Stefano Pioli insists Milan are focusing only on the first leg of their Europa League tie with Red Star Belgrade, despite a huge derby with Inter coming up this weekend.

The Rossoneri have slipped off top spot in Serie A, with Saturday's surprise loss away to Spezia allowing their city rivals to take over at the summit. 

Next up in the league is a showdown with Inter at San Siro on Sunday, though not before Milan travel to Belgrade to continue a European campaign that began way back in mid-September of last year. 

Milan had to come through qualifying in the Europa League, needing a penalty shoot-out success over Rio Ave to make it to the group stage, and Pioli is determined to extend their run beyond the last 32. 

"No one can ever forget all the joy and emotions brought by the win against Rio Ave, so we have to put on the pitch this joy and these emotions on Thursday," Pioli told the media ahead of Thursday's game against Red Star.

"We want to amaze in this competition too.  

"We have lots of games ahead, all even more important and decisive, with the two legs of the last-32 tie being a knockout round.   

"The coming Serie A games will be equally important with 16 games to go until the end of the league, plus, hopefully, we have 8-10 games left to play in the Europa League.  

"Now is the moment to prove we're up to the task – but we have the quality to do so, with the desire to go to the end of both competitions."

Even with the setback against Spezia, Milan are on course to achieve their target of securing Champions League qualification through a top-four finish in Serie A.

The Europa League also offers an alternative route, so Pioli has no plans to prioritise one competition over the other at this stage of a demanding campaign.

"We're a team with a young average age and we need at certain stages to show our qualities, to grow and better understand situations that are different," he said.

"Even (technical director and club legend) Paolo Maldini not long ago stated that Milan needs two consecutive seasons in the Champions League to get back to its high standards. This is our objective. 

"To achieve that, we can either win the Europa League or finish in the top four of the league. This is what we are focused on – and we will fight until the end to achieve it."

Demonstrating his commitment to the tie, Pioli has included Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the squad to travel to Belgrade, while Ante Rebic is also included after missing the Spezia defeat through injury.

Milan are looking to win three consecutive matches in a major UEFA European competition for the first time since a four-game streak between September and November 2008.

Romelu Lukaku answered any recent criticism aimed in his direction against Lazio and Christian Eriksen is starting to understand what Inter require of him, says Nerazzurri coach Antonio Conte.

Inter bowed out of the Coppa Italia at the semi-final stage after a goalless draw at Juventus ensured a 2-1 aggregate defeat, but a 3-1 triumph over Lazio on Sunday saw Conte's side leapfrog rivals Milan at the top of Serie A.

Lukaku scored twice in the first half to move on to 300 career goals, and Lautaro Martinez was on target after Gonzalo Escalante had replied for the visitors at San Siro.

Speaking about the Belgium striker's showing, Conte told Sky Sport: "Romelu, like the whole team, gave a great response. Lautaro did, so did Ivan Perisic, the defenders, Marcelo Brozovic. They all stepped up.

"Some were starting to murmur about Lukaku after the Coppa Italia and a few lacklustre performances, suggesting he had some psychological blowback from that, but there are moments when you are not at 100 per cent.

"He came back firing on all cylinders and we need this Romelu. We need this determination and passion from everyone in the team."

Eriksen signed from Tottenham amid much fanfare in January 2020 but struggled to hit the ground running and was heavily linked with an exit last month.

However, the Denmark playmaker stayed put and has since impressed, something Conte puts down to becoming familiar with the requirements of Italian football.

"I think Christian had a few problems settling in, understanding Italian football, which is very difficult and tactical compared to the Premier League. There is also a far greater intensity now than in previous years here," Conte added.

"We tried in every way to settle him in, even changing tactical system. I think now he has made a step towards us, is starting to understand Italian, which is an important development too. He is understanding what we need.

"Eriksen was very focused when defending as well as attacking. He has a different power to his leg now after the fitness work.

"He's an extra option for us and I am more comfortable relying on him now."

Next up for Inter is a huge derby clash with Milan, a match that is sure to have huge ramifications on the outcome of the Scudetto.

Conte is relishing the challenge after seeing off a Lazio side that had won six straight league games.

"This was an objective we'd been chasing for a long time, to get to the top of the table, we achieved it after a game against a very strong team," he added.

"I congratulate Lazio and Simone Inzaghi, as they are tough, organised and with a lot of quality.

"The fact they were coming off six consecutive victories shows their strength, but at the same time it shows our mental strength.

"I am happy for the lads, inevitably this must be a starting point for us and not the finish line. We know the next game is the derby with Milan, going into it ahead is obviously much better.

