Bar a surprising reversal of fortunes, Inter’s 11-year wait for a Serie A title will come to an end at some point next month. Nothing can ever be taken for granted when it comes to Inter – the club anthem, after all, endorses the team’s “crazy” side – but it would take a monumental collapse for Nerazzurri to let the Scudetto slip from their grasp.
Inter are 11 points clear at the top of the table with five games left. In golfing terms, they are walking towards the 18th green at Augusta National with a three-stroke lead.
The significance of a 19th league title for Inter would stretch far beyond ending a barren run that has delivered only a Coppa Italia in the last decade. Not only it would end Juventus’ nine year-long stranglehold on Serie A, it would be delivered by Antonio Conte, the man who kickstarted the Bianconeri’s dominance over the last 10 years.
Inter, and by some degree Juventus, have been here before. In 1989, the Nerazzurri swept aside everything in their path and broke records at a rate of knots en route to their first Scudetto in nine years. Inter won 58 out the 68 points available – a Serie A record in the two points for a win era – and had the title wrapped up with five games to go, as Giovanni Trapattoni delivered the title then-Nerazzurri’s chairman Ernesto Pellegrini had desperately craved when he appointed him in the summer of 1986.
Like Conte would do three decades later, Trapattoni arrived in Milan with a scintillating track record but a heavy baggage in the eyes of some Inter fans. A pillar of the A.C. Milan team that won two Serie A titles and two European Cups in the 1960s, during a trophy-laden decade as Juventus manager Trapattoni led the Old Lady to seven Scudetti, one UEFA Cup, one Cup Winners’ Cup as well as the club’s first ever European Cup triumph – albeit one overshadowed by the Heysel tragedy.
Conte lacked the Milan connection, but his ties to Juventus arguably ran even deeper than Trapattoni’s. Over 13 seasons with the Bianconeri as a player, Conte won five league titles – including the 1997-98 season, when Juventus pipped Inter to the title thanks to a very contentious refereeing decision – a UEFA Cup and another five domestic trophies.
He was also part of the team that reached the Champions League final in three consecutive seasons, winning in 1996 against Ajax on penalties but losing to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in the following two years.
When he returned Juventus as a manager in 2011, Conte took over a team that had finished seventh in the previous two seasons and immediately restored Juventus as the dominant force in Italy, winning three consecutive Scudetti.
It could have been a very different tale had it not been for Trapattoni, who signed Conte from Lecce during his second spell at Juventus in 1991 and convinced the young midfielder to stick around when he felt overwhelmed by the challenge of proving himself in an alien environment.
“If Trapattoni hadn’t been there, I don’t know if I would have stayed at Juventus,” Conte later recalled.
Along with Marcello Lippi, who succeeded Trapattoni at Juventus, few managers have had as much an impact on Conte as a player.
Incidentally, the trio all managed Italy, Juventus and Inter. Lippi’s spell in Milan, however, was an unmitigated failure and he was sacked at the beginning of his second season in charge.
While Conte and Trapattoni differ in terms of personality, it is not entirely surprising to see the former’s teams are built on some of the same principles that constituted the core of the latter’s most successful groups.
A style of football that is often considered too pragmatic by observers – Fabio Capello and former Italy striker Antonio Cassano have both lambasted Inter’s reactive approach this season, with the latter going as far as suggesting if he was a player under Conte he would ask the club’s president to fire him – and that relies on a rock-solid defence.
Juventus finished with Serie A’s best defensive record each season during Conte’s three titles as manager, while Trapattoni’s teams boasted the league’s most parsimonious defence in five of his seven Scudetto-winning campaigns.
That defensive solidity has been crucial in Inter’s title charge this season, with the Nerazzurri conceding just six goals in the last 16 games after allowing 23 goals in the first 17 games of the season.
Inter’s title under Trapattoni in 1988-89 was built on a similar foundation, as the Nerazzurri conceded 19 goals in 34 games, at an average of 0.5 goals per game – Inter’s current defensive record extrapolated over 38 games would seem them concede 0.8 goals per game – an astonishing improvement for a team that conceded 35 in 30 games the previous year.
