"You want to speak about my mother?"

Romelu Lukaku was seething. A yellow card and a stern talking to from referee Paolo Valeri having done nothing to lift the red mist.

Inter's diminutive playmaker Nicolo Barella attaching himself to Lukaku's torso in a bid to calm the powerhouse striker was one of the more memorable sights of an action-packed first 45 minutes in this Milan derby for a place in the Coppa Italia semi-finals.

Or the Derby della Madonnina, to give the game its full, grander title. A game that takes its name from a pristine golden statue of the Virgin Mary.

It seemed for all the world that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had not spoken about Lukaku's mother with such reverence.

Here was Milan's 39-year-old talisman, who suggested the youthful make-up of the Serie A leaders' XI was a factor in their 3-0 weekend defeat to Atalanta, deciding to display his own brand of leadership in the guise of juvenile schoolyard bully.

Ibrahimovic's crowing chuckle as mayhem unfurled around him (Arturo Vidal got involved - of course he did - for no apparent reason) was one of a player who had recently enjoyed a familiar feeling for the 499th time in his career.

Freed from shackles of their knife-edge Scudetto battle, both teams played with freedom and the intent to land a psychological blow. The fact each team had the same idea appeared to irritate all concerned, but it made for great entertainment.

It is doubtful Antonio Conte would consider such a cavalier selection in league combat as he rolled out on Inter's left flank here. Ivan Perisic was at wing-back, paying as much attention as you'd expect to the part of his position lurking after the hyphen.

That increased the defensive burden on Aleksandar Kolarov on, a defender who has worn 11 for the bulk of his career. Kolarov's shirt number is a statement of particular intent.

Ibrahimovic showed he recognised that point of weakness in the 13th minute, when he leapt athletically to meet a Rafael Leao cross, knocking Perisic and Kolarov to the ground in the process. Brahim Diaz was just unable to turn home.

Kolarov still seemed distracted when he backed off enough for the former Sweden international to fire though his legs and beyond Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic.

The script seemed written, goal 500 was surely on the way to take Ibrahimovic closer to yet another piece of silverware. Why not have some fun and wind up the opposition's star man.

Ibrahimovic's language and his message seemed appalling, with ESPN footage showing him at one point appearing to yell: "Go do your voodoo s***, you little donkey."

A flaw in the plan to rile Lukaku was the yellow card that Ibrahimovic received for his part in the spat. Not a problem in itself, but in the 58th minute he clumsily and needlessly fouled Kolarov to collect a second booking.

Displaying none of his vast experience, Ibrahimovic had gone from hero to villain to idiot within half an hour of playing time.

And so, it was over to the youngsters and backup players who the star striker sometimes seems to consider walk-on extras in his one-man show.

First there was on-loan defender Fikayo Tomori, who was quickly disabused of the notion he had escaped chaos by leaving Chelsea this week. Thrust into a debut by Simon Kjaer's first-half injury, he made a brilliant last-ditch block to deny Lukaku.

Alessio Romagnoli and Theo Hernandez defended heroically down the Milan left but reduced numbers forced willing attacking players back to man unfamiliar barricades. Leao was pressed into action and brought down Barella. After consulting the pitchside monitor Valeri pointed to the spot.

Lukaku has been known to roll his penalties home. On this occasion, he tested the structural integrity of the crossbar and the ball ricocheted into the turf and home. Then there was a shouting match with a team-mate (Yes, Vidal; nope, no idea).

Enough mayhem? Nonsense. Valeri had to limp out of the action injured. Fourth official Daniele Chiffi looked like he was putting on the microphone and headset for the first time in his life and 10 minutes of stoppage time were required.

In the seventh of those, wantaway midfielder Christian Eriksen curled home a sumptuous free-kick, leaving Ciprian Tatarusanu no chance to add to his fine catalogue of eight saves.

Last act for Eriksen? Maybe. Definitely last laugh for Lukaku.

Ibrahimovic likes to call himself a lion but Tatarusanu and the Milan players he left behind were the lions here, roaring defiantly at wave after wave of Inter attacks before buckling at the last. Nine of Inter's 27 shots were blocked.