"It's going to be a fascinating game between two teams who have strong ambitions."

Romelu Lukaku scored twice and assisted another to help Inter to a 3-1 win over Lazio that lifted Antonio Conte's men above bitter rivals Milan to the top of Serie A.

Milan's shock 2-0 loss to Spezia on Saturday opened the door for Inter and they pounced at San Siro on Sunday, taking a one-point lead into next weekend's huge Derby della Madonnina.

Lazio were furious with the awarding of Inter's 22nd-minute penalty as replays appeared to show Wesley Hoedt, drafted in after Stefan Radu was injured in the warm-up, got some of the ball before taking out Lautaro Martinez.

Lukaku converted and added a second ahead of half-time with the assistance of VAR, before teeing up Martinez to seal the points after Gonzalo Escalante had given Lazio some temporary hope.

There had been little between the sides prior to the controversial penalty call, with the VAR standing by referee Michael Fabbri's decision to point to the spot for Hoedt's challenge on Martinez.

Lukaku sent Pepe Reina the wrong way to extend his perfect penalty record in Serie A to 10 from 10, and the Belgium international did not have to wait long for the landmark 300th career goal for club and country.

It had an element of fortune about it as Marcelo Brozovic slid in on Manuel Lazzari and the ball ricocheted into the striker's path, though it took a lengthy VAR check to ascertain that Lukaku was level with the last man when the initial pass was played.

Lazio had found the net in each of their past 17 league outings, however, and they kept that run going when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic's free-kick heavily deflected off substitute Escalante and beat Samir Handanovic on his 500th Serie A appearance.

But just when the visitors had some momentum on their side, Lukaku charged down the right, held off Marco Parolo and unselfishly squared the ball for Martinez to tap into an empty net.

Reina denied Lukaku a hat-trick with a good save down low but Inter, knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Juventus in midweek, retained their two-goal cushion to move to the summit.

Romelu Lukaku scored twice in the first half of Inter's Serie A clash with Lazio on Sunday to bring up the 300th goal of his career.

The Belgium striker opened the scoring from the penalty spot at San Siro and added a second late in the opening period - the goal allowed to stand after initially being ruled out for offside.

Lukaku moved onto 56 goals for Inter in all competitions since joining from Manchester United in August 2019, 16 of those coming in the league this season.

That is one fewer than the 27-year-old has scored for his national side at senior level, though he still has some way to go before equalling the 87 netted for Everton between 2013 and 2017.

Lukaku's other goals were scored for United (42), Anderlecht (41) and West Brom (17). He failed to register for Chelsea, despite spending three years on the London club's books - two of those out on loan - and making 15 appearances.

Lazio can win Serie A's Scudetto race this season according to Christian Vieri, who lauded Simone Inzaghi's "amazing" team.

Spearheaded by highly rated head coach Inzaghi, talisman Ciro Immobile and star midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lazio are once again challenging in 2020-21.

Lazio can move to within six points of top spot with victory over second-placed Inter on Sunday as they prepare for a blockbuster Champions League last-16 tie against holders Bayern Munich.

Inzaghi has renewed Lazio's fortunes since taking charge in 2016, guiding the capital club to Coppa Italia (2019) and Supercoppa Italiana (2017 and 2019) success. The Biancocelesti had not celebrated silverware since 2013.

Ahead of the Inter showdown, Lazio have found the net in each of their past 17 Serie A games – they last went on a longer streak in October 1994 (18).

Lazio have also gained the most Serie A points in 2021 (19). They are the only unbeaten side (W6 D1) – having also conceded the fewest goals (four, level with Genoa) since the turn of the year.

Vieri spent a year with Lazio in 1998-99 – scoring 14 goals in 28 appearances under Sven-Goran Eriksson as the club won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and Supercoppa Italiana alongside Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved, Marcelo Salas, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Dejan Stankovic before a then-record move to Inter – and he hailed the work of Inzaghi.

"He has been there for four years. You can't change coach every year," ex-Italy striker Vieri told Stats Perform News. "Coaches need time. All the teams that are changing every year aren't doing well.

"Lazio are doing amazing. They have an amazing director – [Igli] Tare, fantastic. They have big players at Lazio.

"Lazio are a fantastic team. They played amazing football. In the Champions League and qualified very easy.

"Lazio are there to win everything. Lazio can win the Scudetto, you never know. Let's see what happens in the Champions League. Anything can happen, but they're doing amazing."

Lazio have not won the Scudetto since 1999-2000 – Inzaghi was part of that triumphant team as a player – but threatened to end their drought last season.

