MILAN (AP) — Inter Milan won its first Serie A title in more than a decade as it ended Juventus’ grip on the league crown.
Atalanta’s draw at Sassuolo meant that no team could catch Inter, with four matches remaining, and saw Antonio Conte’s side become the team that finally wrested the Serie A title away from nine-time defending champion Juventus.
It was Inter’s first trophy since 2011 and the first league title since 2010, when it claimed the treble of the league, Champions League and Italian Cup.
Inter was helped by early elimination from Europe meaning it could focus all of its attentions on the league.
But in Serie A it also had the best defense and one of the best attacks and is unbeaten since January — a run of 18 matches.
Here’s how Inter finally ended its lengthy wait for Italian soccer’s greatest prize:
THE POWER OF CONTE
The man who started Juve’s unprecedented era of dominance was the man who ended it.
A lifelong Juventus fan and former Bianconeri coach and player, Antonio Conte led Juventus to the first three of its nine successive Serie A titles but ended that run in his second season in charge of Inter.
Inter chief executive Giuseppe Marotta brought in Conte at Juventus and he tasked the coach with doing a similar job at its bitter rival.
Conte rejuvenated a troubled Inter side when he took over in 2019 following a year off after being sacked by Chelsea.
Inter was in disarray after a season of turmoil, with underperforming stars and dressing-room discord. But Conte shook things up and transformed the squad with his strict, no-nonsense attitude and attention to detail.
In his first season in charge he led the Nerazzurri to the Europa League final, where they lost to Sevilla, and to within touching distance of the Serie A crown.
And the 51-year-old coach went one better this season despite openly contemplating leaving Inter a year ago when he severely criticized the club’s Chinese owners for failing to “protect” the squad from criticism.
Inter forwards Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez have formed an impressive partnership — dubbed “LuLa” by Italian media.
Eyebrows were raised when Conte signed Lukaku from Manchester United in 2019 for around 80 million euros (then $90 million), with many believing Inter had overpaid for the Belgium forward.
However, under Conte’s tutelage, Lukaku has thrived and scored 34 goals in all competition last season — a personal best.
“You can see the work that’s been done with Romelu,” Conte said recently. “I haven’t forgotten how so many people turned up their nose at his arrival, talking about an overvalued player.
“But right from the start I said that he had arrived here with his potential and with hard work he could do something extraordinary. He has made exceptional improvements and can do still more.”
Lukaku has scored 27 goals so far this season and has set up many more for his teammates, including Martínez.
The duo scored 55 goals last season and have netted 44 between them so far this campaign.
THE NEW BBC
While much of the credit has gone to Inter’s attack, Conte’s side has also been solid at the back.
Having let in just 29 goals all season, Inter boasts the best defensive record in Serie A.
Juve’s famed BBC defence of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini was at the heart of the Bianconeri’s success. The Inter trio of Milan Škriniar, Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni can do the same for the Nerazzurri.
“I see a lot of similarities with the path taken by Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini at Juve,” Conte said. “They also had nothing on their CVs before, there are a lot of similarities with Milan, Stefan and Alessandro.
“If they start winning they will start on a path where there will be more awareness, self esteem and sureness in their own capabilities. The BBC had also won nothing when they started with me. I hope the same will happen for Škriniar, De Vrij and Bastoni.”
Under Conte, all three have improved. Škriniar has matured immeasurably, while De Vrij has become an important leader and the 22-year-old Bastoni is being talked about as one of the best prospects for the future of the Italian national team.
Behind the trio there is veteran goalkeeper Samir Handanović. The 36-year-old has made some uncharacteristic mistakes this season but has nevertheless kept 14 clean sheets in the league this season and has only let in six goals in the past 17 matches.
There have been ongoing distractions this season amid reports that struggling retail giant Suning can no longer afford to hold on to Inter.
Funding from the Chinese group put Inter on its way to recovery after a 2016 takeover with Suning investing approximately 600 million euros in the intervening five years on star players such as Lukaku and Christian Eriksen as the new owners sought a return to the top of Italian and European football.
However, the company is struggling because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and has halted operations at its Chinese football club.
Inter’s finances were also hit by the pandemic, as well as the club’s early elimination from European football.
Suning has been looking for investors rather than trying to offload the Serie A club and Italian media reports it is in advanced talks with Bain Capital over a loan deal worth €270 million.
Amid all that Conte has managed to keep his players’ focus firmly on the field and the team became the first to win Serie A under foreign ownership.