After fatefully dwelling too long in self-parody at the end of the first half, Ibrahimovic owes them an apology, and surely Lukaku is also due one. Perhaps they shouldn't hold their breath.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic went from hero to villain in Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final defeat to rivals Inter as he was involved in an ugly incident with Romelu Lukaku and later sent off in a 2-1 reverse sealed at the death by Christian Eriksen.

Swedish striker Ibrahimovic went into the match just two short of a 500th career club goal and few would have bet against him reaching the milestone in the derby after putting Milan in front, but he was unable to see out a controversial encounter.

Having earned a first yellow card in an earlier altercation with Lukaku, who was clearly incensed by the 39-year-old's behaviour, Ibrahimovic was perhaps unfortunate to earn a second booking for what referee Paolo Valeri deemed a foul on Aleksandar Kolarov.

If Lukaku's mood was not already improved by Ibrahimovic's dismissal, he was definitely smiling after converting a 71st-minute penalty, and Eriksen's gorgeous late free-kick sealed Inter a spot in the semi-finals.

Antonio Conte has been given a two-match ban after he was shown a red card in the closing stages of Inter's goalless Serie A draw at Udinese on Saturday.

Conte was also fined €20,000 by Lega Serie A on Tuesday following a rant at referee Fabio Maresca as the Nerazzurri dropped points in the title race.

The Inter head coach was sanctioned after venting his fury over the number of minutes that were added on at the end of the game and continued his protests after the final whistle.

Inter team manager Lele Oriali was suspended for one game and hit in the pocket to the tune of €5,000 for his post-game protests.

Second-placed Inter face arch-rivals Milan in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia on Tuesday before returning to Serie A action against Benevento on Saturday, then take on Fiorentina six days later.

Conte's men trail leaders Milan by two points in the battle for the Scudetto.

For so long, Real Madrid have been linked with Kylian Mbappe but will the LaLiga champions bring the French forward to the Santiago Bernabeu?

Mbappe is reportedly open to the idea of making the move to the Spanish capital.

However, Liverpool could be ready to hijack any transfer.

 

TOP STORY – MBAPPE TO MADRID?

Kylian Mbappe dominates the front pages of Tuesday's Diario AS and Mundo Deportivo as Real Madrid try to sign the Paris Saint-Germain star.

Mbappe – out of contract in 2022 – has been tipped to swap Ligue 1 holders PSG for LaLiga champions Madrid at the end of the season.

While the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic impacts Madrid, the Spanish giants are still working on a deal to prise the Frenchman to the Santiago Bernabeu, with Vinicius Junior a possible makeweight.

Mundo Deportivo says Premier League champions Liverpool are ready to pounce should Madrid fail to sign Mbappe.

 

ROUND-UP

- Onda Cero reports PSG have offered Madrid captain Sergio Ramos a three-year deal worth €15million a season. Ramos is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and the superstar has been linked with the likes of Manchester United and Juventus.

- Both Madrid and Barcelona are considering a shock move for Roma striker Edin Dzeko, according to Mundo Deportivo. Dzeko has had a falling out with under-fire head coach Paulo Fonseca, prompting links to Juve and Inter.

Thomas Tuchel is set to be named Frank Lampard's Chelsea replacement, with Fabrizio Romano claiming an announcement is "just a matter of time". Tuchel was sacked by PSG in December.

- The Athletic says Juve have identified Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres as a long-term replacement for veteran Giorgio Chiellini. Torres has also been linked with United, Manchester City, Barca, Madrid and Chelsea.

Tottenham have approached PSG's Angel Di Maria, who is out of contract at the end of the season, according to L'Equipe. Di Maria has history in England, having spent a difficult season playing for United in 2014-15.

- Sport 1 says Borussia Dortmund are interested in Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli. The likes of Juve and City have also emerged as suitors.

Ever the man for the big occasion, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eyeing a looming landmark heading into Tuesday's Coppa Italia Derby della Madonnina.

