut campaign in Italy, scoring 23 goals in 35 outings in all competitions.

However, the 26-year-old has revealed he almost joined one of Inter's fiercest rivals.

"I was close, really close [to joining Juve], but my mind was always set on Inter and the manager," Lukaku said in an interview on Ian Wright's YouTube channel.

"As a kid I looked up to Adriano, Ronaldo and [Christian] Vieri. 

"Obviously when Inter came – and the manager Conte wanted me at Chelsea and Juve as well – I wanted to go there and see what it was like, keep my head down and work."

Lukaku has already bettered his goals tally from the whole of his final season at United, where he fell out of favour under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

"One bad year can happen to everybody, and I was done [at United]," Lukaku, who believes he made the right decision in leaving Old Trafford, added. "It was a difficult situation.

"I had to make a decision over going somewhere where I can learn other aspects of my game and work with somebody that wanted me as well.

"Ole wanted me to stay but I told him it was over. I didn't have the energy. All credit to him because he's been a man and he helped me make the move away."

United have steadily improved in Solskjaer's first full campaign in charge following the January signings of Bruno Fernandes and Odion Ighalo, the latter arriving on an initial loan.

"They are going the right way because they are bringing in the right players," Lukaku said. "Ole is doing a good job and the results are good. 

"I wish them nothing but the best. As a club they gave me a platform that I had never seen in my life."

Serie A is on hiatus until at least April 3 amid the coronavirus pandemic, and authorities expect the suspension to continue long after the initially scheduled resumption date.

Only China – where the virus was discovered – has been hit harder by COVID-19 than Italy, where, as of Monday, there have been 24,747 confirmed cases and 1,809 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Prior to the disruption, free-scoring Atalanta and title-chasing Lazio had been the stories of the season, with Simone Inzaghi's men pushing defending champions Juventus hard for the Scudetto.

Inter showed signs they were heading back towards their former heights before losing ground in the title race, though the same cannot be said for Milan, who sit seventh.

With the help of Opta, we take a look at the most interesting facts relating to Serie A's top four and the Rossoneri.

JUVENTUS

- Juve have been trailing for 133 minutes in 2019-20, less time than any other team in Serie A this season.

- At home, Juve are unbeaten in their previous 34 league games (W29, D5), more than double the next best streak (Lazio's 15).

- This term, Cristiano Ronaldo equalled the record of 11 consecutive goalscoring appearances in a single Serie A season. He has also already levelled his haul of goals from 2018-19 despite making nine fewer appearances, averaging 0.95 goals per game compared to 0.68 last season.

- Among the players who made their debut in the three-points era, Ronaldo was the fastest to reach 42 goals (52 appearances) – before him the record was 58 games played (Vincenzo Montella, Andriy Shevchenko and Brazil great Ronaldo).

LAZIO

- Lazio are unbeaten in their previous 21 league games (W17 D4), already an all-time Serie A record for the club. Six of the seven previous teams with streaks as long as that in a single season went on to win the Scudetto (the only exception was Roma in 2009-10).

- Lazio have scored at least two goals in 19 games in the 2019-20 Serie A season. Only Liverpool (23), Manchester City (21) and Paris Saint-Germain (21) have done so in more games across Europe's top five leagues this term.

- Ciro Immobile has 27 goals in 26 games in 2019-20. Only Antonio Valentin Angelillo (29) in has managed more after 26 matchdays.

INTER

- Antonio Conte is the first Inter coach to see his team score in each of his first 19 games in all competitions.

- Inter have won nine of their 13 Serie A away games this season (D2 L2): only in the 2006-07 campaign have the Nerazzurri won more (11).

- Romelu Lukaku is one of three players to have scored at least 17 Serie A goals in their first 25 games of a debut season with Inter, emulating Giuseppe Meazza (1929-30) and Stefano Nyers (1948-49).

ATALANTA

- Atalanta's 70 goals in this Serie A campaign already represents their second-best haul in a single season (77 in 2018-19).