They were only a point adrift of Juventus when the league was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March last year.

But when the 2019-20 campaign resumed, Lazio stumbled and eventually finished third – four points behind Juve as the Turin powerhouse claimed a ninth consecutive Serie A crown.

"Everyone stopped playing, not only Lazio. The thing is, when you play and you don't need to win the Scudetto, you play with no pressure," the 47-year-old Vieri explained.

"When they say to you, there's 8-10 games to go and we have to win all eight, and tomorrow we have to win, it changes. You stop sleeping. You're nervous because you have to win.

"One thing is winning the game and no one says anything – you're second or third but no one expects you to win. But when they say there's five games to go and you have to win all five, that changes everything.

"When they started again after COVID-19, they had to win the last six or seven games and didn't do that. Juventus are used to the pressure. That's how it is."

If reports are to be believed, Lionel Messi will leave Barcelona at the end of the season.

However, his next destination remains a mystery.

The United States, though, could be next on the list for the record six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

 

TOP STORY – MIAMI MOVE ON THE CARDS FOR MESSI?

Lionel Messi could be keen on joining David Beckham's Inter Miami in MLS, claims Sport.

Messi, whose contract is set to expire, is tipped to leave Barcelona at the end of the season amid strong links to Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain and Premier League giants Manchester City.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner could be lured to the United States, where Beckham co-owns Inter Miami.

 

ROUND-UP

- According to The Sun, Manchester United are battling Barca and Real Madrid to sign Sevilla centre-back Jules Kounde. United are reportedly determined to bolster their defence and Kounde has emerged as a key target.

Liverpool have made Torino defender Bremer their top transfer target at the end of the season, reports the Mirror. Despite the January arrivals of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, Liverpool still want to strengthen their defence.

- Spanish journalist Siro Lopez says Sergio Ramos has made his decision to leave Madrid. It comes as the likes of United, PSG, Juventus and Chelsea eye the superstar Madrid captain on a free transfer.

Madrid are interested in Real Betis midfielder Nabil Fekir, reports Estadio Deportivo. Inter, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Napoli are also believed to be eyeing the Frenchman.

Antonio Conte has apologised for his actions during Inter's Coppa Italia exit to Juventus, saying he should have "reacted differently" after he was "insulted".

The Inter coach, previously in charge in Turin, aimed an insulting gesture at Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli as the pair traded comments at the Allianz Stadium.

The Bianconeri earned a goalless draw to advance to the final 2-1 on aggregate, but Conte was apologetic when revisiting the incident ahead of Inter's Serie A meeting with Lazio on Sunday.

However, the former Italy boss, who said after the game Juve "need more sportsmanship and respect", suggested he was insulted first.

Conte said: "I want to only talk about football during the press conference, so I will say this before we begin: I am here to apologise.

"I reacted in the wrong way to being insulted. I could have reacted differently and that would have been more positive.

"I am sorry and I will learn from this for future reference. The insults and provocation should not be an excuse, because I still shouldn't have responded like that.

"Everyone saw what happened; that is important to me.

"However, we as coaches, players and presidents are meant to set an example and therefore I should have reacted to insults and provocation in a different way - perhaps with a thumbs up or applause, to show I could hear what was being said, but it would've been a more positive response.

"Having said all that, now we should concentrate on the game. People want to talk about football, not gossip."

Leonardo Bonucci admitted an attention-grabbing exchange between Inter boss Antonio Conte and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was "bad" but stressed it was in keeping with the heat of battle.

Conte and Agnelli clashed on Tuesday during the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final in Turin, a match that ended 0-0 to see Juve prevail 2-1 on aggregate.

Footage appeared to show the ex-Juve boss making a gesture that was reportedly towards Agnelli, who could be heard on a pitch-side microphone making comments aimed at the touchline following the end of the game.

Speaking to RAI after the draw, Conte said Juventus should "tell the truth" over what unfolded, adding: "They should be more polite in my opinion. They need more sportsmanship and respect for those who work."

Juventus defender Bonucci understands that while those involved in top-level football must set an example to the audience watching on, it is not always easy to stay calm in such high-pressure situations.

"There is little to add, the images speak clearly," Bonucci said in an interview with Sky Sport Italia. "What happened is bad, but it is not up to me to judge why it happened or what had to be done.

"Obviously we must always be an example, but sometimes it is difficult. When you step onto the pitch the environmental situation does not make you think.

"In some moments, adrenaline and tension make you become something different than what you would like to be, episodes like this happen, amplified by the empty stage with the sideline microphones that can transmit a sneeze."

