Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta is hopeful Antonio Conte will stay at San Siro after leading the Nerazzurri to their first Serie A title in 11 years.

Atalanta's 1-1 draw with Sassuolo on Sunday meant Inter were crowned champions of Italy for the first time since Jose Mourinho's treble-winning side in 2009-10.

It also ended a run of nine consecutive Scudetti for Juventus, three of which were won by Conte when he was in charge of the Bianconeri from 2011 to 2014.

With four games remaining, Inter – 13 points clear atop the table – have matched their points (82) and clean sheets (14) totals for the whole of last season, when they finished a point behind Juventus.

Conte's future, however, remains uncertain amid concerns over Inter's financial situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic as owners Suning Holdings Group reportedly consider selling the club.

But Marotta – who worked with Conte at Juve – told Rai: "Conte's focus, like ours, is to enjoy the moment. Inter needed such a happy moment, this is the moment to enjoy what has been achieved.

"Then in due course it is right to meet each other, but this is what all the clubs do at the end of the season.

"It is the moment in which the new season begins, and in the light of an extraordinary situation such as that of the pandemic, which has caused a great economic reduction, careful evaluations are required.

"This leads to work amongst all areas of the club. Conte feels good at Inter and I hope he can continue here."

Conte earned his fourth Serie A title this season – only five other coaches in league history have managed at least four.

The former Italy boss is only the second coach in Serie A history to win a Scudetto with both Inter and Juve, joining Giovanni Trapattoni.

Marotta told Sky Sport Italia: "There was a consistent and clear gap between Inter and Juventus when I arrived. Having won the Scudetto with four rounds to spare should be seen not as a sign of the errors made by our opponents, but the credit given to Inter.

"We could potentially reach 94 points, which would be a very impressive tally. Conte deserves a great deal of credit, as he brought important sporting values from a winning career as player and coach and passed them on to these lads. None of them had won a title before other than Arturo Vidal.

"This achievement is down to a great leader like Conte."

Marotta added: "My philosophy is that it is better to buy one less player and invest in a great coach. The wages he is on are reflected by the trophy cabinet and his CV.

"I proposed Conte to Inter because I felt he was the right man at the right time. We had already won three Serie A titles together at Juventus, so we know each other very well.

"That means I also knew full well that some of his statements to the media were to motivate the club and push us forward. He wanted to make more rapid progress and we were a little slower, but he was pushing us to achieve something important together.

"I much prefer someone like Conte who says things to your face rather than those who refuse to tell you how things really are."

An elated Antonio Conte claimed Inter's Champions League exit was a significant moment in their season as he celebrated winning the Serie A title.

Atalanta's 1-1 draw with Sassuolo on Sunday meant the Nerazzurri were crowned champions of Italy for the first time since Jose Mourinho's treble-winning side in 2009-10.

It also ended a run of nine consecutive Scudetti for Juventus, three of which were won by Conte when he was in charge from 2011 to 2014.

With four games remaining, Conte's men have matched their points (82) and clean sheets (14) totals for the whole of last season, when they finished a point behind the Bianconeri.

They are 13 points clear at the top and have only lost twice in all competitions since the turn of the year.

Their form in 2021 looks all-the-more impressive considering they endured a run of two wins in 10 games in all competitions in October and November, while December saw them crash out of Europe after one win from six games in their Champions League group.

Conte felt criticism of Inter's European form was unjust and thinks that disappointment strengthened his side's resolve in their Scudetto challenge.

Speaking to Rai and Sky Sport Italia, he said: "I think the key moment was in the week we exited the Champions League, when criticism rained down on us in perhaps an exaggerated way.

"It wasn't easy. We had a group of guys who weren't used to winning. We did well to compact ourselves and take criticism to become even stronger.

"The best thing that happened to me is to have found a group that trusted me and my leadership implicitly. The players' growth has led to this result.

"They asked me what Inter needed; I replied that every player must raise the bar, not only from a footballing point of view, but also from a mental point of view.

"The boys are no longer players who take part, but who have won.

"I put it among the most important successes of my career. It was difficult because it was not an easy choice for me to come to Inter, during a time when the team was certainly not competitive or had the resources to achieve something important.

"Plus, I was going to a club who are rivals with Juventus, where I played for many years, and who were dominating the league. There were many negative situations that I was going into.

"Instead, I eagerly accepted the challenge and I think the hard work repaid all those sacrifices."

Conte will take his Inter to face old club Juve on May 15, where he intends to put on something of a show even though their season is effectively over.

"It will be a match where, beyond the table, we want to do our best. We managed to win with four games to spare, but we'll still go there to play for the victory," he said.

"It's always a pleasure for me to enter the [Allianz] Stadium. Now, I'm learning how to do it as an opponent.

"Having won with four games left is testament to the good work everyone has done. We want to continue to do well, but it's right to give more room to those who have played less.

"We'll try to do our best until the end. They know the mentality I expect from them."

