Inter end Juve's reign to return to summit of Italian football

Sunday May 02 2021
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Inter Milan's Italian coach Antonio Conte (C) celebrates with Inter Milan's Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku after Inter opened the scoring during the Italian Serie A football match Inter Milan vs Hellas Verona on April 25, 2021 at the San Siro stadium in Milan. PHOTO/AFP

By AFP

Inter Milan claimed the Serie A title on Sunday for the first time in 11 years to end Juventus' nine-year reign in Italy.

Antonio Conte's side clinched their 19th 'Scudetto' after nearest rivals Atalanta drew 1-1 at Sassuolo to leave the 'Nerazzurri' 13 points clear with four games remaining.

Conte had started Juventus's record run, winning the first three titles in a winning streak that stretched from 2012 to 2020.

The 51-year-old took over Inter in 2019 and lifted the trophy after finishing second last season.

"I'm astonished," said Conte. 

"We're breaking up a dynasty. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that we’d make up this much ground on the team that dominated Serie A for nine years in the space of two seasons.

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"This doesn’t mean we're better than Juventus, they have a great squad; we've rolled our sleeves up and started doing some important work, trying to make ourselves credible."

Inter are now second for league trophies in Italy, one ahead of city rivals AC Milan's 18, but still some way short of Juventus' 36.

The Lombardy side had not won Serie A since Jose Mourinho's historic Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia treble in 2010. 

Their last trophy was the Coppa Italia in 2011 and they missed out on the Champions League for six seasons before Luciano Spalletti returned them to Europe's top club competition in 2018.

Conte is the 13th coach since Mourinho to sit on the 'Nerazzurri' bench and the club has changed hands twice over the past decade.

Billionaire Massimo Moratti, whose family controls Italian oil refiner Saras Group, sold to a consortium led by Indonesian business tycoon Erik Thohir in 2013, with Chinese electronics retailer Suning Holdings Group taking a majority stake in 2016.

It is the first time that a foreign-owned Italian team has won the league title.

Inter targeted Conte to pull off what he had done at Juventus, who had finished seventh in the two previous seasons before his arrival in 2011.

Club president Steven Zhang hailed the arrival of "one of the best coaches out there, to make this club one of the best in the world again".

Former Juventus director Giuseppe Marotta, who had worked alongside Conte in Turin, joined Inter as CEO for sport in 2018.

In addition to Conte's reported annual salary of 12 million euros ($14.4 million) Inter splashed nearly 220 million euros on transfers in 2019 after his arrival.

"In coming here, I made the toughest decision," said Conte. 

"It's a new planet for me. I tested myself, I love big challenges.

"It wasn't easy to win over all the fans and I understand that, but I'm convinced that I've always given my all for the teams that I coach."

Conte has turned the team into a competitive unit again after two fourth-place finishes under Spalletti.

Despite a mixed start to this campaign, Conte found the winning formula and Saturday's 2-0 win at Crotone stretched their unbeaten run to 18 games.

After Inter crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage for the third consecutive season, finishing bottom of their group, and their Coppa Italia exit, the club could focus on their league campaign.

A 2-0 win over Juventus in January fuelled their ambitions, followed by a 3-0 success over AC Milan in February to pull ahead in the table.

Spearheaded by Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku and Argentine Lautaro Martinez Inter cemented their title credentials with a run of 11 consecutive wins before being held by Napoli on April 18.

For goalkeeper and captain Samir Handanovic, the most senior member of the squad at 36 years old, it was a first title after many setbacks since his arrival in 2012.

The triumph ends Juve's golden era with the gamble on coaching novice Andrea Pirlo, who played under Conte and took over from Maurizio Sarri last summer.

Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo remains the top scorer, but Juve suffered frequent injuries to players including forward Paolo Dybala and veteran defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

The demise of a reign which followed the 'Calciopoli' match-fixing scandal and relegation to Serie B in 2006, sees Juventus now fighting for a top-four finish and Champions League football next season.

The Champions League will be Inter's new challenge, having not reached the last 16 since the 2011/12 season.

However, the future ownership of the club remains in doubt with Inter making losses of 100 million euros last season mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Suning Group shut down their Chinese club Jiangsu FC in February just months after it won the Chinese Super League title.

Talk of a sale have been denied by the club in recent months by Suning who estimate the club's value at one billion euros.

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