Juve had won the first leg 2-1 at San Siro, having previously lost 2-0 at the same venue in January when going up against the Nerazzurri in Serie A action.

Bonucci points to that league defeat as a turning point for the reigning champions of Italy, as Juventus have not lost in seven games since that setback. Their reward for progressing in the Coppa Italia is a final showdown with Atalanta, which takes place in May.

"It represents a small step towards another goal, which is to bring home the trophy. It will be difficult, because Atalanta have been one of the best Italian teams for several years, they have also shown it in Europe," the defender said.

"It will be an unprecedented and complicated final, but there will be the desire to take home the cup.

"For the group it is yet another confirmation that after the match in Milan with Inter something different has taken place in us as a team and as individuals and this bodes well."

Juve switch their focus back to Serie A this weekend, though Bonucci is an injury doubt for Saturday's game away at Napoli due to a muscle issue.

Midfielder Arthur also appears set to miss the fixture after the club revealed he has "the presence of a post-traumatic calcification at the level of the interosseous membrane" in his right leg. The Brazilian will be monitored on a daily basis, though it is unclear when he will return to action.

Romelu Lukaku would prove to be a "gigantic" signing for Manchester City, according to former Citizens star Elano.

Sergio Aguero has been a fringe player for City this season, with the 32-year-old struggling with multiple injury issues as well as coronavirus-enforced lay-offs.

Aguero is out of contract at the end of 2020-21 and talks are yet to begin over a new deal, while Gabriel Jesus has also struggled to solidify his place in Pep Guardiola's team in the Argentine striker's absence.

With Aguero making just five league appearances – only two of them starts – and failing to score or assist, Jesus has netted four times and teed up two more goals from 14 games, 10 of them starts.

Phil Foden, Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, who is currently out injured, have all been deployed in a central attacking role this season by Guardiola, who is reportedly set to target a forward in the upcoming transfer window.

Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland is a name that has been mooted, though all of Europe's major clubs no doubt harbour an interest in the 20-year-old.

From 15 Bundesliga appearances this term, Haaland has scored 14 goals, second to only Eintracht Frankfurt's Andre Silva (17) and Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski (19) in Germany's top tier.

However, another name which has emerged in relation to City's transfer targets is former Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton striker Lukaku, who has enjoyed another strong season with Inter following a stellar maiden campaign in Italy.

The 27-year-old is a player whose style may not be an obvious fit with Guardiola's way of playing, yet Elano believes the Belgium international would be a supreme addition.

"When you play at a club at a high level, the competitiveness is huge. And if a guy like Lukaku is free, it's not only City who want him, many others do too," Elano, who became a cult hero during a two-year stint with City between 2007 and 2009, told Stats Perform News.

"The way that City play these days everybody wants to play for City don't they? It's an amazing way to play.

"Jesus has his place at City, but if a transfer like that really happens, it would be a gigantic reinforcement for the club and all three would have to fight for the opportunity. And City will have opportunities to compete in all competitions."

City are 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League as it stands, having won a 10th straight top-flight match on Sunday, when they demolished defending champions Liverpool 4-1 at Anfield.

Asked if he believes City, who also have a game in hand over their title rivals, will go on to reclaim the league crown they won consecutively in 2017-18 and 2018-19, Elano said: "They went through a tough time, which is normal.

"When you rise so fast, they won two Premier Leagues, if I am not wrong, they also won the FA Cup so… after that, they went through a turbulent moment because they didn't win, but now they are playing well again, which is normal when you have an amazing squad like that.

"The manager has a good base to work from and I believe City has all the potential to win the title again.

"I consider [Guardiola] the best alongside some others. Each coach has his own way to play. But the most beautiful way to play football I guess is the Guardiola way."

WHAT WOULD LUKAKU BRING TO CITY?

Having spent the majority of his senior career in England, Lukaku would have no trouble adapting, and though his United connections may at first seem to represent a stumbling block, the Belgian never really settled during his time at Old Trafford.

Nevertheless, he still netted 28 league goals across 66 appearances for United, converting 42.22 per cent of 45 big chances he had, while also creating 54 goalscoring opportunities.

In his time at Inter, Lukaku has far surpassed that total in Serie A, scoring 37 times, while adding another four Coppa Italia goals and 13 in European competitions.

Last August, Lukaku became the first player to score in nine successive UEFA Cup or Europa League games when he netted in a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen. He went on to score a penalty and an own goal in Inter's defeat to Sevilla in the final.

His partnership with Lautaro Martinez helped Inter to a second-placed finish last season and they are now battling it out with rivals Milan and Juventus for this term's Scudetto.