The 2018-19 season was not one Manchester United fans would remember particularly fondly, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's appointment provided cause for optimism.

United finished sixth in the Premier League but reached a Champions League quarter-final and gathered momentum in the second half of the campaign with Solskjaer at the helm.

Supporters could hope a number of the players at Old Trafford would be able to form the basis of a title-winning side in the coming years.

And so it proved this week as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian got their hands on domestic silverware – in Inter colours.

That quartet played a combined 88 Premier League games for United in 2018-19 but this term turned out together for Inter, accounting for 107 Serie A appearances.

While Sanchez, Young and Darmian have each played their part, it might be Lukaku's success in Italy that causes United the most distress.

They made their money back on the £75million signing, but he is now a champion while Solskjaer's side, as when Lukaku left, trail rivals Manchester City.

Rom rewarded by Ron role

United had not been the only club willing to part with such a sum to sign Lukaku in 2017, as former club Chelsea, coached by current Inter boss Antonio Conte, sought to bring back the forward they had sold to Everton for around a third of the price three years earlier.

Despite 15 league goals – arriving every 170.8 minutes across 31 matches – on loan at Goodison Park as a 20-year-old in 2013-14, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho turned instead to Diego Costa to lead their successful title charge.

"[Lukaku] wanted to play for Chelsea but wanted to be the first-choice striker," Mourinho said. "That's very difficult to promise."

Delighted Everton manager Roberto Martinez's described Lukaku's "potential" as "quite unique", but criticism of the striker's finishing would find its root in his first season as a full-time Toffee.

Although there were 20 strikes in all competitions, just 10 came in the Premier League as chances worth 11.3 expected goals (xG) brought eight non-penalty goals.

Lukaku's conversion rate dipped to 9.5 per cent as he passed up 12 big chances – situations from which Opta would reasonably expect a player to score.

However, 11th-placed Everton's issues extended beyond a young player's slight regression.

In turn, Martinez moved away from the fast-breaking attack that brought 1.4 counters per game – none of which ended in Lukaku goals – in 2014-15 and opted instead to station his striker in front of goal. It provoked 220 touches in the box and 18 goals from Lukaku, yet could not rescue the manager.

Incoming coach Ronald Koeman may now be more familiar with making the most of the diminutive talents of Barcelona's attack, but he certainly knew how to get the best out of Lukaku.

The new Everton manager's solution was simple: build everything around Big Rom.

Heading away from the direction Martinez had taken the team and their talisman, Lukaku took just 12.5 per cent of his touches in the penalty area, as he instead had clear career highs in duels (588), aerial duels (322) and successful dribbles (63).

The forward scored 25 times in the league – taking 22.7 per cent of his chances to outstrip his xG by 9.5 – and had 31 goal involvements. He looked the complete package.

More Mou's man than Ole's

The complete package is certainly what United would expect for a £75m outlay. What they got was a steady debut season.

Ten goals in Lukaku's first nine matches for the club in all competitions hinted at a continuation of his 2016-17 Everton form, but the rest of the campaign had more in keeping with his earlier outings on Merseyside.

There were 16 league strikes, still ahead of his xG of 12.6, but also 11 big chances missed. No longer required to carry the load alone, Lukaku's total shots fell from 110 to 86 and his conversion rate dwindled to 18.6 per cent.

Still, Mourinho stood by his man.

Having started all but five of United's league games in 2017-18, Lukaku was again included in the XI in 12 of their first 17 matches the following season.

But when Mourinho was sacked shortly before Christmas, Solskjaer had no such loyalty to a striker who had failed to kick on, contributing just six goals.

Lukaku completed the full 90 minutes on seven occasions under Solskjaer, who turned instead to Marcus Rashford as his main striking option.

Rashford only scored one more goal than Lukaku over this period and missed two more big chances, but criticism hurt the Belgium international and a hamstring injury in April 2019 brought a premature end to his season – and his United career.

"A lot of people don't think I can be part of that team," Lukaku later told NBA star Josh Hart's LightHarted Podcast. "If it's like that, we can go our separate ways.

"You guys can find someone who really fits the bill and I can go."

Counted on by Conte

Lukaku certainly fitted the bill at Inter. New Nerazzurri coach Conte needed a replacement striker as Mauro Icardi's love-hate affair with San Siro's Curva Sud finally reached its conclusion.

Having failed to recruit Lukaku at Stamford Bridge in a move that might have suited all parties better than the United switch, Conte added the striker to a squad intent on ending Inter's wait for the Scudetto.

Not since 2009-10, with Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito paired in attack, had Inter reigned, but they now had another forward partnership to enjoy.

On paper, Lautaro Martinez might have been considered the 'little man' to Lukaku's 'big man', yet Conte has increasingly resisted the urge to use his talented giant as a battering ram.

Although Lukaku remains capable of bullying defenders – only in two Premier League seasons did he win more aerial duels than 2019-20's 93 – Conte has followed Koeman's example and made sure to involve his number nine in everything Inter do.