Ibrahimovic enters the latest crunch clash between Inter and his Milan just two goals shy of 500 in club football.

The former Sweden striker drew a blank against Atalanta on Saturday, ending a run of scoring in nine consecutive Serie A starts, but will be determined to bounce back in this mammoth fixture.

"We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat," Ibrahimovic said after the 3-0 loss to Atalanta. "We have the chance to do it in a few days against Inter. That will be a good match."

A MILAN MAN

Enjoying a fine second spell with Milan now at the age of 39, Ibrahimovic's goals have fired Stefano Pioli's side back into title contention - despite the Atalanta setback.

The Rossoneri have not won the Scudetto since 2011 - in Ibrahimovic's first stint at the club - and are without any silverware since the 2016 Supercoppa Italiana.

Inter's own trophy drought spans back to 2011, making this season - with the Milan clubs first and second in the table - and this quarter-final encounter huge.

Ibrahimovic has 13 goals in all competitions this term, including 12 in the league, swelling his Milan total to 80.

That far surpasses the 66 he scored in his time with Inter, while his total number of appearances for the Rossoneri has also nudged past his Nerazzurri tally, 119 to 117 after the Atalanta reverse.

Ibrahimovic will hope to be able to celebrate a 69th victory in Milan colours when they face their neighbours.

DERBY DELIGHTS

Derbies tend to be enjoyable occasions for Ibrahimovic, who has scored seven times for Milan against Inter - including a strike in his only prior such match outside of Serie A, inspiring a turnaround in the 2011 Supercoppa.

A goal and an assist in the first meeting with Inter following his return to Milan last year were in vain as the Nerazzurri won 4-2, but his brace this season secured a 2-1 win for the Serie A leaders.

Only once, in a 1-0 defeat in 2012, has Ibrahimovic failed to score for Milan against Inter, while he also netted twice in four matches for Juventus in the Derby d'Italia.

Yet the striker's Milan derby history goes back to before his arrival at the Rossoneri due to his previous allegiance to Inter.

He scored in his first two Inter appearances against Milan, meaning he has nine strikes in this famous rivalry - trailing only Andriy Shevchenko (14), Giuseppe Meazza (13), Gunnar Nordahl, Istvan Nyers (both 11) and Enrico Candiani (10).

Ibrahimovic has won six and lost four of his 10 Serie A derbies, also triumphing in that Supercoppa clash.

Stefano Pioli wants to see a reaction from his players in the Coppa Italia showdown with Inter following Milan's humbling home loss to Atalanta last time out.

The Serie A leaders went down 3-0 at home to Gian Piero Gasperini's side on Saturday, though they still have a two-point cushion over their next opponents at the halfway stage of the 2020-21 season. 

Next up is the small matter of a derby against Inter on Tuesday, an opportunity for Milan to quickly move on from such a disappointing result and reach the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia. 

The Rossoneri came out on top when the teams met earlier in the season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic's early double proving enough in a 2-1 triumph. 

"It's a different competition, but one we care about. The league is a different story," Pioli told the club's official website ahead of the game.  

"The next derby will be in a month, with other important games beforehand, so this is just a Coppa Italia match. However, it is an important quarter-final we need to face in the best way. 

"As always, there are opponents to face, dangerous opponents, but we are determined to bounce back with a good performance.  

"The Coppa is a competition we care about and aim to win, because in the end all the big teams in the league find themselves in this position, facing off in the quarter and semi-finals.   

"We weren't particularly lucky in the draw. We are in the toughest section, but if you want to win the Coppa, you have to face everyone.  

"It's important to us and we'll do our best to win."

Pioli confirmed Ismael Bennacer is not quite ready to return - the midfielder is on course to be available for Saturday's trip to Bologna, though - while Hakan Calhanoglu is also still out.

New recruit Mario Mandzukic suffered an issue at the weekend after making his debut as a second-half substitute, albeit the striker has not yet been ruled out entirely.