Lukaku's big chance conversion rate has been upped to 54.72 per cent in Serie A, while he averages a goal every 121 minutes, and with the quantity of opportunities City create – they top the Premier League for that metric this season with 259, with their big chance total of 65 matched only by United – he would surely hit the ground running.

"I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket."

Christian Vieri is regarded as one of the greatest strikers to have played football.

Once the most expensive player in the world, the former Italy international won titles with Juventus, Inter, Lazio and Torino, while he claimed numerous individual honours – the Pichichi Trophy and Serie A Footballer of the Year to go with his FIFA 100 selection and other awards.

But it could have been a lot different for the cricket-mad 47-year-old after growing up in Australia – a far cry from his birthplace in Bologna.

"My whole family is a soccer-team family," Vieri, who also played for Milan, recalled to Stats Perform News. "My father played, I played, my grandfather, my brother. So when my father at the end of his career in Bologna, they asked him if he wanted to go play in Sydney with Marconi. He said yes and the whole family moved there. He played for some time and coached there. We all went with him. 

"I think I was about four years old and I stayed 10 years there, till about 14. I grew up there. It was good. Growing up with the kids, for me it wasn't strange. Now, if you tell people, it's a bit strange that I grew up in Australia but when I was there it was normal – going to school, playing soccer, playing cricket, playing different sports. I was a big fan of cricket. Even if we were 13-14, we would go watch Australia play Test matches, ODI matches in Sydney. I'm a very big, big cricket fan."

"I just love playing," Vieri said. "I was probably playing more cricket than soccer at school. You know what we would do? The tennis ball, we would tape it up to make it go faster and swing. I think I would've been the best batsman in the world if I played cricket. I was an all-rounder. I was really good. 

"You know what happened now? Two months ago before the second coronavirus wave, I spoke to someone from the cricket association, I'm going to start playing in March, April. It's a small thing in Italy, in Milan there is a cricket team. I spoke with the Italian cricket captain. They said listen, when you want to play with us, just come. I said listen, one thing is playing with a tennis ball when you're 14, one thing is playing with professionals. I want to come three or four days, train with you guys and see how it is. 

"I just love the game. I watch all the West Indies' games – Viv Richard, Clive Lloyd, Joel Garner, all those guys. I would watch Australia but in those days, the Windies were too strong for everyone. I'm on YouTube a lot watching cricket. My wife always says 'what are you watching? what is this?', three hours a day watching games from 1984 and 1986, and she is going 'what is wrong with you, why aren't you normal?' I say to her, 'listen, I grew up there, these are the days I was there following cricket'. She takes the p*** out of me. Pakistan had Imran Khan, I know the players. England had Ian Botham. It was fun. 

"I love the game. Couple of months when it gets a bit warmer and we can start to go out a bit easier, I would like to go training with the Italian team, see how fast the ball really comes at you, with your pads and everything. I think it would be a good experience."

So, as Vieri prepares to dust off his pads and helmet in Italy, who would he compare to in the current era of cricket?

"I think Chris Gayle from West Indies. I'm a left-hander," he added. "When I used to play, I'm not a Test match guy, I want to smash the ball outside the stadium. I think I would've been good."

And if Vieri remained down under in Australia, rather than returning to Italy at the age of 14, would he have opted for cricket over a football career?

"Cricket, soccer or tennis," Vieri, who retired in 2009, responded. "I play paddle, I play tennis for 30 years. I like tennis too because it's an individual game – it only depends on you."

Vieri went on to make 49 appearances for his beloved Italy, scoring 23 goals (ninth on the all-time list) following an international career spanning eight years between 1997 and 2005.

He made two trips to the World Cup in 1998 and 2002 – his nine goals across the two major tournaments a joint national record alongside Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio, while he also featured at Euro 2004.

While Vieri joined forces with the likes of past greats Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Andrea Pirlo for the Azzurri, his younger brother Max followed a different path.

Max Vieri, who was part of Juve's youth team before going on to play for Napoli in a notable spell, opted to represent Australia.

A midfielder, Max earned six caps for the Socceroos, but Christian Vieri never considered wearing the green and gold.

"I had two dreams when I was in Sydney playing and I was only 12, 13, 14, so you're going to school playing soccer. That's why I left Australia when I was 14 – my two dreams were to play in Serie A and for the national team – the blue jersey," said Vieri. "I remember in 1982 when Italy won the World Cup – Paolo Rossi and all those big players – I had it stuck in my head that I wanted to become an Italian player. When I was 14, I started breaking my dad's head about going to play soccer in Italy.