At the other end of the pitch, Trapattoni and Conte’s versions of Inter are similarly impressive. Under the former, the Nerazzurri finished with Serie A’s best attacking record, plundering in 67 goals in 34 games at an average of 1.97 goals per game, as Aldo Serena was crowned league’s top scorer with 22 goals and Ramon Diaz added a further 12.
Inter have already eclipsed that total this season, scoring 72 in 33 games, making their attack the third-most prolific in Serie A behind Atalanta and Napoli.
With 21 goals, Romelu Lukaku trails only Cristiano Ronaldo in the race for the Capocannoniere award, while Lautaro Martinez has contributed 15 goals of his own. Aside from Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, Lukaku and Martinez are the most prolific attacking duo in Europe’s top-five leagues.
Perhaps more than any other player, Lukaku has epitomised Inter’s renaissance under Conte.
The Belgian arrived in Milan for a club record £66.6m fee from Manchester United in the summer of 2019 and wasted no time in establishing himself as Inter’s attacking talisman, rewarding Conte’s faith and proving doubters wrong after two seasons at Old Trafford characterised by more lows than highs.
Lukaku has justified his hefty fee, as have several other of Conte’s signings, from Nicolo Barella to Stefano Sensi, Achraf Hakimi and, albeit after a slow start, Christian Eriksen. Conte’s spending spree has been an endless source of debate since he first arrived at Inter.
According to data from Transfermarkt, the club has spent £261.3m on players over the last two seasons, recouping £133.9m.
Conte’s advocates point at the league table and claim the expenditures were justified by the need to completely overhaul a team that had lost its way. Detractors, meanwhile, believe Inter have played too fast and far too loose with their balance sheet – Jiangsu FC, the Chinese Super League club owned by Suning Holdings, the company that controls Inter, collapsed last month.
Whatever the long-term impact of the spending spree, for the time being the investment is set to be paying off for Inter, just as it did over three decades ago when, desperate to close the gap to Milan and Napoli, Pellegrini loosened the purse strings.
In terms of spending, Trapattoni’s first two summers as Inter manager were a world away from Conte’s, so much so that writing on La Repubblica in 1986, legendary Italian journalist Gianni Mura described Trapattoni as “by far the best of Inter’s signings.”
Despite boasting several Italy internationals like Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri, Inter couldn’t keep up with Diego Maradona’s Napoli and an A.C. Milan side spearheaded by Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit.
A third and fifth place finishes in Trapattoni’s first two seasons with the Nerazzurri served as the prelude for one of the most significant transfer windows in Inter’s history, as Pellegrini completed the signings of Bayern Munich duo Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus, along with Nicola Berti and Diaz.
The quartet immediately became mainstays of Trapattoni’s team as Inter romped to the title, with Matthaus, Berti and Diaz combining for 36 goals in all competitions. The outstanding midfielder of his generation, Matthaus took Serie A by storm, establishing himself as the best player in the world.
A year after winning the Scudetto, Matthaus won the Ballon D’ Or and lifted the 1990 World Cup as West Germany beat Argentina in the final thanks to a penalty from Brehme.
While the arrivals of Matthaus, Brehme, Diaz and Berti turned Inter into an unstoppable juggernaut in Italy, there was precious little joy to be found beyond the country’s borders.
Eliminated in the quarter-finals during Trapattoni’s first year in charge, in 1989 Inter were knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the third round for the second consecutive season, losing on away goals to Bayern Munich after squandering a 2-0 away lead from the first leg.
Trapattoni would eventually deliver a European trophy, winning the UEFA Cup in 1991, before returning to Juventus the following season.
Conte’s first two seasons have been similarly disappointing from a European football standpoint, with Inter surrendering a lead to lose last season’s Europa League final against Sevilla and finishing bottom of their Champions League group this season.
A return to European football’s premier competition is all but guaranteed, but before
they set sights on Europe, Inter and Conte will have to finish the job in Italy.
“I’m all for challenges and Inter is the toughest of my career,” the Inter manager told Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera earlier this year. He’s a few games away from conquering it.
Words by: Dan Cancian. @dan_cancian