One story is dominating the sporting agenda in Spain on Saturday: Xavi's potential return to Barcelona.

The Catalan giants have reportedly earmarked the club great to take over from the under-pressure Ernesto Valverde at the end of the season, and held informal discussions with him on Friday in Doha.

Xavi, 39, is currently coach at Al Sadd but would likely relish a return to Camp Nou, where he won eight LaLiga titles and four Champions League trophies during a glittering playing career.

A strong affinity with a club is not a guarantee of success, however, and we have taken a look at eight other examples of players returning to manage teams they starred for.

 

HITS

Pep Guardiola

After leaving Barcelona as a player in 2001, Guardiola returned as the Barca B boss in 2007 before being promoted to head coach of the first team a year later. Over four years in charge at Camp Nou he led the Blaugrana to 14 trophies, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League crowns. Success has continued to come Guardiola's way with Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane

World Cup winner Zidane was part of Real Madrid's 'Galacticos' in the early 2000s and he finished his playing career at the Santiago Bernabeu. Like Guardiola, he returned to oversee the second team before stepping up to the top job after the departure of Rafael Benitez in January 2016. Zidane went on to win an unprecedented three successive Champions League titles with Madrid before stepping away in May 2018, only to return 10 months later.

Antonio Conte

In 13 seasons as a player for Juventus, Conte won almost everything there is to win – five league titles, the Coppa Italia, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He moved into management two years after retiring and worked his way back to Juve after spells with Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena. Juve won three straight Scudetti under Conte – the start of their ongoing dominance – before he accepted the Italy job. He is now back in Serie A and thriving with the Old Lady's bitter rivals Inter.

Roberto Di Matteo

Like Lampard, Di Matteo accepted the top job at Chelsea in 2012, having previously been assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. Di Matteo – who won the FA Cup twice with the Blues as a player – went on to lift two trophies as Chelsea boss, including their first Champions League title with a penalty shoot-out win over Bayern Munich, but he was discarded early in the following season.

MISSES

Alan Shearer

Record Premier League goalscorer, Newcastle United legend and lethal England striker – Shearer's playing career was full of success. When he retired in 2006, Shearer moved into television as a pundit, but when the Magpies came calling in 2009 he stepped in to try and save them from relegation. Sadly for Shearer he was unsuccessful, his eight-game reign ending in Newcastle slipping out of the top flight after a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day.

Filippo Inzaghi

Employing former players as head coaches had previously worked well for AC Milan – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti proving particularly successful. When the Rossoneri turned to Inzaghi in 2014 after Clarence Seedorf's brief tenure, the move was therefore no surprise. However, the former striker – who won eight major trophies at the club in his playing days – flopped, winning 14 of his 40 matches in charge as Milan finished 10th, their worst league finish in 17 years.

Thierry Henry

Henry made his name at Monaco after breaking into the first team in 1994, the forward going on to become a world champion and a Premier League icon with Arsenal. After a period as youth coach with the Gunners, Henry was named as Belgium boss Roberto Martinez's assistant. Permanent roles with Bordeaux and Aston Villa were mooted, but in October 2018 Henry chose Monaco. He lasted just three months, losing 11 of his 20 matches in charge across all competitions before being replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the man he had succeeded.

Juan Jose Lopez

One of the most decorated players in River Plate history, having won seven league titles in an 11-year spell, Lopez was a popular appointment after making a strong impact in his second period as caretaker manager in 2010. However, he subsequently presided over a poor 2011 Clausura campaign, forcing River into a play-off against Belgrano, who won 3-1 on aggregate. It was the first time River dropped out of the top tier, sparking riots which left many people injured.

Inter coach Antonio Conte has welcomed Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to Serie A following his move to rivals Milan and recounted attempting to take him to Chelsea.

Ibrahimovic, 38, became a free agent after his contract with LA Galaxy expired at the end of the 2019 MLS season and a return to Italy always looked his most likely next step.

Napoli and Bologna were both linked with the Swede, but he ultimately opted for Milan, whom he previously spent two years with – the first on loan from Barcelona – until 2012.