- No team has scored as many as 70 goals in the first 25 matches of a single Serie A season since 1959, when Fiorentina netted 79.

- Three Atalanta players are into double-figures in terms of goals in this season: Josip Ilicic, Luis Muriel and Duvan Zapata. Only in 1949-50 and 1951-52 have the club had as many players reach 10 goals.

MILAN

- Since Stefano Pioli joined Milan, they have kept the most clean sheets in Serie A (seven).

- Milan have increased their winning percentage since the turn of the year across Serie A and the Coppa Italia. It was 35 per cent in 2019, rising to 50 per cent in the new year – they also increased their goals per game from 0.9 to 1.7.

- Since his first spell at Milan (which began in August 2010), Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored 60 goals for the Rossoneri in all competitions, more than any other player with the club in the period.

Inter head coach Antonio Conte made a plea for people to stay home and respect the rules amid the coronavirus emergency in Italy.

Outside of China, Italy has been the hardest hit by the virus – named COVID-19 – with more than 1,400 deaths from at least 21,100 cases.

The global pandemic has forced the postponement of all sport, including Serie A, until April 3 in Italy, where the country is in lockdown with all shops except food stores and pharmacies closing.

"Please stay home and respect the rules," Conte said in a video message posted via Inter's official channels.

"That's the only way to confront this emergency.

"It's difficult and tough moment but if we stick together, we'll get through it. Don't give up!"

Conte is in isolation, along with his Inter team, after coming into contact with Juventus defender Daniele Rugani – who contracted coronavirus.

Rugani was the first Serie A player to test positive for COVID-19, which has spread alarmingly quickly in the country, while Manolo Gabbiadini is among a number of Sampdoria players to contract the virus.

Maurizio Sarri praised Aaron Ramsey's performance in Juventus' 2-0 win over Inter, saying the Wales international's improved fitness has helped him to thrive in the Bianconeri midfield.

Ramsey scored for the second Serie A game running, netting Juve's opener in Sunday's Derby D'Italia after also finding the net against SPAL.

He then teed up Paulo Dybala to score the hosts' second and Sarri said moving Ramsey into a three-man midfield rather than playing him behind the strikers had paid dividends.

"He [Ramsey] maintains that he needs to see more of the pitch in front of him, or he gets a little lost," said the Juve coach.

"He is doing well in this role, although in fairness he's also in much better physical condition now than he was when playing as a trequartista.

“I was about to introduce Dybala a minute before we scored with Ramsey, but I decided to put him on anyway, as I felt that was the moment we could finish the game.

"Inter tried to press us high in the first half and probably used up a lot of energy doing that. The inertia of the game changed after our goal, we had a very strong 20 minutes after that and gained confidence, whereas Inter lost it at the same moment.

"It's very positive that we barely allowed a quality side like Inter a single shot on goal."

After dominating the division in the first half of the season, Inter are in third place, nine points behind leaders Juve, having lost twice to the reigning champions.

Inter boss Antonio Conte called upon his players to grow from the defeat, saying: "We tried to stay in their slipstream, but must learn from defeat and take the lessons of comparison to grow in terms of character, quality and strength.

"It's a loss that must help us to grow and understand how far away we are. It certainly shouldn't make us distraught, as we knew there was a gap and we lost both meetings with them. The results speak clearly, they won two and we got zero points.

"We must grow in terms of character if we want to compete at the highest level. It's also about characteristics, as there are players who are stronger in personality and others less so.

"We all need to do better in that sense and be more determined."

Antonio Conte praised Inter for their approach to Thursday's Europa League second-leg win over Ludogorets in the round of 32 after being made to play the game behind closed doors.

Goals from Cristiano Biraghi and Romelu Lukaku earned Inter a 2-1 victory at an empty San Siro after Cauly opened the scoring for Ludogorets, who trailed 2-0 from the first leg.

Fears over the coronavirus outbreak in Italy meant supporters were not allowed to attend the match and Inter head coach Conte admitted the tie had an eerie feel to it.