"When I started playing for Marconi, I started left full-back and then after I while, I said to the coach 'put me up front' and that's it, I was scoring goals and that's how everything started. My brother wanted to play for Australia always and I just had my dream to play the World Cups with Italy."

"I think the Australian team has done well in the last 10-15 years World Cup-wise and qualifications," he added. "They've done good. Of course when I was there – the big sports were AFL, rugby league, cricket – football wasn't the main sport but I think it's getting bigger. The evolution of football around world is just so big now, so much money behind it. When I was there, we were playing soccer and it wasn't the main sport but the passion we have and the kids have, it was bigger than the other sports."

Vieri's choice to chase his dream in Italy proved a wise decision, winning the Scudetto with Juve in 1997 before joining Atletico Madrid after just one season in Turin.

An incredible return of 24 goals in as many LaLiga matches for Atletico, and 29 from 32 appearances across all competitions in 1997-98, led to head coach Radomir Antic famously saying: "Vieri dead is better than any other attacker alive".

"We had a good relationship. I won the goalscoring award. I was a bit crazy those days. I would go out a lot. He would always say don't go out too much, train," Vieri recalled. "He knew I wanted to go back to Italy after about seven, eight months. He said, 'where are you going? you are going to stay here, LaLiga is your competition. You stay here and you just train a little bit, you score 50 goals a year with a cigarette'. I said yeah but I wanna go back home. 

"I think it was the best experience in my life playing in the Spanish league. It's the best quality league. There is so much technique and the way all the teams play, they all play to win. A lot of ball possession. Those days, you had to be really good to play. I had an amazing season."

Like his time at Juve, Vieri's spell with Atletico was brief as he returned to Italy via Lazio in a €25million deal the following season.

After 14 goals in 28 appearances and a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup triumph in the Italian capital, Vieri became the most expensive player in the world when he reunited with former Juve boss Marcello Lippi at Inter, who splashed out €49m to partner the Italian with Brazilian great Ronaldo.

"The thing is that, if you play in Spain, Italy, England – they're the biggest competitions, so you can't block it out," Vieri said when asked about the pressures of being the world's most expensive player. "Automatically, from being normal to 100 times of pressure on you because 90billion Italian lire in those days, the player who cost more than anyone, every game you play you're judged… even more than before. 

"At Atletico, I was sold to Lazio – big scandal came out – then when I went to Inter for 90b [lire], the world went crazy. From Lazio, moving to Inter, going to play at San Siro, it's a heavy thing because San Siro – the biggest players in the world have played there, 85-90,000 people judging you all the time. They whistle if you don't play good. They've seen everyone. 

"When I went there, I said to myself, 'Bob, first game is at home, when I went to camp, in a month and a half, your first game is at home and whatever happens, you have to go score in that game. if you score in that game, you're gonna fly'. I trained a month and a half in camp, I wouldn't go out anywhere. First game, I scored three goals at home, 90,000 people went crazy. Took a lot of pressure off my shoulders that first game. Here they call me Mr. 90m guy, even today. It's a thing you're gonna call you that for the rest of your life."

Now, Vieri watches the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe bang in the goals across Europe. 

How would he fare in 2020-21?

"I think it's easier to score these days because there's less marking. Before, football, first thing was not to concede, in Italy league at least," Vieri said. "It was probably the hardest league in the world in those days. All the biggest players in the world were there. We started the competition where seven teams were trying to win the league, not one or two but seven big teams with big, big players. If we would shoot twice in 90 minutes, we were happy. Those two shots, we would score one goal, we had to score once. 

"Today, the game has changed. The defenders don't mark as much, they play. They're more like midfielders, you have to play with the ball at your feet – the whole team have to attack. Now you have 15 strikers who score more than 20 goals. It's fun to watch still but changed a lot."

Popular on social media and Italian television in his post-playing days, Vieri has ventured into coaching as he works to complete his UEFA A and B license alongside the likes of former team-mates Del Piero and De Rossi.

"All of us, the former players, when we talk about things, we only miss one thing – staying together and training... having fun. The everyday stuff. The dressing rooms, we had the craziest dressing rooms, people. Taking the p*** out of everyone 24/7. 

"I speak with all my ex-team-mates. It's just fun. Now, I'm doing the coaching course… We just laugh, we have fun. We are doing UEFA A and B together. The way we talk to each other, it's just like back in the days. With a lot of former team-mates, we play paddle ball here in Milan. When we can, we hang out."

"The first thing is you need a license to coach. It's very hard, it's not easy. When you're doing two courses together because the federations asked UEFA if just the top 10 players could do it, so we're doing it," added Vieri, when asked if he was eyeing a coaching career.