Not since his final season at Everton has Lukaku attempted or completed more dribbles (97 and 52 in 2020-21), meaning he is back facing the goal again, involved in 13 counter-attacks – his most since 2014-15. He also has 10 assists for the first time.

Yet Lukaku is still taking the largest share of his touches in the box to date (18.3 per cent), leading to a career-high 35 big chances.

From such positions, he can afford to squander 17 big chances and net only 16 non-penalty goals from efforts worth 16.8 xG, another new benchmark.

"Lukaku has made exceptional improvements but can make even more," Conte says.

Martinez, now his coach at international level, feels the development is clear for all to see. He told La Gazzetta dello Sport: "Romelu became a complete player, obviously thanks to Conte."

Lukaku is now scoring with a staggering 23.6 per cent of his shots – making him the first Serie A player since 2004-05 to tally 20 goals and 10 assists in the same season – and Inter are champions.

United and those critics have long since disappeared into the rear-view mirror.

Inter players have formed a "team of granite" and will deservedly take their place in the club's history, according to head coach Antonio Conte.

The Nerazzurri overcame Crotone 2-0 on Saturday – a result that relegated Serse Cosmi's side – and they will end an 11-year wait to win a Scudetto if second-placed Atalanta fail to win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

The runaway leaders had been frustrated against Crotone, twice hitting the woodwork before Christian Eriksen put them ahead in the 69th minute.

Achraf Hakimi added a second in stoppage time as Inter moved to within touching distance of the Serie A title.

Conte is thrilled with his players' efforts this season and says they deserve all the plaudits that will come their way when they end Juventus' nine-season dominance of the Italian top flight.

"I think our campaign comes from a constant growth from the team in every area, including mentality, the sharing of a vision and experiencing it intensely," he told Sky Sport Italia. "Those who play or are on the bench have formed a team made of granite.

"We know that we can remain in the history of Inter because we are effectively bringing down a nine-year reign. This is satisfying and the players deserve congratulations.

"We needed to go through this journey in order to win and be considered winners. There are sacrifices to be made, a culture to be developed, and at times giving up so much in order to achieve something extraordinary.

"Not everyone is prepared to do that. I found many players here who all wanted to get on the same boat and work together to become part of Inter history.

"I told the players, 'if you win, then you'll be in the history of this club. If you don't, then you can spend three, seven or more years here and be just one of the many.’

"I didn't have to convince them very hard; they were already on board."

While Inter can be crowned as early as Sunday, Conte suggested he would prefer his side to seal the triumph themselves when they face Sampdoria next weekend.

"We know that we're on the verge and are quite relaxed about it," he explained. "I don't think it's right to depend on someone else. We've got such a big gap that we know it's all our own work and we don't have to thank anyone for a result. It's all still in our hands."

Conte faced some hostility when he took over ahead of the 2019-20 season given his association with Juventus, for whom he both played for and coached with distinction.

The 51-year-old acknowledged it has been a challenge at times but believes he has done enough to win over any dissenting supporters.

"I made the most difficult choice by coming to Inter," he said. "Many would've hidden behind history, but I love a challenge and came here to challenge myself.

"I remain a fan of every club I worked for, but I am the ultimate fan of the club where I work right now, always. I realise it wasn't easy for me to enter the hearts of all Inter fans, but I have always given my all for the team I work for.

"I think I really challenged myself this time and I am rewarded with a team that is doing something extraordinary."

Does a Premier League switch beckon for Raphael Varane?

Varane has starred for Real Madrid, winning LaLiga and Champions League titles.

But Varane could be sacrificed in the Spanish capital, with Chelsea reportedly interested.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA FRONTRUNNERS FOR VARANE

Chelsea are ahead of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in the race to sign Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Varane has been linked with a move away from Madrid, who are looking to raise funds as they target PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland.

United have reportedly emerged as strong suitors but Chelsea are believed to be at the front of the queue to land the France international.

 

ROUND-UP

- Goal, Sport1 and other outlets report Bayern Munich have opened talks with RB Leipzig to hire head coach Julian Nagelsmann. With Hansi Flick set to depart at season's end, Nagelsmann is wanted in Munich.

Jose Mourinho is ready to return to Inter should Nerazzurri boss Antonio Conte exit, claims Calciomercato. Conte is poised to lead Inter to their first Scudetto since 2009-10, when Mourinho oversaw a treble, but the former Italy coach's future is far from certain. Mourinho is available after he was sacked by Tottenham.

- According to Gol Digital, Atletico Madrid are considering a move for Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta.

Roma are targeting Maurizio Sarri as their next head coach, says Corriere dello Sport. Paulo Fonseca is currently at the helm but he is under pressure in the Italian capital. Roma have reportedly already met with ex-Chelsea, Juventus and Napoli coach Sarri to discuss finer details.