"I've also played behind closed doors with Italy against Croatia," he told Sky Sport Italia. "The atmosphere is strange and doesn't make things easy as it's like a training session.

"I have to say that my players took the right approach today, even if we fell behind. We made changes, giving other players some minutes, and now we move on."

Inter's home league clash with Sampdoria last weekend was postponed in wake of the virus spreading, while Sunday's blockbuster trip to Serie A leaders Juventus will also be behind closed doors in Turin.

Conte's Nerazzurri lost their last league match 2-1 to second-placed Lazio and trail Juve by six points with a game in hand to play.

Conte admitted the Derby d'Italia clash, as well as an the upcoming trip to Napoli, will go a long way to determining just how close his side are to seriously challenging for silverware.

"We started this run of games and there is an important match coming up against Juventus," he said.  "Once we reach the end of this period, we'll understand how distant we are from a winning level. 

"I am convinced this will give us more clarity on where we are now, the length of the road ahead of us and the work that still needs to be done."

Inter started with a back three against Ludogorets but reverted to a flat-back four in the second half, with Christian Eriksen and Marcelo Brozovic linking up in central midfield.

"We need to work on the ideas and have had time in training," Conte said. "The postponement of the game with Sampdoria last week gave us time to test out something new, which can be used either at the start of a match or during the 90 minutes.

"When you have two strikers, it's inevitably harder work for the midfielders. For those who play with one centre-forward, two wingers or a trequartista, there are more players ready to help cover defensively. We always need to find the right balance depending on the characteristics of the opponents we are up against."

Juventus' derby d'Italia against Inter will be one of five Serie A matches played behind closed doors this weekend due to ongoing fears over the spread of the coronavirus in Italy.

Milan's home fixture with Genoa, Udinese against Fiorentina, Parma's clash with SPAL and Brescia's trip to Sassuolo will also kick off in front of empty stadiums.

Inter's Europa League last-32 second-leg tie at home to Ludogorets on Thursday also took place without fans in attendance and a Serie A statement on Thursday confirmed their trip to Allianz Stadium would do likewise.

The Nerazzurri's fixture against Sampdoria was postponed last weekend in one of four Serie A abandonments.

Towns in northern Italy have been on lockdown after 229 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with seven people having died.

Speaking prior to the Ludogorets fixture, Inter boss and former Juve coach Antonio Conte told Sky Italia: "I think playing behind closed doors is not beautiful

"Football needs the public and to feel the whole atmosphere around it. It is the most beautiful thing.

"Having said that, we refer to the decisions made for health reasons, but I hope that everything will return to normal as soon as possible."

Inter are six points adrift of leaders Juve with a game in hand. 

Antonio Conte admitted games are not the same without the presence of fans as Inter prepare to host Ludogorets at an empty San Siro on Thursday.

UEFA announced Inter and Ludogorets will meet behind closed doors in the second leg of their Europa League tie due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak in Italy.

And Inter travel to title rivals Juve just three days later, with six points separating the sides as third visits first in Serie A.

It has not yet been confirmed whether fans will be allowed to attend the Derby d'Italia, but Nerazzurri coach Conte is keen to see supporters allowed inside the Allianz Stadium.

"I think playing behind closed doors is not beautiful," Conte told Sky Sport Italia. "Football needs the public and to feel the whole atmosphere around it. It is the most beautiful thing.

"Having said that, we refer to the decisions made for health reasons, but I hope that everything will return to normal as soon as possible."

The outbreak of the virus, which originated in China, saw Inter's clash with Sampdoria one of four Serie A fixtures to be postponed last Sunday.

But after returning to action against Ludogorets, Conte's side have a crucial stretch with matches against Juve and then Napoli, who hold a 1-0 first-leg lead in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

"We have a very concentrated schedule," Conte said. "The fact that the match with Samp has been postponed changed the situation a bit.

"But we trained to prepare for this cycle of matches: only at the end will we see what Inter can do."

Inter boss Antonio Conte is not concerned about Lautaro Martinez's head being turned after the striker was lauded by Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

Martinez has been strongly linked with a move to Camp Nou as a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez and was this week hailed as "spectacular" by compatriot Messi.