Milan have not lifted the Coppa Italia since 2003, while their last Scudetto arrived a decade ago. Pioli appreciates there is pressure to succeed, particularly after a strong first half to the campaign, but insists that is all part of the job when in charge of such a big club.

"Last Saturday reminded us that if we can't maintain our level, we run the risk of losing against these opponents," he added.

"So, our objective is to make an even greater effort, a more determined one to try to maintain our standing through until the end of the season. 

"We want to be ambitious and win all our games. When we don't, we work even harder to make sure the situation doesn't happen again.  

"That's why pressure is a privilege we must live with, or rather we must want this pressure because we're at a great club - pressure and expectations are a part of that."

Inter beat Juventus. Juventus beat Milan. Milan beat Inter. For once it has been tough to predict the title race in Serie A.

Winning the Scudetto was not enough for Maurizio Sarri to keep his job at Juve last season, meaning Andrea Pirlo is under significant pressure as the Bianconeri chase a 10th straight league crown.

However, they have struggled to convince under the former midfield metronome and sit seven points adrift of leaders Milan in fourth, although they hold a game in hand.

There has seemingly never been a better chance for Inter, who are two points off top in second, and Milan to end Scudetto droughts that date back to 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively.

Fans and pundits will continue to have their say on who will sit top come the end of the season, and the Stats Perform AI team have also crunched the numbers to predict the champions for the 2020-21 campaign.

With the majority of the 20 teams having reached the halfway stage of the league campaign, they have simulated how the rest of the season may play out.

 

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality.

Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly.

All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Without further ado, let's have a good look at the results of the simulation with the predicted final league table.

 

INTER END JUVE'S REIGN

Although they sit second at the halfway stage, our model predicts Inter will end Juve's dominance of Serie A.

Inter have a 35.7 per cent chance of topping the table for the first time since their treble-winning campaign of 2009-10 and it is projected they will do so by a two-point advantage.

Not only do Milan surrender top spot to the Nerazzurri, they slip behind Juve into third with the top three separated by just three points. It would still represent their best finish since 2012-13.

Juve's chance of retaining the title is deemed to be 23.1 per cent, marginally better than Milan's 21.6 per cent.

ATALANTA RETURN TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Gian Piero Gasperini steered Atalanta to Champions League qualification for the first time in their history in 2018-19 and made it back-to-back top-three finishes last season.

They are predicted to return to Europe's premier club competition by finishing fourth, edging out Napoli – they even have a 6.8 per cent chance of pulling off an unlikely title win.

Gennaro Gattuso's side have a 17 per cent probability of snatching the final Champions League qualification berth, with Atalanta's prospects narrowly superior at 17.4 per cent.

Roma are predicted to fall from their current position of third down to sixth but that is still good enough for them to deny arch-rivals Lazio qualification to the inaugural Europa Conference League.

The top six may need to beware of Sassuolo, Hellas Verona and Sampdoria, however. Sassuolo have a 0.3 per cent likelihood of finishing inside the top four, while Verona (0.6 per cent) and Sampdoria (0.3 per cent) also have an outside chance of stealing European qualification, though our predictor suggests Lazio will finish 12 points clear of Sassuolo in seventh.

 

GENOA AND TORINO ESCAPE DROP

At the turn of the year Torino were rock bottom with one win from their opening 14 games and Genoa were in the relegation zone with them.

However, Torino and Genoa have both moved out of the bottom three by claiming six points and eight points respectively over their past five games.

The two sides are predicted to maintain strong enough form to stay out of the drop zone, with Crotone (20th), Parma (19th) and Cagliari (18th) projected to suffer relegation to Serie B.

It is by no means a guarantee, though. Genoa are only 0.2 per cent more likely to come 17th than they are to suffer relegation by finishing 18th, while Torino's differential between 15th – where they are predicted to place – and third-bottom is 2.7 per cent.

If Paris Saint-Germain have their way, Lionel Messi will be playing for the French giants in 2021-22.

But will he be playing alongside Kylian Mbappe in Paris?

Real Madrid target Mbappe could stay.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI IN, MBAPPE OUT?