Milan have given star goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma one month to decide on a contract extension, reports Tuttosport. Donnarumma is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and the Italy international is yet to re-sign. The likes of United, Chelsea, Juventus, PSG and Madrid have been linked. Milan are reportedly eyeing Lille's Mike Maignan as a possible replacement.

- Bild claims Arsenal are lining up a move for Dortmund's Julian Brandt as a replacement for loanee Martin Odegaard, who is attracting interest from elsewhere. Brandt could be one of many Dortmund players to leave in the off-season as clubs circle Haaland, including Manchester City, Liverpool, Barcelona, United, Chelsea, PSG and Bayern.

Antonio Conte believes the Serie A title is "95 per cent" decided after Inter's slender 1-0 win over Hellas Verona on Sunday. 

The Nerrazzuri were far from their fluid best at San Siro, but sealed a 13th consecutive home league win for the second time in their history thanks to Matteo Darmian's goal 14 minutes from full-time. 

The result moved Inter 13 points clear at the top of the table with five games remaining, although neighbours Milan can scale that back to 10 with victory over Lazio on Monday. 

Conte is in no doubt his side will wrap up a first Scudetto since the 2009-10 season, but acknowledged some of his players have been feeling the pressure of the situation. 

"The ball is heavier now, many players have never lived this situation and it's undeniable a few players have been affected by this," Conte told DAZN.

"We played two good games against Napoli and Spezia [they drew both 1-1]. They said we had stopped ourselves, but it wasn't this like that.

"Managing to win this season makes these footballers become winners. Never forget the others are dropping points. We have been consistent. 

"Sometimes we suffer a little bit more, but we are keeping our foot on the gas pedal."

Conte sprinted to celebrate with his players after Darmian's goal and said he was motivated by the Serie A title being within touching distance. 

"It's easy to explain. In that run, I see 95 per cent of the Scudetto," he added. 

"I think it was an important win. We haven't won it yet, but it was important to win against a team that can create trouble; a very physical team that had nothing to lose.

"We've worked a lot over the last two seasons. As I said many times, Inter haven't been competitive for a long time. We tried [to win] last season. This term, we are close, but we need to work both on a mental and a footballing level.

"Sometimes I am heavy, but I found few people who can be both winners and light hearted. The path is extremely complicated. It takes hard work and sacrifice."

Inter limited Verona to just a solitary shot on target as they stretched their unbeaten Serie A home record against Ivan Juric's side to a club record 30 games, surpassing their 29-match unbeaten against Palermo. 

Conte highlighted the contribution of Stefan de Vrij, Alessandro Bastoni and Milan Skriniar, comparing them to the heralded triumvirate of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgino Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, who he coached at Juventus. 

"When, in my first year at Juventus, I coached Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, they were young, and they had won nothing before," he said. 

"We have begun a new project here, and I can see many similarities with De Vrij, Bastoni and Skriniar.

"If we win this season, they will begin a path where the Scudetto can bring more self-esteem. Never forget, Bonucci, Chiellini and Barzagli were virgins in terms of victories when I arrived.

"At Chelsea, it was different. Some players had already won, they had more experience."

Inter took another significant stride towards a first Serie A title since 2009-10 after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Hellas Verona at San Siro on Sunday. 

The result means Antonio Conte's side are 13 points clear at the league summit, although that could be scaled back to 10 if Milan overcome Lazio on Monday. 

Inter struggled for long periods against Verona, but sealed a 13th consecutive Serie A home win for just the second time in their history 14 minutes from full-time courtesy of substitute Matteo Darmian. 

The wing-back powered forward, collected Achraf Hakimi's pass and slotted past Marco Silvestri from 10 yards to help his side return to winning ways after two draws in the top flight.

Inter started sluggishly and could have fallen behind shortly after the midway point of the first half.

Samir Handanovic got down well to keep out Daniel Bessa's initial effort before Federico Dimarco dragged his follow-up strike narrowly wide with the goal at his mercy.

The hosts rarely looked like scoring during a tepid opening 45 minutes and went in at the break having had just a solitary shot on target.

Lautaro Martinez was denied by Silvestri shortly after the hour as Inter continued to struggle following the restart.

Hakimi went agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock after 69 minutes but his superb 25-yard free-kick crashed against Silvestri's left-hand post.

With Martinez and Romelu Lukaku misfiring, it was left to Darmian to snatch three points, the former Manchester United man showing superb composure to slot home his third league goal of the season in the 76th minute.

Inter great Walter Zenga dismissed criticism of Antonio Conte and his side as they close in on the Scudetto, while insisting mentality is the key to the Nerazzurri making the leap from Serie A to European success.

Not since their treble-winning season under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10 have Inter claimed the Scudetto, rivals Juventus dominating domestic Italian football with nine consecutive Serie A titles.

But Inter – led by head coach Conte and spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku – are on the cusp of glory this season, with the Nerazzurri 10 points clear atop the table after 32 rounds.