The 22-year-old reportedly has a €111m release clause in his contract and has also been touted as a possible target for Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid.

Despite the growing interest in Martinez, however, Conte is confident the Argentina international is only focused on helping Inter.

"The boy is fully concentrated," Conte said at a news conference on Saturday. "He is doing well and must continue in this way. 

"He has grown a lot over the last year and is only 22. He is committed and I am happy to have him available."

Inter recovered from back-to-back defeats in the league and cup with a 2-0 win over Ludogorets in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday.

Conte's men face a quick turnaround for Sunday's visit of Sampdoria in Serie A and the head coach is anticipating a difficult test against the relegation battlers.

"Playing on a Thursday makes things difficult as you only have one day to prepare for the next game," he said. "It is something we will get used to over time.

"Sampdoria are in good shape, despite losing last week. We will have to be very focused to get the three points.

"They have a highly experienced coach in Claudio Ranieri and experienced players like Fabio Quagliarella, who amazes me every year."

Conte will wait until Sunday before making a decision on whether to start Marcelo Brozovic, who has been struggling with a knock but took part in training on Saturday.

Brozovic's return could see Christian Eriksen used in an advanced midfield position behind Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, with Conte happy to try out different formations.

"It depends on the game and the opponent. You can try different things but don't forget you have to field a balanced team," he said. "We will see if this is the right time to do it."

Christian Eriksen is yet to reach peak physical condition after joining Inter from Tottenham, according to head coach Antonio Conte.

Eriksen, who signed for the Serie A club in January, scored his first goal for Inter in Thursday's 2-0 Europa League last-32 win away at Ludogorets.

The Denmark international opened the scoring with a fine strike and also hit the crossbar with a powerful drive before Romelu Lukaku's late penalty put the Nerazzurri in complete control ahead of next week's second leg in Milan.

However, Conte feels there is a lot more to come from Eriksen.

"I'm happy for him, the goal always gives confidence," Conte told Sky Sport Italia after Inter bounced back from successive domestic defeats in Bulgaria.

"Christian just needs to work to find the right physical condition, to find the brilliance of his best moments at Tottenham.

"He can do even more than what he showed us today, but we are very happy because we know what he can give us."

Inter were again without goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, although deputy Daniele Padelli was completely untested as Ludogorets mustered only a single shot.

"It is a situation that we monitor day by day," Conte said of Handanovic, who has a hand injury.

"We have confidence in Daniele Padelli, and when he is ready to resume his place, he will. Until then, we continue with Padelli."

Christian Eriksen can help to raise Inter's collective level once he adapts to the side, according to head coach Antonio Conte.

The Denmark international has featured five times for Inter since completing a reported €20m (£16.9m) move from Tottenham in the January transfer window.

He has been restricted to one start and has yet to score or assist a goal for his new club, but Conte has called for patience before seeing the best of Eriksen in an Inter shirt.

"I see too much anxiety and little serenity," he said at Wednesday's news conference. "There is great serenity on our part. 

"The player wants to make himself available and we are calm.

"Every single player must think about improving himself, without thinking about who is next to him. We need individual growth, which can be put into the collective."

Conte will wait until Thursday before deciding whether to start Eriksen in the first leg of Inter's Europa League last-32 tie with Ludogorets.

Alexis Sanchez is also in line to feature from the start at Ludogorets Arena and Conte expects to see more from the on-loan forward once he gets a run of games under his belt.

"He has come back from a bad injury - he's been out for three months," Conte told reporters. 

"He is recovering well and is ready to start the game. We are talking about a player who hasn't played much in the last two years.

"He has to find the best physical shape and in this way it can help us achieve our goals."

Inter make the trip to Bulgaria on the back of just a second Serie A loss of the campaign last weekend, a 2-1 defeat to Lazio seeing them drop to third in Serie A.

"We were disappointed by the result, but not the performance," Conte said. "Lazio are one of the form sides in Italy right now.