Ibrahimovic made his second comeback from the bench in Monday's clash with Sampdoria but was unable to inspire Stefano Pioli's men to victory, as they were held to a goalless draw at San Siro.

Conte expects the former Manchester United, Barca, Inter and Paris Saint-Germain striker to make a big impact at Milan, however, and lauded the personality of the man he tried to lure to Stamford Bridge.

“First of all, I want to say welcome back Ibra," Conte told reporters ahead of Saturday's Serie A clash with Atalanta.

"He is a great champion. I tried to get him when I was at Chelsea. I have a lot of respect for him, he has lots of personality after having a tough upbringing - he is a great player.

"I think he can give Milan a lot. His personality will help Milan, he will help the others grow. I think it is important for coaches to have players who lead the way, players who know what you want and lead the team.

"I think this is vital for a coach to have in a team. When a coach has those players then things are a lot easier."

Inter have been strongly linked with several players in the transfer window after such an impressive first half of the season.

Christian Eriksen, Arturo Vidal and Ashley Young are all said to be key targets, though Conte was not forthcoming regarding potential new arrivals.

"I have said in the past that I will not talk about it," he said. "It is pointless asking me these questions.

"I don't want to be rude, but I will not talk about the transfer market. That is something for the club, not me.

"The January transfer window is always a bit peculiar. One must also be smart and understand that there can be many voices [publications].

"The right weight must be given, but for us coaches it is a difficult month to handle certain situations.

"Sometimes untrue news comes out and you find yourself having to prepare a game while untrue rumours come out, but football is also this, you have to face this and be smart."

Antonio Conte hit back at critics of Inter and star forward Romelu Lukaku after his high-flying side stayed level on points with Juventus atop Serie A.

Lukaku scored twice as Inter defeated Napoli 3-1 away from home on Monday, following Juve's 4-0 rout of Cagliari earlier in the day.

After celebrating his 100th Serie A victory as a coach, Conte responded to comments about Inter's counter-attacking strength.

"I don't think Inter defended and went on the counter, as we tried to press Napoli right on the edge of their own area for the whole game," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"I hear people always saying we play counter-attacking football, but this is a side that knows what it has to do every time it is in possession.

"We play knowing full well everything we have to do at any moment of the match. Fortunately, our opponents respect us more than the media seem to. People say we win away because we defend deep and go on the counter, but that is certainly not our approach."

Inter's record signing Lukaku took his Serie A tally to 14 goals this season thanks to his brace at the San Paolo, where Lautaro Martinez was also on target.

Lukaku has starred since arriving from Manchester United, where he only managed 12 Premier League goals in 32 appearances last season.

"I heard people say Lukaku was a donkey. I heard all sorts not even that long ago! It's easy to speak highly of Lukaku now, but if we look back to a few weeks ago…" Conte said.

"I always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed work to smooth him out. Lautaro Martinez is the same. These lads are 26 and 22 years old, they are still young.

"I wanted Romelu very strongly when I was at Chelsea, even back at Juventus. I wanted him, now I can get to work on polishing the diamond."

Antonio Conte registered his 100th win as a coach in Serie A by leading Inter to a 3-1 victory over Napoli on Monday.

Inter boss Conte reached the milestone thanks to Romelu Lukaku's first-half double and Lautaro Martinez's goal after the break at the San Paolo, where the Nerazzurri claimed their first league triumph since October 1997.

The former Italy boss became the fastest manager to reach triple figures for wins among those who made their Serie A coaching debut from 1994-95 onwards.

Conte's first win in the division was a 3-1 success at Udinese during a stint in charge of Atalanta in the 2009-10 season.

After a spell in the second tier with Siena, Conte took charge of Juventus in 2011 and led them to three successive Scudetti.

Inter's victory over Napoli was their 14th of the season and saw them regain their place at the top of Serie A at the expense of Juve, who beat Cagliari 4-0 earlier in the day.