Only Atalanta (73) have scored more goals than Inter (71) this season, while Conte's men have the joint-meanest defence in the league alongside Juve, having conceded 29 goals with six rounds remaining.

However, Conte and Inter have still been criticised for their performances in 2020-21.

Regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Zenga – who amassed 473 appearances for Inter, winning two UEFA Cup titles, the Serie A trophy and Supercoppa Italiana during his time at San Siro – was asked about the criticism and he told Stats Perform News: "Now listen, you don't have to make a confusion about this point because the only person that knows everything is the coach because the coach has the players every day, takes training, decide the tactics, decides everything because he knows the quality of the player. 

"All the other people me and you included, we cannot talk about if they play good or not because first of all, we never watched one training, secondly we don't see from the stadium, we watch on TV and it's totally different. We make a confusion between playing well, tactics and everything. But then we forget one point, the only real things important in football are the end of the game, the table, what the result is, rankings and if you play in the Europa League, Champions League or whatever. These are the only important things. Then if we want to talk about one club like Inter who are first in the standings, they won 11 games in a row, they are almost close to winning the championship. 

"So, if it means that they play poor football, I would like to be a coach that plays poor football and wins the league! How many times do you read an interview about some coaches that say we play very, very well but we missed a chance, we are still in the middle of the rankings. We are in trouble, but we play well, we play well. With Crotone, two years ago in the first division we played very well but we got relegated to the second division. Probably if we play worst, and we just pray for a draw in some games probably we would still be in the first division but we are looking for our philosophy to play, play, play. But any coach, any game that they have, the philosophy for themselves depends on the quality of the player, depends on the quality of the mentality of the player."

Lukaku has been instrumental for Inter, scoring 21 league goals this term – only Juve's Cristiano Ronaldo (25) has managed more.

The Belgium international has barely missed a beat since Inter splashed out a club-record €80million to prise him from Manchester United in 2019, the Italian giants quickly moving on from former captain Mauro Icardi – who was deemed surplus to requirements by Conte.

Lukaku – linked with a return to Chelsea, as well as Clasico rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona – has netted 44 times in 67 league appearances for Inter, while he boasts an overall total of 61 goals in 90 matches since arriving in Milan.

"Icardi, he had a great balance between games and goals. He was a killer in the box. It's not easy to replace a player with this goal average," said Hall of Famer Zenga, who last coached Cagliari in 2020.

"Lukaku, Conte wanted him with his whole soul and heart. When one player arrives and he knows that the coach believes in him 100 per cent, he gives 200 per cent for him and himself not to disappoint the coach. 

"What I appreciated about Lukaku that I know him personally, he is a quiet man and a gentleman. He follows only one way, to close the mouth to everybody, work and work hard, not for himself, for the team. And this is the difference between one big player and one normal player. Talent is not enough.

"Now he is the top striker in Italy in my opinion. I think that now, there is not one club around the world that doesn't want him."

For all of Inter's success this season, their Champions League campaign left a sour taste.

Inter – Europa League finalists in 2019-20 – looked on track to the Champions League last 16 in a group featuring Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk. Instead the 2009-10 winners finished bottom.

Conte's Inter also failed to make it out of the group last season, taking a backseat to Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.

As Inter dream of a 19th Serie A trophy, are they capable of mounting a European challenge next term or do they require reinforcements in the transfer market?

"In Europe you play different. In the Champions League you play totally different, in the Champions League it looks like no tactics, only who is stronger," said the 60-year-old Zenga, who emerged from Inter's youth team in 1978 before leaving the club permanently in 1994.

"We are thinking about tactics all the time [in Italy] and this is our mentality. If you see the game of the Italian league, it is a very strong game, if you think that is boring, in the stands it is not boring because if you are involved, you have to take an aspirin after the game because it's so strong. If you see the Spanish league, it looks like they play slow, but when you play against the Spanish teams, [sometimes] you don't touch the ball because you don't know where they are. 

"In Germany or in France, it is less interesting the season, then when you play against them in in Champions League, you have to make a big effort because you're thinking, 'Oh in Germany there are only two teams, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, it is not competitive championship' and then when you play against them, you see it is so strong.

"So it's a question about the mentality and everything. To win in Europe in my opinion, you have to play to win. And probably you find either the clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, like this team that if you read the line-up specially at the top… the talent and the quality, class is the difference in Europe. I don't know what is in the mind of Conte or of the management of Inter, but in Europe, I think that you need the world-class players."

Zenga added: "Don't forget, you can buy either three-four great players, then the most important thing is that all good players they must play good together. I buy the best central defender, I buy the best striker and I put together and the quality together doesn't work. If we follow this idea, Inter of the [Massimo] Moratti era with [Christian] Vieri and Ronaldo up front, they should be winning every single day."

Antonio Conte believes "sport must be meritocratic" but called on UEFA to reflect after the European Super League project Inter signed up to crumbled.

Inter were among the 12 teams from Serie A, the Premier League and LaLiga to on Sunday back the formation of a breakaway tournament.