"We'll see what happens. If I have a nice project, anything can happen. 1,000 of doors will open like I always say."

Antonio Conte was left fuming over a heated post-match exchange with Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli following Inter's Coppa Italia semi-final exit.

The Milan-based side were held to a tense 0-0 draw in the second leg at the Allianz Stadium as the Old Lady advanced to the final, 2-1 on aggregate, before ugly scenes allegedly erupted following the final whistle.

Media outlet RAI reported that Conte made an insulting gesture towards his former employer Agnelli at half-time, and the Juve chief retaliated by verbally abusing the Inter coach as the teams left the field.

Conte criticised his former club's behaviour in his post-match interview but stopped short of pointing any fingers.

"Juventus should tell the truth," Conte told RAI. 

"I think the fourth official heard and saw what happened throughout the match.

"They should be more polite in my opinion. They need more sportsmanship and respect for those who work."

Conte coached in Turin between 2011 and 2014 and led the Bianconeri to three Serie A titles before taking up a role in charge of Italy after the 2014 World Cup.

The 51-year-old was questioned on the incident in his post-match news conference but he refused to elaborate.

"What happened at the end of the game? I have neither the desire nor the pleasure to comment on anything," Conte said.

"I think that in all things there must be education. Enough."

The competition's most successful club, Juventus, advance to the final to face Atalanta or Napoli, as Andrea Pirlo's side search for a 14th Coppa Italia triumph.

Andrea Pirlo was happy to go back to the future to seal a place in the Coppa Italia final for Juventus at Inter's expense.

Juventus played out a 0-0 draw in Tuesday's semi-final second leg, meaning Cristiano Ronaldo's double in the 2-1 win at San Siro last week proved decisive.

Pirlo has tried to bring in an expansive passing style at Juve this season with mixed results, but the sight of black and white shirts soaking up pressure with ease in front of Gianluigi Buffon evoked memories of the years under former bosses Massimiliano Allegri and Antonio Conte - the latter now cutting  a frustrated figure in the Inter dugout.

"It's very nice," Juve head coach Pirlo told Rai Sports of the comparison.
"If I have to win what he won, you can also call me 'Allegriano'.

"We were very good, they almost never shot on goal."

Pirlo hailed Samir Handanovic as the best player on the field and the Inter goalkeeper made a couple of stunning second-half saves to thwart Ronaldo.

A final awaits against Atalanta or Napoli, who Juve beat in the Supercoppa Italiana to claim the first piece of silverware of Pirlo's embryonic coaching career.

"It was in my plans to win the Supercoppa and get to the Coppa final, but there is work to be done," he added.

"As a coach it is completely different. We are satisfied so far but we have not done anything yet."

Juve have reached the Coppa Italia final in six of the last seven seasons, failing to do so only in 2018-19.

Pirlo's Juve are unbeaten in 11 of their 12 games since the start of 2021 in all competitions, having won 10 of those matches (D1). 

Meanwhile, Juventus are unbeaten in nine of their last 10 matches against Inter in all competitions, winning six games (D3). 

After turning 36 last week, Cristiano Ronaldo felt compelled to remind fans that he cannot go on forever.

"I'm sorry that I can't promise you 20 more years of this," said the Juventus star, who looks every inch a man that could quite comfortably play professional football into his mid-fifties. "But what I can promise you, is that as long as I keep going, you'll never receive less than 100 per cent from me."

That much would never be in doubt from a man who, blessed with talent as he is, has built an extraordinary career on a foundation of boundless ambition and unyielding endeavour. He brings to mind Brad Pitt's turn as Achilles in Troy, the war-seeking warrior-hero who wins a skirmish singlehandedly before, abs a-glistening, he proclaims to a prisoner: "I want what all men want. I just want it more."

Achilles, as this version has it, knew Troy would bring about his death in a blaze of glory. Ronaldo, too, can already sense time's winged chariot hurrying near.

Which brings us to Gianluigi Buffon.

Juve's veteran goalkeeper, who celebrated his 43rd birthday less than two weeks ago, has for so long defied convention when it comes to a footballer's longevity. Even keepers rarely keep playing beyond the age of 40 and certainly not for Europe's grandest teams.

Buffon is not Juve's first choice these days, of course, but he remains the cup stand-in for Wojciech Szczesny and he duly kept his spot for Tuesday's Coppa Italia semi-final second leg with Inter. It was a day to celebrate, too, as a goalless draw earned him club clean sheet number 288 of his Juve career and sent his team into the final 2-1 on aggregate.