"We put in a good performance and resume with our belief and our desire to improve - that must be our only objective.

"We're in Europe and it's right to give it our best, respect the competition as much as possible."

Antonio Conte said Scudetto challengers Inter gifted two goals to Lazio and were "scared" in the second half of their 2-1 Serie A loss on Sunday.

Inter's half-time lead was erased as Ciro Immobile and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic completed a comeback for Lazio, who leapfrogged the Nerazzurri into second position.

Conte's side started the weekend ahead of defending champions Juventus on goal difference but by the end of their trip to Rome, Inter were three points off the pace in the race for the Scudetto.

After the blockbuster showdown in the Italian capital, Inter head coach Conte told Sky Sport Italia: "I think it was a good performance, it's the result I didn't like and the way we conceded the two goals, as we gifted them to Lazio.

"We were not impeccable, but inevitably in these big games, the details become decisive and the margin of error becomes reduced. It's part of a growth process, there was some naivete and these lads must try to be more relaxed in these situations.

"We were too soft on the two goals. We had other situations this season where we had taken the lead and threw points away, for example also Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund [in the Champions League], games we had in our grasp and ended up losing.

"As I said, this is a growth process and we have to go through it so that we can face every situation the right way. Straight after the restart, it was as if we were scared. That has to improve.

"The lads worked hard and I thank them for that. We are trying to irritate the teams at the top, it was a 'head-to-head' with Lazio and we ought to be proud to have been in this situation in the first place. At the same time, we must improve if we are to continue causing problems up there."

Ashley Young had given Inter the lead on the stroke of half-time – the former Manchester United captain and full-back becoming the first English scorer for the Nerazzurri in Serie A since Paul Ince in 1997.

Young has impressed since arriving from Old Trafford in January and the veteran said: "We've got a lot of games coming up, we've got to dust ourselves off pretty quick and get ready for the next game.

"Of course we're still in it [title race], there are plenty of games, plenty of points up for grabs and I'm sure we'll get back to winning ways."

Antonio Conte is convinced Lautaro Martinez remains fully focused on Inter amid speculation linking the striker with a move away from San Siro.

Martinez has shone for Inter alongside Romelu Lukaku this term, scoring 16 goals across all competitions for the Serie A leaders.

His form has seen him linked with a transfer to some of Europe's other major clubs, with Barcelona reportedly eager to secure the 22-year-old as a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.

Conte, though, dismissed the suggestion Martinez will be disrupted by speculation over his future.

"Lautaro is only 22, but he is very mature. He has a wise head on his shoulders," Conte told a news conference ahead of Sunday's crunch Serie A encounter with title rivals Lazio.

"Transfer rumours mean very little. There is always paper talk. Players remain focused throughout.

"The players know what is asked of them. Rumours count for very little, zero. Players need to focus on the pitch."

Conte insists Inter's entire focus is on maintaining their title challenge, though he believes they will face a Lazio side that is ahead of the Nerazzurri in terms of their development on Sunday. 

"Winning is not easy, especially in Italy. In recent years only one team has won the league," Conte added. 

"It is similar in France and Germany. Lazio have won cups and trophies recently but it has taken time. They have kept the core of the squad. Plus they have strengthened each year. They are a strong side, who are ahead of us in terms of their journey. 

"Lazio have worked well off the pitch, work and planning is important, but so is patience. You need time and patience in football. That is the only way to grow which is our aim."

Antonio Conte feels Inter's derby victory over Milan took away a lot of "nervous" energy as his side fell to a limp Coppa Italia semi-final first-leg loss at home to Napoli.

The Nerazzurri fought back to defeat their rivals 4-2 in a barnstorming Serie A encounter on Sunday.

It was a different story on this occasion, though, as Inter struggled to get out of second gear and succumbed to a 1-0 loss thanks to Fabian Ruiz's excellent second-half strike.

Speaking to Rai after the game, head coach Conte said: "The derby took away a lot of energy, especially nervous. 