Paris Saint-Germain want to sign Lionel Messi but Kylian Mbappe could remain with the Ligue 1 champions, according to reports.

Barcelona captain Messi is out of contract at season's end and has been heavily linked with PSG and Manchester City.

Le Parisien says there is no doubt who will replace Mbappe at PSG if he departs for LaLiga champions Real Madrid, though Canal + journalist Pierre Menes claims the French forward is interested in staying at Parc des Princes.

 

ROUND-UP

Madrid are considering a €45million (£39.9m) bid to re-sign Sergio Reguilon from Tottenham, according to Sport. Reguilon left the LaLiga champions at the start of the season, but Madrid have an option to buy him back within two years.

- Calciomercato says Juventus are eyeing Bayern Munich duo Corentin Tolisso and Joshua Zirkzee. Bayern are reportedly unwilling to let Zirkzee leave permanently.

- Sport 1 claims Borussia Dortmund are set to battle German rivals Bayern for Borussia Monchengladbach star Florian Neuhaus. The 23-year-old reportedly has a €40m release clause.

- RB Leipzig attacker Hwang Hee-chan could be loaned out amid links to West Ham, reports Kicker.

Inter and Lautaro Martinez remain in negotiations over a new contract, reports Calciomercato. Once tipped to join Barca, Martinez's Camp Nou dream appears to be fading due to the economic situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Inter are not prepared to meet Martinez's wage demands at the moment.

Former Milan midfielder and head coach Cristian Brocchi is hopeful the Rossoneri can maintain their charge for a drought-ending Serie A title as they vie for domestic silverware with neighbours Inter.

Milan have not won the Scudetto since 2011, but the Italian giants top the table at the halfway stage of the season – two points clear of Inter despite a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Atalanta.

Following years of pain, Stefano Pioli's Milan and their fans are daring to dream as they rise to the summit of Italian football once again.

Monza head coach Brocchi was part of the successful Milan era between 2001 and 2008, after a brief spell with city rivals Inter, winning two Champions League titles, the Scudetto, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana.

While Brocchi attempts to lead Monza from Serie B to the top flight this season, the 44-year-old's heart still beats for boyhood club Milan as they prepare for Tuesday's blockbuster Coppa Italia quarter-final against Inter.

Brocchi, who oversaw seven matches in charge of Milan before being replaced by Vincenzo Montella in 2016, told Stats Perform News: "Milan are a family for me.

"I arrived there at nine, was in the all the youth ranks. I won everything with Milan and when I quit I managed to be Milan's coach for a short period. I will never feel colder toward Milan.

"I root for them, watch every game and hopefully, as they are doing great, they can go on down this path."

Milan have already beaten Inter in 2020-21 – a three-minute brace from Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the Rossoneri past the Nerazzurri 2-1 in October's Serie A showdown.

The two teams will meet again at San Siro, where a Coppa Italia semi-final berth is on the line amid an intriguing title race, with nine-time reigning champions Juventus, Roma, Atalanta and Napoli also vying for honours.

Brocchi is no stranger to the Derby della Madonnina, having also experienced the build-up from the opposing side during his stint with Inter in 2000-01.

"First of all, I think the most beautiful derby ever played was the one in the Champions League semi-final in 2003 [Milan prevailed on away goals after a 1-1 draw]. It was the ultimate derby for adrenaline and all the feelings you can feel," Brocchi said ahead of Monday's Serie B showdown with Brescia.

"The Milan derby is emotional, everybody wants to win and even if now it will be played without public, it still gives us great feelings."

All eyes will be on Ibrahimovic in Milan, where the 39-year-old continues to defy his age to inspire a title charge this term.

Ibrahimovic, who re-joined Milan from LA Galaxy in January 2020 having featured in the last Rossoneri team to celebrate league success almost a decade ago, has scored 12 goals in just nine Serie A matches this season.

After scoring twice in a 2-0 win over Cagliari on January 18, it meant Ibrahimovic managed to find the back of the net in nine successive starts for the first time in his career in Europe's top five leagues.