The game also showed why head coach Andrea Pirlo would do well to consider how much more his old friend has to offer.

A resolute defence meant he only had two saves to make throughout; in fact, the only time Juve looked especially anxious was when Buffon had the ball. There was one pass under pressure that went straight out for a corner, another in the second half that let Lautaro Martinez drive into the box only to foul Buffon after a heavy touch. There were three attempted punches while under pressure from Romelu Lukaku, all of which ended with Buffon clueless as to the ball's position as he landed, then grateful that it had already bounced away, and another positional mishap on which Martinez really should have capitalised.

The contrast with Samir Handanovic - himself no spring chicken at 36 - was stark. Handanovic made four saves to Buffon's two, a couple of which were exceptional stops to deny Ronaldo, who could have killed the tie long before full-time in Turin. Commanding in his penalty area, he gave quite a different impression to Buffon, who seemed like a doddering uncle at a family wedding trying desperately to keep up with the dance moves. Indeed, had Inter's attacking players showed the same level of laser-focus as Handanovic, perhaps they could have rescued this contest.

Pirlo's Juve have become supremely difficult to beat. They have won 10 of their 12 games in 2021, the sole defeat being a 2-0 Serie A loss to the Nerazzurri. Since that game on January 17, they had won six out of six games before this encounter and conceded only one goal: a close-range strike by Martinez in the first leg that squirmed into the net when Buffon, in game number 1,100 of his club career, was too slow to get to ground.

The Bianconeri are on course for more silverware this season and Buffon will deserve any more medals he can add to his impeccable collection. He may well start the final, too - one more turn in the limelight. But there is no shame in admitting that, in the 26th year of his professional career, the time is approaching when he should graciously step into the wings.

Juventus progressed to the Coppa Italia final as they kept Inter at bay to secure a goalless draw in the semi-final second leg and a 2-1 aggregate victory.

A mistake-ridden Inter performance had given Juve the advantage in the tie and crucial away goals in the first leg.

The Nerazzurri consequently spent much of the return leg in Turin attacking in search of the goals that would turn the tie on its head.

Impressive work by Juve's rearguard ensured they never arrived and only the reflexes of Samir Handanvoic stopped Cristiano Ronaldo from sending the Bianconeri into a final with Atalanta or Napoli in more convincing fashion.

Achraf Hakimi was a constant threat down the right in the opening 45 minutes, and the game's first clear-cut chance came in the 25th minute after he was hacked down on the edge of the area by Alex Sandro.

Romelu Lukaku could not get telling contact on Christian Eriksen's free-kick but Inter's pressing continued to cause Juve problems, with the Bianconeri throwing their bodies in the way to prevent Gianluigi Buffon from being tested.

It wasn't until the 42nd minute that either goalkeeper was forced into a meaningful save, Handanovic using his legs to stop Ronaldo from squeaking an effort inside his near post.

Ronaldo was profligate in blazing high and wide just before the hour following a counter from Adrien Rabiot and Handanovic then prevented him from converting Weston McKennie's excellently placed pass with a close-range save.

The Portugal star was left looking to the heavens in disbelief after he weaved past two Inter defenders and into the area, only to see Handanovic get down to his right and turn away a fierce drive.

Hakimi lashed into the side-netting from a tight angle with better options available in the middle, his team-mates' reactions summing up a frustrating night for Inter.

Inter need to be as close to perfect as possible if they are to overcome Juventus in their Coppa Italia semi-final on Tuesday, says Antonio Conte.

Juve won the first leg at San Siro last week 2-1, with a double from Cristiano Ronaldo overturning Lautaro Martinez's opener.

Inter bounced back with a 2-0 win at Fiorentina on Friday and need a victory at Allianz Stadium on Tuesday if they are to make the Coppa final for the first time in 10 years.

However, the Nerazzurri have not been victorious away at Juve since a 3-1 triumph in November 2012, while the Bianconeri are unbeaten at home in the Coppa since a 2-1 loss to Fiorentina in March 2015.

Inter beat Juve 2-0 at San Siro in Serie A in January and Conte knows it will be a tall order for them to repeat the trick against his former club.

"We need to go out and play the game with desire and determination like we have shown in the previous two games," Conte told Rai Sport.

"We need to be braver, to build on what happened in the last game and try to be perfect because to beat Juventus you must play a game that borders on perfection.

"Regardless of victory, whoever wears this shirt has an obligation to make our fans proud, this must always be our mission.

"The best way to give the players the conviction to win the game and try to get through the round is through hard work, and preparing for the match in the right way, as we have done."

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