However, following widespread criticism, the plans fell apart on Tuesday as clubs opted to pull out in the wake of significant backlash from supporters, politicians and the media.

The Nerazzurri announced prior to their Serie A meeting with Spezia on Wednesday they would no longer be taking part in the Super League.

Conte is confident the club have made the right decision, but he urged UEFA to understand why the teams wanted to step away from the Champions League.

"As a sporting man, I think we mustn't ever forget tradition. This is history and it should be respected," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"We mustn't forget the passion for sport, and sport must be meritocratic. We work to win and to earn something. Meritocracy must always be first and foremost.

"Having said that, everything that happened shows it's only right that UEFA reflect too. They organise tournaments, take all the revenue and reserve only a minimal part of that for the teams who are actually taking part in these tournaments.

"The players are squeezed like lemons with this packed fixture list and get very little for it. The organisations need to consider better remuneration. Clubs invest in coaches and players, so they deserve some of the revenue they help to generate.

"If you get 10 from rights and keep seven of it for yourself, giving out just three to everybody else, that's not really fair. I think the split needs to be reconsidered."

UEFA announced on Monday that a new format for the Champions League would come into effect in 2024, with the competition expanding to accommodate 36 teams.

Instead of being split into groups, qualifying clubs will be part of a single league and play a minimum of 10 games rather than six.

Asked for his opinion of the new set-up, Conte replied: "I haven't really reflected on the format. It doesn't matter how many teams are in there, the important thing is that there is meritocracy, otherwise sport loses its meaning.

"Meritocracy is the most important thing, but also the organisations including those who run the international fixtures need to consider spreading out the resources a little better."

Inter were held to a 1-1 draw at Spezia but extended their lead at the top of Serie A to 10 points due to Milan's 2-1 home defeat to Sassuolo earlier in the day.

"Pressure is inevitable, and let's not forget that many players are challenging for something important for the first time. They are doing very well and I think we could easily have deserved the win," said Conte.

"I was happy with the intensity of the performance, though we could've had more quality in the final third, which is why we're talking about a draw rather than a win.

"There are fewer rounds left. We can see the finish line and the pressure is taking its toll.

"We used up a lot of energy and have another physical game coming up against [Hellas] Verona [on Sunday]."

Antonio Conte says there is still plenty of room for improvement from Christian Eriksen but hailed the midfielder's renewed "intensity" after he sealed a point for Inter on Sunday. 

Eriksen looked poised to leave Inter during the mid-season break after the club's CEO Giuseppe Marotta revealed he had been placed on the transfer list.

The former Tottenham man has forced his way back into Conte's plans, though, and secured a 1-1 draw for his side against Napoli after Samir Handanovic's first-half own goal. 

His fine strike was his 24th from outside the area in the top five European leagues since he joined Spurs in 2013-14, with only Barcelona's Lionel Messi (59) scoring more in that period.

The result ended the Nerazzurri's 11-game winning streak in Serie A, though they remain firm favourites to win a first league title since the 2009-10 season thanks to a nine-point advantage over second-placed Milan, who beat Genoa earlier in the day, with seven games left. 

Conte still wants to see more from Eriksen, but is pleased with the improvements he has made to his game in recent months. 

"Things changed when I had more time to work with him, and also I needed him to realise there is attacking and defending in football," the Inter boss told Sky Sport Italia. 

"He took a while to adapt to a very tactical style of football that we have in Italy.

"We tried in every way to get him settled and tried various roles. I know he can do much, much better. 

"He is becoming more aggressive and showing more intensity, which certainly benefited the whole team."

The result means Inter have earned the most points (75) in the top five European leagues this season, overtaking Premier League pacesetters Manchester City (74). 

Conte was delighted with his side's ability to bounce back from Handanovic's calamitous own goal and believes it was the kind of game they might have lost last season.  

"This was a game we may well have lost in other situations, albeit undeservedly, and we'd have struggled psychologically," he explained. 

"Instead, we saw a team that knows what it's doing, that never loses sight of the right way forward, even if something unlucky happens, such as the own goal.

"These are games that we would've struggled in during the past; that we would've lost or at least let our heads drop. Instead, this side never loses its way.

"Don't forget Napoli were at full strength and I considered them one of the favourites for the Scudetto going into the season.

"We dropped two points compared to Milan this weekend, but a draw away to Napoli is not to be snubbed."

Inter are in Serie A action again on Wednesday when they travel to Spezia. 

Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the top three defenders in the world, according to Antonio Conte, who wanted to sign him during his time at Chelsea.

Conte was keen to take Napoli centre-back Koulibaly to Stamford Bridge during his two seasons at the helm in west London, with a reported €58million offer turned down in 2016.

The 29-year-old has remained a key part of the set-up at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona and will hope to lead Napoli to a positive result against Serie A leaders Inter on Sunday.