Ibrahimovic – who made his 600th career appearance (excluding playoffs) in the loss to Atalanta – is just two goals shy of reaching the 500 mark in club football.

"Strong players have no age as long as they feel fine. Ibra is an example, he is still strong physically," Brocchi continued.

"He is serving with character and class all the young player at Milan, who as I said before for us [Monza] with [Mario] Balotelli and [Kevin-Prince] Boateng. We have young players that can run for them too.

"Milan did the same. They assembled a squad of youngsters full of enthusiasm, legs and speed with a strong leader, Ibra, who is still at the top of his game and can be the icing on the cake of this winning choice." 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic feels Milan have become "fragile" and is seeking an instant response to Saturday's 3-0 thrashing against Atalanta when they take on fierce rivals Inter next.

Previously unbeaten in 27 league matches stretching back into the 2019-20 season, Milan have now lost two of their last four games - they also went down 3-1 to Juventus earlier this month. 

Goals from Cristian Romero, Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata condemned Stefano Pioli's side to their latest defeat, but they are still top at the midway point of the season as closest challengers Inter could only manage a 0-0 draw with Udinese. 

However, Ibrahimovic accepts being winter champions will count for little unless Milan regain some consistency and end their decade-long wait for Scudetto success. 

"We lost two games after more than 30 matches that we didn't lose," he told Sky Sport Italia.  

"The team is a bit fragile because when certain players are missing, we lack a bit of experience. They are replaced by young players, but this is no excuse.  

"We make many sacrifices; we work and we are first for a reason.

"But being top at this stage does not matter. We are halfway through the championship, so far we have done well but still nothing this is the most difficult period because there are so many games and now we just have to continue." 

Asked if Tuesday's Coppa Italia quarter-final with Inter has now taken on even more importance, Ibrahimovic said: "We have to redeem ourselves after this defeat.  

"We have the chance to do it in a few days and then against Inter. That will be a good match." 

Milan's club-record run of scoring in 38 successive league games was ended in Saturday's loss at San Siro, a game in which the Rossoneri managed only two shots on target. 

Ibrahimovic was unable to test Pierluigi Gollini with any of his five efforts, while his 36 touches of the ball were the fewest by any home player to take part in the entire game. 

The veteran striker, who has 12 goals in nine league outings this term, admitted afterwards that he felt isolated up front. 

"In the first half I was too alone in attack," he said. "I didn't have anyone close to support me, but it could also be because of the pressure from Atalanta that put us in trouble.  

"Today many things were missing, it was not our day. Now the important thing is to recover and think about the next match to redeem ourselves."

Antonio Conte insists Inter will continue to focus on themselves and not Milan after missing out on the chance to leapfrog their rivals at the top of Serie A. 

A week on from beating fellow Scudetto contenders Juventus 2-0, Inter failed to get going as they were held to a goalless draw away at lowly Udinese on Saturday. 

Conte's side attempted just 10 shots at the Dacia Arena - their joint-fewest in an away league match this season - in a game that saw Conte sent off late on for dissent. 

Milan lost 3-0 to Atalanta on Saturday but Inter could only close the gap on the leaders to two points at the midway stage in the campaign. 

The Nerazzurri have now triumphed in only one of their last four Serie A matches, having won their previous eight in a row, and Conte accepts an improvement is needed. 

"As I always say, we need to think only of ourselves and not others, such as Milan. We just have to focus on improving our performances and results," he told Sky Sport Italia. 

"We just try to work and get the best out of ourselves. I think that amid the many, many difficulties we had this year, Inter are having their say and are real protagonists. 

"Inter deserve that for their history. The second half of the season is still to play, but what we've done for the last year and a half has been wonderful." 

Conte was issued a yellow card and then a swift red by referee Fabio Maresca as the game entered added time, while team manager Lele Oriali was dismissed after the final whistle. 

Explaining the touchline commotion during a game otherwise devoid of many talking points, Conte said: "We had a disagreement over the amount of stoppages awarded. 

"The referee booked me and then chose to send me off. I thought four minutes weren't enough to add on in the circumstances.  