Romelu Lukaku scored a double as Inter comfortably beat Napoli 3-1 for their first Serie A win at the San Paolo in just over 22 years.

Inter were on Monday briefly replaced at the top of the league by Juventus, who downed Cagliari 4-0, but regained their spot at the summit with an impressive triumph.

Lukaku struck twice in the first half, the second coming thanks to a blunder from Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret, before Arkadiusz Milik halved the deficit in the 39th minute.

Lautaro Martinez made sure of the result in the second half, with the victory Antonio Conte's 100th as a coach in Serie A.

Giovanni Di Lorenzo was punished for an unfortunate slip in the 14th minute, as Lukaku latched onto the loose ball and raced forward to fire in off the left post.

Meret did well to deny Matias Vecino and Martinez but he undid his good work in the 33rd minute when he diverted Lukaku's powerful drive from 18 yards between his own legs and in.

Napoli stayed positive and, after Samir Handanovic just about kept out Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon squared Piotr Zielinski's diagonal delivery into the six-yard box for Milik to tap home before the break.

The tempo dropped off in the second half but Inter again made Napoli pay for an error. Kostas Manolas was unable to clear Vecino's right-wing delivery and instead teed up Martinez to stab home with 62 minutes played.

Tempers flared when Fabian Ruiz forcefully kicked the ball into the Inter dugout, with Sebastiano Esposito and Antonio Conte going into the book for their reactions.

Insigne clipped the crossbar with a 20-yard free-kick as Napoli proved unable to spark a comeback.

Martinez almost doubled his tally in stoppage time but, after rounding Meret, was dispossessed by Di Lorenzo, who looked fortunate not to concede a penalty for his challenge.

 

What does it mean? Conte brings up his ton

Conte's first win as a Serie A coach came in October 2009 while in charge of Atalanta and he reached 100 victories in 145 matches. That is the quickest of any boss to have made their debut in the division from 1994-95 onwards. He will hope to keep up the impressive pace and lead Inter to their first Scudetto since 2010.

Lukaku looking sharp

Lukaku has been prolific away from home this season and now has 10 goals in his nine appearances on the road. He was a threat from the off and thoroughly deserved his brace.

A demerit for Napoli's keeper

After making decent saves from Vecino and Martinez, Meret committed a howler when he let Lukaku's stinging shot squirm through him to hand Inter a 2-0 lead.

What's next?

Inter will be without Milan Skriniar after he was shown a fifth yellow card of the season when they entertain Atalanta at San Siro on Saturday, while Napoli head to Lazio the same day.

Antonio Conte believes he shares "the same passion" as Napoli boss Gennaro Gattuso as he prepares to take his table-topping Inter side to Stadio San Paolo.

Gattuso took charge of Napoli on December 11, replacing Carlo Ancelotti, and after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Parma he guided the Partenopei to victory at Sassuolo in his second game at the helm.

Conte has backed Gattuso to succeed in Naples and claims the former Milan boss was not given the praise he deserves for his near 18-month spell in charge of Inter's rivals.

"I see he has the same passion as me," Conte told reporters. "He has lots of desire to do well and, like me, he started in the lower leagues.

"I have lots of respect for him. He also coached abroad and had challenges. Not everyone is willing to do that or coach in the lower leagues. Other coaches might have it easier.

"Everything Gattuso has earned is down to his effort. With Milan, people underestimate how well he did as coach. Last season he did a very good job there. He deserves to be in charge of Napoli.

"We are in for a hard game in Naples. They have a lot of quality. Gattuso has come in for Ancelotti and will be very motivated. He is able to get the best out of his teams."

Inter are unbeaten in their last 10 Serie A matches and are top of the table by virtue of having a better goal difference than second-placed Juventus.

The Nerazzurri have been linked with January moves for Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal and Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen, but Conte admitted that it could take the club time to re-establish a reputation that can attract Europe's top players.

"This is part of a journey and It takes time," said Conte. "You cannot change things in a day.

"In recent years a gap has developed between Inter and the other top teams. I do not have a magic wand. We are taking our time and need patience too.