Since making his Serie A debut in 2014-15, Koulibaly ranks first among defenders in the competition for clean sheets (76), tackles won (315), recoveries (1,526), successful passes (12,852) and successful passes in the opposition half (5,291).

He will need to call on all that experience when he goes up against Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, whose haul of 21 league goals this season is only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Asked about Koulibaly, Conte told a news conference: "He is one of the best two or three defenders in the world and I wanted to bring him to Chelsea.

"He's actually improved since then. Lukaku has improved a great deal too. It'll be an interesting duel, but both sides will have to work as teams to create goalscoring opportunities."

Inter are on track for a first Scudetto since 2010, heading into this weekend 11 points clear of second-placed Milan with eight games remaining.

The Nerazzurri have been criticised for a defensive, counter-attacking style despite their healthy advantage, but Conte believes he is the target of the negativity rather than his team.

"I realised that it's all about me. That's the basic problem. I don't mind that, as long as they don't touch Inter," said Conte.

"There are still many points up for grabs and we'll go to Napoli for the victory. We cannot start calculating or holding back because my experience tells me it's counter-productive.

"We mustn't fall into the trap of taking the Scudetto for granted because it hasn't been decided yet. We know the sacrifices we've made to reach this position, but must be humble to realise there are still some steps to go before we can make that dream come true."

Antonio Conte said his exuberant celebration was a "reward" for the team after Matteo Darmian's winner for Inter in the Serie A leaders' 1-0 victory over Cagliari.

Darmian converted Achraf Hakimi's cross to the far post 13 minutes from time as Inter took another step towards the Scudetto, maintaining their 11-point lead at the top.

Conte reacted to the goal by running down the sideline and leaping into a celebratory huddle with his players before then planting a kiss on creator Hakimi.

Milan put some pressure on by defeating Parma on Saturday, and Conte believes Inter's triumphant response was worth double with just eight games left in the season.

"I'm always stressed but the celebration was a reward for the lads, as was the kiss to [Achraf] Hakimi," Conte told DAZN.

"I don't consider myself to be an older brother but I often kiss them on the forehead, they know the affection I have for them and that I'm ready to throw myself into the fire for them. Hakimi deserved it, as did Darmian.

"I keep repeating the same thing. The matches are becoming fewer and the victories start to be worth six points.

"Milan won yesterday in Parma and it was important for us to maintain the distance at the top, but by now we are used to this type of situation.

"For many it is the first time they are playing under this pressure and having to win because others are picking up points, but I am very satisfied with the progress of these guys.

"We have grown so much in the space of under two seasons from every point of view, and show this every Sunday.

"I say the 'countdown' to the title in quotations, because we play to win and always push forward. We are not a team that makes calculations and I do not want us to, because I like winning too much and I want the players to feel this too.

"The objective is in sight but we are not there yet, we have won three big games in eight days but at the same time we know it's not enough because there are eight more matches."

Antonio Conte says the time has come for Inter to "shut up and pedal" as they approach the Scudetto winning line.

The Nerazzurri head coach has seen his team carry an 11-point cushion over second-placed Milan into the 30th round of Serie A games, and momentum is firmly in their favour.

On Sunday, Inter will have home advantage against Cagliari, and Conte is keen to ensure his side do not see this as a time to slow down and check what others are doing, suggesting that is a recipe for failure.

He described joining Inter as "the most difficult decision" on Saturday and said he has "a lot to lose", but the former Juventus boss is closing in on unseating his former club as champions of Italy after nine dominant years.

Appointed in May 2019, Conte has sculpted a team that stand on the brink of a major achievement.

But he said in a pre-game news conference: "The Scudetto? I look at the present as ever, trying to do something exceptional and extraordinary in Italy since only one team has been a protagonist in the last nine years.

"We have given back credibility to Inter both in Italy and in Europe. Now we have to take the last step, which is the most important, but we haven't done anything yet.

"We know the disappointments we could face. We have not won anything, we are working.

"We have to shut up and pedal. We don't make proclamations; I'm not used to making them. The season is not over, we must avoid slip-ups that could favour the chasing teams."

Inter have been increasingly formidable this season, and they should have the wherewithal to see off relegation-threatened Cagliari.

Cagliari have dropped 19 points from winning positions this season, with only Parma (21 points) and Torino (25) more vulnerable when ahead in games. Inter have dropped just six points, the third-best record in the league (behind Atalanta's four and Milan's two).

From the opposite perspective, Inter came into the weekend having picked up a league-high 14 points from losing positions.

The leaders are on a run of 11 successive home wins in the league, while they have only failed to score in one of their past 37 Serie A meetings against Cagliari - a 2-0 away defeat in April 2013.

Cagliari's most recent Serie A clean sheet away at Inter came all the way back in March 1992, and the Nerazzurri have netted 47 goals in the 22 league matches played in Milan between the teams since (2.1 goals per game on average).

Inter showed just how much they have grown this season with their 2-1 win over Sassuolo on Wednesday, according to head coach Antonio Conte.