"Then the referee makes his decisions and we have to accept them, even if we do not agree with those decisions." 

A number of visiting players had an off day against an Udinese side without a goal in six successive league games against Inter - their longest such streak against any side in the division. 

Achraf Hakimi in particular struggled, losing possession more times (23) than any other player, with Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku failing to get on the end of balls into the penalty box. 

"We could've been more precise today and lacked quality in the final ball," Conte admitted. "When we put crosses in, we usually have four players push into the box.  

"That's usually the intent, then it's about the accuracy of the cross. For instance, Nicolo Barella's cross was what created the goal for Arturo Vidal against Juventus.  

"You need both the cross and to get bodies into the box." 

Focus for Inter now switches to Tuesday's derby with Milan in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals, though Conte is prioritising the league over domestic cup success. 

"We know that Serie A represents something important for the club and on an economic level, so winning the Scudetto or qualifying for the Champions League is more important than the Coppa Italia," he said.  

"Having said that, we still respect the tournament and want to do well. Inevitably, we will evaluate the situation, see who has recovered and who needs more playing time.  

"Nobody is underestimating this match and we'll try to win, as we always do. We don't put limits on ourselves, but we must find the right approach to beat Milan and go into the semi-finals."

Antonio Conte saw red as Inter were held to a goalless draw by Udinese and missed out on the chance to overtake Serie A leaders Milan at the midway point of the season

Inter beat Juventus 2-0 last weekend to enhance their title credentials but could not follow that up with another win in Saturday's stalemate at the Dacia Arena.

Relegation-threatened Udinese entered the game winless in eight but they restricted Inter to minimal chances, the best falling to Lautaro Martinez in the first half.

Conte's frustration boiled over late on, the Inter coach receiving his marching orders due to dissent, though the Nerazzurri at least gained a point on their bitter rivals Milan, who were beaten 3-0 by Atalanta ahead of the sides' Coppa Italia quarter-final on Tuesday.

Bayern Munich are the only side to have scored more goals in Europe's top-five leagues than Inter this season but the visitors could not get going against Udinese.

Martinez had a goal correctly ruled out for offside from Inter's first meaningful attack and was denied by a superb one-handed Juan Musso save 15 minutes later.

Udinese otherwise kept their opponents at bay in a low-tempo first half, with Arturo Vidal and Ashley Young failing to truly test Musso from weak attempts.

Inter continued to lack ideas as the match wore on and were almost dealt a sucker punch when first Roberto Pereyra and then Rodrigo de Paul fired just wide of the target.

Achraf Hakimi lashed across the face of goal and a bad day for Conte got worse when he was booked and then sent off for protesting a decision that went against his side as Inter fired a blank for the first time in 22 league games.

Real Madrid have flatly denied there is any "tension" with Inter concerning an alleged agreement over deferred payments for the transfer of Achraf Hakimi.

The full-back moved to San Siro last July for a reported fee of around €40million, which was to be paid in four instalments.

It has been claimed in Italy and Spain that, due largely to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Madrid agreed with Inter's request to defer the first payment of €10m, which had been due last month, until March 30.

However, according to a story in Corriere dello Sport on Saturday, Madrid insisted on "a series of guarantees" over the outstanding balance and that the LaLiga champions could even move to bring Hakimi back if Inter appear unable to keep up with payments.

In a subsequent statement, Madrid said there was no basis to claims of a dispute with the Nerazzurri and that relations between the clubs remain positive.

"In relation to the story published by Corriere dello Sport regarding alleged tension between our club and Inter Milan, Real Madrid wishes to clarify that these reports are completely false," the statement said.

"At no point in time has Real Madrid asked Inter Milan for an alleged guarantor, as the aforementioned publication states.

"The terms of the player's transfer to Inter fall within the standard and normal contractual relationships between football clubs. 

"This is particularly true in this case with Inter Milan, with whom Real Madrid has always and continues to enjoy an excellent relationship on account of its status as a historic club and one that is a friend of ours."