"We have young players who are developing all the time. Through hard work and effort we will improve the situation."

Buoyed by two wins from two as Everton manager, Carlo Ancelotti begins the new decade back in the division where he was the first title-winner of the previous one.

Tactical thought in the 2010s was dominated by the Dutch-Catalan school's influence, as Pep Guardiola refined Johan Cruyff's vision to stunning effect with his dominant Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City sides, throwing in some South American seasoning as a Marcelo Bielsa disciple.

Guardiola, of course, has a more than worthy adversary in Jurgen Klopp, who looks to be at the beginning of his own imperial period at Liverpool. The gegenpressing master has refined his high-octane approach to find something utterly relentless – more motorik krautrock than heavy metal football.

Whenever major clubs make a managerial appointment nowadays, talk of "philosophy" and an overarching vision are rarely far away. This is the age of high-concept football.

Amid all of this, despite Serie A losing some of its lustre and the Azzurri humiliatingly failing to make the 2018 World Cup, Italian coaching remains something of a gold standard.

Ancelotti was the first of four of his compatriots to win the Premier League in the 2010s. Roberto Mancini lifted Manchester City's first English title for 44 years in 2011-12, leaving in place foundations Guardiola has built handsomely upon.

Mancini is now in charge of an Italy side that has not looked in such good health since Antonio Conte's time at the helm. Former Juventus boss Conte left after Euro 2016 and promptly won the Premier League with Chelsea. In doing so, he followed a countryman into the winner's enclosure.

Claudio Ranieri's 2015-16 march to glory with Leicester City stands apart as the outstanding club football achievement of the past 10 years.

A mix of football cultures

Ranieri and ex-Bayern Munich boss Ancelotti have also worked with distinction in Spain and France, while Mancini's route back to home came via stints at Galatasaray and Zenit.

All four men have some similarities in their approaches but do not speak of a uniform style. They are testament to the flexible and shape-shifting qualities of an ingrained Italian tradition.

"We have to make a mix of our football culture with the cultures of other European countries," said Renzo Ulivieri, the director of the Scuola Allenatori – Italy's coaching school.

"I think that our best quality is we are not closed, but we are open to other football cultures. We mix our culture with others."

Omnisport spoke to Ulivieri during a visit to the Italian Football Federation (FIGC)'s Coverciano headquarters, which was bathed in the glow of late autumn sunshine last month.

A picturesque location around five kilometres east of Florence, nestled below Monte Cereci where Leonardo da Vinci tested his flying machine half a century ago, Coverciano is where the latest generation of Italian coaches seek to take their country's proud tradition of tactical excellence to new heights.

Along with being home to all of Italy's national squads and a treasure trove of a museum celebrating each of their four World Cup triumphs, Coverciano is a campus that exists as football's equivalent to Harvard and Oxford.

Ulvieri oversees the UEFA Pro License course, already known as Il Master before it took on the standards of the highest coaching qualification set by European football's governing body.

Back to school with Pirlo and Toni

A Coverciano coaching education still stands apart. Alongside intensive tactical and technical elements, psychology, communication and sports medicine form part of the studies.

Andrea Pirlo, Luca Toni, Thiago Motta and Walter Samuel were among the 2019-20 intake, who found themselves trading free afternoons following training for eight-hour classroom days.

The course concludes with a set of oral exams and the completion of a detailed tactical thesis, which students present in the same oak-panelled room where we sat down with Ulivieri, resplendent in a federation tracksuit and speaking via an interpreter with a twinkle-eyed enthusiasm that belied his 78 years.

"It's a sort of obsessive thing for me," he said, when discussing the adaptability that has helped Italian coaches continue to thrive throughout a fast-changing period.

"A football coach has to arrange things with the players that he has. Being able to arrange is the main topic because, for the names like Marco Rossi, the coach of Hungary, it is more difficult to be a coach in these countries, instead of being a coach in France, in England.

"Italian people are a population who travel so much, so they have to arrange to go in other cultures. I want to explain to [the students] what will be their future life.