The Nerazzurri moved 11 points clear at the top of Serie A with the victory, sealed through goals from Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez in each half – their only two on-target attempts of the contest.

Hamed Junior Traore deservedly pulled one back for Sassuolo with a late strike, but the league leaders held on to become the second side in Serie A history – after Milan in 1989-90 – to win their first 10 games in the second half of a campaign.

Inter recorded their lowest possession rate (30 per cent) in a Serie A match since Opta records began in 2004-05 and were outdone on shots by Sassuolo 15 to seven.

But Conte was happy with the manner of the victory, insisting that points are more important than the performance, as Inter learned the hard way when exiting the Champions League in the group stage.

"I congratulate Sassuolo as they came here to play their game and this performance shows how much we've grown," he told Sky Sport Italia. "With this attitude, we'd still be in the Champions League.

"Sassuolo make possession their main strength, so we chose to close the gaps in the centre more than anything else. We knew that we'd have to cede possession.

"Aesthetics are fine, but the Scudetto is too important. We played beautiful football in the Champions League and all anyone said was that we were eliminated, so we have to focus on the results now.

"We are trying to press high, without running too many risks, so we can make the most of players like Lukaku, Lautaro and [Achraf] Hakimi who can hurt teams when running into space."

Lukaku's 10th-minute opener came from his only attempt and he added to that with the assist for Martinez's goal midway through the second half.

The Belgium international has now scored in five successive outings for club and country, with this his first headed goal in Serie A since July 2020.

"You can see the work Romelu has done and I don't forget when people said he was overrated. I immediately said that with his potential, he could do extraordinary things here," Conte said.

"The great thing about our strikers is that they are all willing to do the dirty work, too. Christian Eriksen has also grown. We knew it would be difficult for him to adapt to a very tactical league like Serie A. He can do much more, but we are counting on him.

"It's a pity we conceded that late goal, but we are more balanced and mature as a team now. If you want to win league titles, solidity is important."

Despite boasting a healthy lead over closest challengers Milan, and a 12-point advantage on champions Juventus, Conte does not feel there is much difference between the clubs in terms of quality.

"I'm amazed by that," he said of the points gap. "To regain so many points over the past two seasons against the team that has dominated for the past nine years was difficult even in the best of dreams.

"But it doesn't mean we are better than Juventus. They have a strong team and they demonstrated that by beating Napoli."

Inter have won 11 home league games in a row and host relegation-threatened Cagliari on Sunday, but Conte is not ready to celebrate a first Scudetto for Inter since 2009-10 just yet.

"There are still many games to go and each victory is worth six points," he said. "By winning we have put on more pressure and can see the satisfaction in everyone's eyes.

"We want to do something wonderful for a club that hasn't won for 10 years. It's be wonderful if we were the ones to remove from the pedestal those who won for nine years non-stop.

"But there will be tension from here on – it'll feel like the ball weighs more at our feet, perhaps more than for those teams who no longer have the same objectives."

Antonio Conte has seen evidence of "massive progress" in Lautaro Martinez's game both with and without the ball during his time as Inter coach.

Conte arrived at San Siro in 2019, a year after striker Martinez was signed from Racing Club.

The Argentina international's debut campaign had brought just nine goals and two assists in 35 games in all competitions, but those figures quickly improved under Conte.

Martinez tallied 21 goals and five assists in 49 outings last season and has scored 16 times and created six more for team-mates in 38 appearances in the 2020-21 campaign.

His minutes-per-goal rate has improved across his three seasons in Italy, this season finding the back of the net every 162.2 minutes.

Martinez is also creating more chances, 1.4 per 90 minutes, resulting in the increase in assists, but his work in defending from the front has been similarly impressive.

The 23-year-old has won possession in the final third 32 times this term (1.1 per 90) and posted 31 interceptions (also 1.1 per 90), comfortably more than in his previous two seasons combined.

Among Serie A forwards to score 15 or more goals in all competitions this season, Martinez leads the way in both categories as well as in recoveries per 90 (3.1).

Conte was asked about his number 10 ahead of Inter's game with Sassuolo on Wednesday, and said: "He has improved in all areas, on the ball and off the ball.

"He has improved when it comes to holding up possession and attacking the space.

"Like the other players, he has made massive progress. He needs to stay on this track. Taking his age into account, he has a very bright future ahead. It's in his hands."

Of those with 15 goals or more, Martinez's strike partner Romelu Lukaku ranked last for interceptions (0.1) and recoveries (1.6).

But Lukaku trails only Cristiano Ronaldo (31) in the scoring charts with 26 strikes in all competitions, and Conte is confident all of his players are contributing to the cause as Inter - eight points clear with Wednesday's game in hand - close on a first Scudetto since 2009-10.

"I think for every side putting the team first is the most important factor," the coach said. "Alone, you cannot win matches.

"It's the team that gets the best out of the individual. The players have understood the message. They are all pulling in the same direction."

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