Hakimi's agent, Alejandro Camano, told FCInter1908.it that he did not know anything about the rumoured dispute between the clubs.

"We haven't received any calls from Madrid," he said. "Achraf is happy at Inter and is only focused on doing his best for Inter.

"His goal is to win with the Inter shirt, and he's not thinking about anything else."

Hakimi has enjoyed a strong first season in Italy, with six goals and four assists in 24 appearances in all competitions.

Could Barcelona be about to make a splash in the free-agent market?

Strapped for cash amid the coronavirus pandemic, Barca are believed to have set their sights on two stars.

David Alaba and Sergio Aguero are on the agenda at Camp Nou…

 

TOP STORY – BARCA EYEING OUT-OF-CONTRACT DUO

Barcelona are set to target Bayern Munich star David Alaba and Manchester City's Sergio Aguero , according to Mundo Deportivo.

Alaba and Aguero are both out of contract at the end of the season, prompting interest from embattled LaLiga giants Barca.

Bayern's Alaba has been tipped to join Real Madrid , while the likes of Manchester United , Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain have also been linked.

Aguero, meanwhile, is no certainty to renew in Manchester, where Pep Guardiola is reportedly eyeing Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Inter's Romelu Lukaku .

 

ROUND-UP

-   Sport reports Raphael Varane wants to leave LaLiga champions Madrid . The French defender has previously been linked to United .

- Madrid cannot afford to sign the likes of PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Haaland due to their current financial situation amid the coronavirus pandemic, claims Marca.

- The Guardian says West Ham have lowered their asking price for Declan Rice , who has been linked to Chelsea and United .

- Martin Odegaard is close to swapping Madrid for Arsenal on loan, reports journalist Fabrizio Romano.

- Romano also says United have not opened talks with Lens to sign Argentine centre-back Facundo Medina . The Red Devils are eyeing a new centre-back amid links with in-demand RB Leipzig star Dayot Upamecano .

Napoli want to sign either Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes or Benfica's Nuno Tavares , reports Calciomercato.

- There are serious doubts over Edin Dzeko's future at Roma, with Calciomercato claiming Juventus and Inter are monitoring the situation.

Inter head coach Antonio Conte is convinced there are seven teams fighting for the Serie A title and a top-four spot as he insisted the Nerazzurri are not Scudetto favourites.

Conte's Inter are second and three points adrift of city rivals Milan, but full of confidence after upstaging nine-time defending champions Juventus 2-0 last week.

Inter outclassed Juve at San Siro to enhance their title credentials in Italy, where they have not claimed the Scudetto since their treble-winning campaign in 2009-10.

But Conte dismissed the favourites tag, with Napoli, Roma, Juve, Atalanta and Lazio also vying for silverware and a Champions League berth.

"I always said since the beginning of the season that I see seven teams fighting for the first four positions, either for the Scudetto or for a place in the next Champions League," Conte said ahead of Saturday's fixture away to Udinese.

"I think the first half of the season confirmed my opinion. We have seen some teams being more consistent than others but in the end this first Serie A round confirmed that there are seven teams able to play for the title until the end of the season."

Inter have won nine of their last 11 Serie A games against Udinese (D1 L1) and have not conceded a goal in their last five against the club.

The Nerazzurri have scored 45 goals in their first 18 league fixtures this season – only Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich have scored more (48) in the top five European leagues in 2020-21.

In a 20-team season, only in 1951-52 have the Nerazzurri scored more in the first half of a season (48).

Meanwhile, among coaches who have led Inter for at least 30 Serie A games in the era of three points per win, Conte has the joint-best points-per-game average (2.18 per match, level with Jose Mourinho).

A mouth-watering Coppa Italia quarter-final derby against neighbours Milan looms on Tuesday, but Conte said: "Our focus and our choices are only based on Udinese in this moment. The championship is too important [to make changes towards the derby] because apart from the Scudetto you have a place in the next Champions League to fight for.

"The championship is our priority. We have to focus on Udinese and we have to approach this game with the right mentality. After this game we are going to think about the next one but today Udinese are our priority."

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