"There are some coaches, for example, who make a good season and then the other seasons are not so good. These are coaches who have not adjusted their football and arranged for the players they have.

"The future of football will be with a very big flexibility in tactics, because the tactics of a football team do not only change from match to match but also within the same match. Now we are seeing this. In future, football teams will play in two or three different ways."

A passion for tactics

Ulivieri's longevity is evidence he practiced what he preached.

Starting as an amateur coach in the mid-1960s in his native Tuscany – a region he still proudly proclaims to be a hotbed, with the exploits of Massimiliano Allegri, Maurizio Sarri and others backing up the point – Ulivieri boasts a bulging Serie A CV that features spells in charge of a young Mancini at Sampdoria, Cagliari, Parma, Napoli, Torino and Roberto Baggio's renaissance at Bologna.

His last top division post was with Reggina in 2007-08, although the obsession remains.

Alongside his day job at Coverciano, Ulivieri continues to coach women's Serie C side Pontedera, where he is still keen to throw around the odd bold tactical scheme.

"With the team, we are in a low level but I am still a coach because I have the passion and I want to try something. I want to try some tactical concepts on the field," he explained.

"Recently, I was speaking and I told them we will make a tactical approach that no team is doing."

Asked to elaborate, Ulivieri eagerly took Omnisport's notepad and sketched out a sort of 4-2-4 formation, featuring a rhombus of forwards where width would be provided by the central midfielders overlapping into wide areas.

A discussion of Sheffield United's successful adaptation to the Premier League followed, with Ulivieri fascinated to learn of Chris Wilder's roving wide centre-backs.

"I will study it," he exclaimed, before sounding a note of caution for Wilder and his contemporaries.

"In the past, tactical innovation could last four years, now maybe one year. We have to change always."

Back to the future

Coverciano's latest intake studied England's 1966 World Cup winners towards the end of 2019, with Ulivieri highlighting the movements of Roger Hunt, Martin Peters and Bobby Charlton as useful ploys against zonal defences of the modern day.

"Sometimes the past comes back," he said. "When Guardiola says my first forward is the space, before Guardiola was England with Bobby Charlton and the great Hungary team before that.

"Ideas in football come back always. We have to know everything. We have to know the past but we have to guess the future. Guessing the future is our main topic."

So, what will that future look like?

"More flexible," Ulivieri reiterated. "We will work for principles, not for schemes. We see this today in the big teams with big players.

"In the future, we will have players who are able to do many things, not just one. These things [Sheffield United's tactics] would be unthinkable with the players of 20 years ago. These players have to be athletic.

"In the future, we will have players who will be able to play here, there and in all parts of the field."

Thanks to their impeccable education and tradition, if feels safe to assume Coverciano's next alumni will lead these versatile stars with distinction, leaving their marks all over the 2020s as their predecessors did in the decade just passed.

Sebastiano Esposito spoke of his gratitude to team-mate Romelu Lukaku after his Inter strike partner allowed him to take a penalty he then converted in an historic appearance against Genoa.

With Lautaro Martinez suspended amid a host of other absences, 17-year-old Esposito made his first Serie A start for Inter on Saturday in an emphatic 4-0 home win that put Antonio Conte's men top of Serie A.

He was the youngest player to begin a Serie A game for the club in the 21st century and then became their second-youngest league scorer when he netted a 64th-minute penalty.

With Inter two goals ahead, designated spot-kick taker Lukaku – who inspired the win with two goals along with an assist for Roberto Gagliardini - accepted Esposito's request to hand the ball over, allowing the youngster to fire past goalkeeper Ionut Radu.

"I found myself in sync with Romelu right away, he's a fantastic person who's always looking to help me," Esposito, who celebrated the goal with his mother, said to Sky Sport Italia.

"He reassured me a lot by saying that everything would go alright and I'm so happy to have scored. 

"It's been a fantastic week, I can't lie, I didn't sleep a lot thinking about how this game would go. I'd like to thank the team, the coach, the club and Romelu especially for the goal. 