"I made five changes from Sunday to bring in fresh legs, but Napoli beat Juventus, Lazio and Liverpool this season, so that means they've got quality there. 

"I'd say that, after Juventus, Napoli have the most impressive squad in Serie A.

"Gennaro Gattuso was smart to sit back, wait and go on the counter. We had the chances and it would've been a fair result if we had played out a draw.

"When you're up against defensive teams like this, you have to move the ball around faster and create spaces.

"We are at the start of this journey, so if some think we are at the same level as a side that was at the top for many years, then I say we're a long way off and have to use these defeats to improve."

Christian Eriksen was again only among the Inter substitutes, with Conte explaining the Denmark playmaker is still finding his best form after being in and out of Tottenham's team.

"He is certainly a player of quality, he needs to rediscover that intensity, seeing as he hasn't played much in the last six months," the ex-Italy boss said of Inter's January arrival.

Antonio Conte believes "everything will depend on Juventus" in the Serie A title race despite Inter moving top of the table with Sunday's Derby della Madonnina win.

A second-half comeback saw Inter recover from 2-0 down to beat Milan 4-2 in a pulsating derby at San Siro.

Marcelo Brozovic, Matias Vecino, Stefan de Vrij and Romelu Lukaku scored in the second half, moving Inter level on points with Juventus.

But Conte said the title was not in Inter's hands, with Juve chasing a ninth straight Scudetto.

"It is a dream for us, as well as for Lazio. It can be like that also for Atalanta or Roma," the Inter head coach told a news conference.

"We are talking about a championship dominated by one team over the years that fully deserved to win.

Conte added: "Everything will depend on Juventus. I have heard also some Juventus players saying so.

"At the same time, we must be ready."

Goals from Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put Milan in control before Inter's fightback, with Conte's side drawing level just eight minutes into the second half.

Conte said Inter's improved depth was helping, having added Christian Eriksen, Ashley Young and Victor Moses to his squad in January.

"Honestly, we never had major physical problems," he said.

"The only issue is that in the first part of the season we had to play mostly with the same players.

"When the same people play every three days it is inevitable that you will pay a price in terms of physical condition.

"Today, we have the chance to make some more turnover."

Antonio Conte admitted Inter were at risk of "a hammering" before they came from two goals down to beat Milan 4-2 in the Derby della Madonnina and go top of the Serie A table.

Goals from Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic put Milan two ahead at half-time, but quickfire strikes from Marcelo Brozovic and Matias Vecino levelled the contest inside eight minutes of the restart.

Stefan de Vrij gave Inter the lead before Romelu Lukaku capped an unforgettable evening for the Nerazzurri with a stoppage-time goal, and Conte was full of praise for his gutsy side's comeback.

"It was a special night, that's for sure," Conte told Sky Sport Italia. "The first half saw us in real difficulty, perhaps more than we've ever been this season, and there was the risk of a hammering.

"Instead, we did well to get the balance back, to understand where we had to improve, to have faith in what we were doing and the credit goes to these lads.

"Aside from the result, I am happy to see them resist under blows and turn it around, as that means they are preparing for something truly important.

"It's still very early to talk about something we can for now dream of. We can have a dream."

Despite Inter's second-half transformation, Conte had little to say about his half-time team-talk and instead claimed his share of responsibility for a calamitous first-half display.

Inter face Napoli in their Coppa Italia semi-final first leg on Wednesday before taking on fellow title-chasers Lazio in Serie A on Sunday, and Conte looked ahead to a crucial run of games.

"It's going to be a very intense period for us coming up and, after that, I think we'll have a better idea of our potential and our real capabilities," said the Inter boss.

"We can't achieve everything from one day to the next, but we are building. These lads proved they have great strength and guts today.

"I didn't need to talk much at half-time. I think in difficult situations, you have to be very clear and take responsibility. I had a large share of the responsibility for the fact we were losing 2-0 at half-time.

"We stayed together, from start to finish, and found our way out of a tough situation. We have to keep this evening in mind, as it will help us be a team in future and deal with similar difficulties."

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