"He's a fantastic person and an extraordinary player. He told me to be sure of myself when I stepped up to strike the ball and to score.

"I'm happy with the win and with the faith that the coach has shown in me, now the more difficult part is coming and we'll need to work hard. 

"All of the sacrifices I've made are now bearing fruit and I hope that I can continue on this path because there's still a lot of work to be done."

The comprehensive victory by a depleted Inter side was a timely one after a three-game winless run that included their Champions League group-stage elimination.

Conte said: "We didn't need to wait for this game to say that the team has grown in every aspect.

"The difficulties faced have made the squad more responsible and meant that everyone has been involved. This shows that we've always had the right attitude and that includes those who have played less.

"We put in a brilliant performance despite all the difficulties and players missing. Gagliardini, Matias Vecino and Borja Valero made themselves available even though they weren't in the best condition.

"When you have these players who put the team ahead of everything, you can be pleased regardless of the result. Now, we need to keep it up and keep surprising people."

Sebastiano Esposito made history while Romelu Lukaku got two goals and an assist as a depleted Inter thumped Genoa 4-0 at home to ensure they will end 2019 top of Serie A.

Inter scored twice in 99 seconds just after the half-hour mark set up the emphatic win at San Siro on Saturday, Lukaku netting a header that was followed up by a Roberto Gagliardini strike as Antonio Conte's men moved above Juventus on goal difference.

At 17, Esposito became Inter's youngest player to start a Serie A match in the 21st century as Conte shuffled his pack due to a host of absentees and the teenager made sure of victory with a second-half penalty, before Lukaku – who had allowed him to take the spot-kick – struck once more.

Former Inter midfielder Thiago Motta is likely to lose his job as Genoa boss after his uninspired side were left with only two wins from 17 league games heading into the festive break.

Esposito had the first chance as he forced a low save from Ionut Radu, who then had to produce an even better stop from a looping Gagliardini header.

There was little Radu – who is on loan at Genoa from Inter - could do to prevent the opener, though, Lukaku stooping to power in Antonio Candreva's right-wing cross from eight yards.

The goalkeeper got a hand on Gagliardini's 12-yard strike but could not prevent it from crossing the line after a deflection off Cristian Romero, Lukaku having shown good strength to set up his team-mate.

Samir Handanovic made his first save from Antonio Sanabria but Inter got a 64th-minute penalty when Kevin Agudelo tripped Gagliardini and Esposito did the rest, powering a low strike beyond Radu to become the club's second youngest league scorer.

Lukaku's second was the pick of the goals, the striker collecting a pass from Candreva, cutting inside from the right and arrowing an unstoppable effort into the top corner.

 

What does it mean? Inter back on track despite absences

Inter had Lautaro Martinez and Marcelo Brozovic suspended, while Alexis Sanchez, Nicolo Barella and Kwadwo Asamoah were all injured, with Stefano Sensi just fit for bench.

Considering they came into the game winless in three across all competitions and having crashed out of the Champions League, they will be thrilled with a comprehensive victory. On the three previous occasions the Nerazzurri have had 42 points after 17 matches, they have won the league.

Lukaku steps up for Inter

With Martinez out, Lukaku produced a fine display in attack and could have easily ended with a hat-trick had he opted to take the penalty or converted a great chance just after the break. Gagliardini also enjoyed an impressive outing.

Romero struggles in defence

Romero struggled along with most of his Genoa team-mates as he was outmuscled by Lukaku ahead of the second goal and then deflected Gagliardini's effort in as he tried to make up for it. 

Just after the interval, Radu somehow saved Lukaku's effort, which had only come about after Romero cleared the ball straight into his path.

What's next? 

After the break, leaders Inter will return to action with a testing match away to Napoli on January 6, a day after Genoa host Sassuolo.

Antonio Conte says Inter cannot use injuries as an excuse as they aim to finish the year top of Serie A.

Inter are winless in three games across all competitions, crashing out of the Champions League and being leapfrogged by champions Juventus in the table.

Alexis Sanchez, Stefano Sensi, Nicolo Barella, Roberto Gagliardini, Antonio Candreva and Kwadwo Asamoah are all expected to miss Saturday's home game against Genoa.

Conte indicated he will give players every chance to recover in time for the match but he is not going to gamble on players' fitness ahead of the mid-season break.

"There is still a [training] session to go. We will not take risks," he told reporters on Friday. "We have Brozo [Marcelo Brozovic] and Lautaro [Martinez] suspended too.

"We are short on players but will give our all. We will not use this as an excuse. We will give everything we have, I am sure. The fans will play their part too against Genoa.

"I was worried about the situation in the past. We have had lots of players out and it has not been easy. I have had to always rely on the same players. I could not rotate my squad. But let us get to the break and then we will see."

Inter being without on-loan forward Sanchez has been particularly key, the Chile international having been out of action for two months.

"The injury was a real blow to Sanchez and for us," Conte added. "In this time, I have always had to rely on Lautaro and [Romelu] Lukaku.

"They have always been available and have done a good job. [Sebastiano] Esposito has also grown as a player too. But Sanchez cannot wait to get playing again.

"He is very competitive, he is chomping at the bit. We will need to respect the recovery time. The medical staff will keep us posted. I am certain he will be back soon and he will help us."

Asked to reflect on his time at the club so far going into the break, Conte said: "The more time goes by, the more I am part of the club. We have been working hard and giving our all.

"There have been challenges and difficulties along the way so far, but I knew it would not be easy and that this was the start of the process.

"We are all working hard to take this club far and to the top again. We need to leave our mark, as I have often said in the past.

"That does not necessarily mean trophies. It means laying solid foundations as a club. It means instilling the right work ethic and culture."

Nemanja Matic is unsure whether his future lies at Manchester United, despite holding discussions with the club about his situation.

The 31-year-old midfielder was brought to Old Trafford in 2017 by his former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, and he played in all but two of the club's 38 Premier League games in his debut season at United.

However, with Mourinho replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a year ago, Matic – who has only just returned from a groin injury – is no longer considered a first-team regular.

He has made just two Premier League starts this season and has been linked with a move away from the club in January, with Matic open-minded about what will happen.

"To be honest, I don't know yet what I'm going to do," he told Omnisport.

"I spoke with the club, I said that until my last day at the club I will do my best and be professional.

"In football, you never know what's going to happen. My family is happy here, I'm happy, so we will see what the next step is, if I will leave or stay, but whatever we decide I'm sure that we will decide for the best."

Matic's contract runs out after this season and Serie A giants Inter are rumoured to be keen on bringing the Serbian to Italy.

The Nerazzurri, who signed Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez from United in the last transfer window, are led by coach Antonio Conte, Matic's former boss at Chelsea.

Conte clearly left an impression on Matic, who was effusive in his praise of the ex-Italy head coach.

"Antonio is crazy about football," Matic revealed.

"I think in 24 hours he thinks about football. He works a lot, he analyses the opponents very well, also his team. Tactically, he is one of the best coaches in the world for sure.

"Physically, his teams are ready to run 95 minutes at the same level. [He is a] Very professional coach and for sure one of the best in the world.

"I am sure that he will make big things at Inter because with his work he will make it and he deserves it."

Antonio Conte has said Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku "need a breather" after Inter were pegged back late on against Fiorentina.

Borja Valero's early goal looked to be enough to be sending Conte's side two points clear of Juventus at the top of Serie A on Sunday, but Inter were ultimately made to pay for some wasteful finishing.

Substitute Dusan Vlahovic was the hero for Fiorentina, picking up the ball in his own half before driving clear of Inter's defence and thumping a fine finish beyond Samir Handanovic in stoppage time.

Conte, whose side dropped out of the Champions League in midweek due to a last-gasp defeat to Barcelona, believes fatigue is proving the crucial factor in Inter's concession of late goals, as well as Martinez and Lukaku's shows of profligacy, with both players passing up great opportunities against Fiorentina.

"It's hard to talk about fitness levels, because we've had seven games in 21 days, with Lautaro and Lukaku playing constantly," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"Unfortunately, the Alexis Sanchez injury left us in a situation where we couldn't give them any respite, so I can only thank them. These players need a breather, but we cannot afford to give it to them.

"These are games where we didn't take the results we deserved. Against Barcelona, we paid for wasting several chances to score and allowing two situations where we could've done a lot better.

"It was a strong response from the team. It’s disappointing about that late equaliser, because we deserved more, both tonight and against Barcelona.

"I don't think we can complain about the effort or attitude of these lads. It is a growth process, we need patience to learn from mistakes. If we don't have patience and assume we must win every game because we are Inter, then we're not progressing.

"We are talking about players who are constantly going out there and playing 90 minutes, so inevitably there is going to be some fatigue."

The draw has left Inter level on points with Juve heading into their final match of 2019, with the Nerazzurri taking on Genoa on Saturday.

However, they will have to do so without Martinez, who received his fifth booking of the season against Fiorentina, and Marcelo Brozovic, who is likewise suspended.

Dusan Vlahovic scored a spectacular late equaliser as Fiorentina fought back to draw 1-1 with Inter and hand Juventus a boost in the Serie A title race.

Borja Valero's early strike against his former club looked set to be enough to claim the points for Inter, who had temporarily fallen into second place due to Juve's comfortable win over Udinese earlier on Sunday.

However, having seen a goal ruled out by the VAR before squandering several gilt-edged chances, Antonio Conte's side were unable to double their lead.

Fiorentina took full advantage as teenager Vlahovic stepped up with a sensational solo strike in stoppage time to secure a lifeline for under-pressure coach Vincenzo Montella while ensuring Inter could only move level on points with Juve at the top.

 

Inter have cancelled their news conference in protest at Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport publishing what the club described as an "offensive letter" about head coach Antonio Conte.

Conte was due to speak to reporters to preview their away Serie A match against Fiorentina on Sunday.

But Inter released a statement saying the media session would not be going ahead because Corriere had published a critical letter and added their own comment indicating agreement with its content.

Inter's statement read: "Yesterday [Friday], the Corriere dello Sport published an offensive letter towards our coach, justifying its aggression in the comment.

"In order to send out a message to all media outlets that they must "guarantee respect for people", there won't be a press conference today."

Inter also clashed with Corriere earlier this month when striker Romelu Lukaku and former Manchester United team-mate Chris Smalling featured on a front page along with the headline "Black Friday" ahead of their meeting with Roma in Serie A.

Antonio Conte was rueful regarding Inter's poor finishing in Tuesday's costly 2-1 Champions League defeat to Barcelona but insisted he had "no complaints" after elimination from the competition.

Inter needed to at least match Borussia Dortmund's result against Slavia Prague, but the Germans claimed a 2-1 victory and the Nerazzurri did not do enough in San Siro.

Despite early dominance and a flurry of chances, Inter found themselves trailing in the 23rd minute when Carles Perez swept home in composed fashion.

Romelu Lukaku equalised before half-time, but he was otherwise wasteful and Ansu Fati, 17, secured Barca the three points four minutes from time to become the youngest Champions League scorer in history.

Conte acknowledged Inter had enough clear-cut opportunities to beat Barca.

"We had the chances to win the game, we created those opportunities, but lacked that clinical edge to convert them," he told reporters.

"I have no complaints to make, as my players gave their all. We just lacked a goal and instead conceded at the other end to go 2-1 down, which really killed us.

"Watching that Ansu Fati goal is painful, as it killed us in every way. We were pushing, creating the chances to score and go 2-1 up.

"I was also disappointed for the fans in San Siro, as they pushed us from start to finish and created a wonderful atmosphere. It should've ended differently.

"I think we deserved more in this group. Still, I think it's all valuable experience. We wanted to qualify, so there is disappointment from everyone right now, but as I told them, we have to raise our heads again."

Inter finished third in the group, meaning they will drop into the Europa League in the New Year. They will find out their next opponents in Monday's draw.

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