Conte: ‘Criticise me, not Inter’

Antonio Conte maintains Inter criticism is ‘all about’ him as the target, while he thought tomorrow’s opponents Napoli would be ‘favourites’ for the Scudetto and tried to get Kalidou Koulibaly at Chelsea.

It kicks off at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Sunday at 19.45 UK time (18.45 GMT), click here for a match preview.

“This is going to be a tough game and, as you all know, I have always put Napoli among the two-three teams who could challenge for the Scudetto to the end. Gennaro Gattuso is an excellent coach and this is going to be a difficult test for us,” said Conte in his press conference.

“Napoli have one of the best squads in Serie A and I put them among the favourites for the Scudetto at the start of the season. Rino is doing really well, but as we all know, the coach is the first to be criticised when results don’t come. It hasn’t been an easy year for me either.

“If a player asks me for advice on whether to become a coach, I tell him that he needs passion. Sometimes you can get the result and still be criticised, so you need the passion to go beyond positive or negative feedback.”

They are 11 points clear at the top of the table, but Inter are still criticised for their defend and counter approach.

“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. 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 that is counter-productive.

“We mustn’t fall into the trap of taking the Scudetto for granted, because it hasn’t been assigned 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.”

The most fascinating battle tomorrow should be between Romelu Lukaku and Kalidou Koulibaly.

“He is one of the top two or three defenders in the world and I wanted to bring Koulibaly 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 goal-scoring opportunities.”

Inter have found their form since sticking to a starting XI that rarely changes, which they could work out earlier due to a lack of European football.

“I think every team needs an identity and you can only have that if you focus on a specific system. I find it easier for players to recognise themselves in a system if it has only minor adjustments from game to game.”

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PSG join Calhanoglu chase

Hakan Calhanoglu is no closer to agreeing a new contract with Milan and PSG are the latest club to potentially swoop for the free agent.

The Turkey international’s current deal only runs to June 30 and negotiations to extend have dragged on for months without success.

There is reportedly still a pretty big €1m gap between his wage demands and the contract on offer at Milan, making his summer exit for free a distinct possibility.

After Manchester United, Juventus and Inter, now La Gazzetta dello Sport claim that Paris Saint-Germain have set their sights on Calhanoglu.

His agent continues to give Milan the priority, but time is running out.

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Hakimi: ‘I want to stay at Inter’

Achraf Hakimi assures he wants to stay at Inter ‘for a long time’ and sees coach Antonio Conte as ‘a big brother’, but hits back at critics of their defensive style. ‘It’s a football match, not a film.’

The Nerazzurri are 11 points clear at the top of the Serie A table and marching towards their first Scudetto since 2010.

“It was a gradual growth process, as many of us were new here, myself included, so we took a while to get to know each other,” Hakimi told La Repubblica newspaper.

“Some things also happened that gave us that extra push. The Champions League elimination allowed us to focus entirely on Serie A and we learned from every defeat what we really wanted to do. We talk about the Scudetto with respect, knowing it’s not won yet. That’s the objective, I won’t lie, but there’s a while to go.”

Conte’s celebrations are becoming increasingly agitated on the touchline, running towards Hakimi and giving him a kiss after the assist for Matteo Darmian’s winner against Cagliari.

“That was a lovely gesture of affection. The coach is with us no matter what happens. He’s like a big brother, for age and experience. He lets us be free and enjoy our football, which you can tell. He’s not just a coach, he’s part of this group that he created.

“I grew up at Real Madrid with a four-man defence, but I do have more freedom to push forward in a 3-5-2. The focus on tactics and defending are central to Conte’s idea of football and making me a more complete player. Our strength is that we want the same things and are all on the same page, off and on the field.”

Hakimi’s agent revealed this week that he had been targeted by numerous clubs, including Napoli, before choosing Inter.

“The team that attracted me the most was Inter and I saw it as a growth project. I am honoured to be one of the testimonials for the new club logo. I like it, as it looks to the future, a future we can build together. I hope to stay at this club for a long time, I’m very happy,” added the wing-back.

And yet, there are those who criticise the Nerazzurri for being too negative, focused on defend and counter tactics.

“It’s a football match, not a film. In football what counts is scoring goals and not conceding them, winning games and finishing first in tournaments.”

The Brazilian Ronaldo said that he would’ve liked to play with Hakimi in his Inter team.

“I wonder what we could’ve done together! You can do anything with Ronaldo, it would’ve been wonderful to run down the flank and provide him an assist.”

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Who is Inter target Mandi?

Inter are being linked with a free transfer for Real Betis defender Aissa Mandi, but who is the 29-year-old defender?

Mandi has become one of the hottest names ahead of the next transfer window, as his contract with the La Liga side expires in June.

Multiple reports have linked the 29-year-old with the Nerazzurri, who have offered the Algeria international a deal worth €2m a season, according to Estadio Deportivo and Le Buteur.

Mandi will reportedly announce his decision to leave his current club next week and Inter are reportedly in pole position to sign the centre-back.

He was born in France, but of Algerian origins, whom he chose to represent on an international level.

The former Stade de Reims defender, who moved to Real Betis in July 2016, is a versatile defender, who can operate at both full-backs, but prefers to play in the middle.

His career started in France with mentioned Reims and made his debut in Ligue 2 with the first team 11 years ago.

He was a regular in the starting line-up in 2011-12 and helped the side win promotion to Ligue 1.

After six seasons and 169 games with Reims, he moved to Real Betis for a reported €2.8m.

The defender also contributed with 14 goals during his time with the French side and continued to impress in Spain.

Mandi, who has played 24 games in La Liga this term, was the Player of the Year at Betis in 2018-19 and has played 169 competitive games with Los Verdiblancos since arriving five years ago.

The versatile defender, capped 60 times by Algeria, won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019, where he played alongside Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer.

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Up to a 1,000 fans in Serie A from May 1?

Fans up to a maximum of 1,000 spectators could be allowed back into stadiums in Italy from May 1.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced the new COVID-19 measures in Italy in a press conference, but Sky Sport Italia reveals further news is awaited for the sports world.

The news agency ANSA reported public access should be allowed in the sports facilities, with up to a maximum of 1,000 people for outdoors and up to 500 for indoors, for all competitive events recognised by CONI and CIP.

The Italian Government recently gave the go ahead for Rome to host Euro 2020 this summer and the FIGC President Gabriele Gravina hopes to have fans back for the Coppa Italia Final between Juventus and Atalanta in May.

“There are reflections underway. We will certainly have the Europeans with the public and we also want spectators at the Coppa Italia Final,” the undersecretary Andrea Costa told Sky Sport Italia.

“On the May 1 date, there’s still nothing confirmed.”

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Report: Napoli want to keep Meret

Napoli will reportedly do everything they can to keep goalkeeper Alex Meret in goal, amid rumours of interest from Inter and Roma.

The Italian shot stopper has competed with David Ospina during coach Gennaro Gattuso’s time with the Partenopei and the lack of guarantees in Naples has ended in speculation of a possible farewell this summer.

The Azzurri signed the goalkeeper three years ago for a reported €25m but reports emerged with rumours of interest from rivals Inter and Roma.

La Repubblica claims today that Napoli will do everything to avoid the sale of Meret, who has played 14 times in Serie A this term.

The report claims Napoli plan for a future with the 24-year-old in goal and the former Empoli player, capped once by Italy, has already played 70 competitive games for the Partenopei.

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Mancini: ‘Inter set the example’

Roberto Mancini insists Inter should ‘set the example for everyone’ in Serie A and sees similarities with Antonio Conte, while he won’t risk Nicolò Zaniolo at Euro 2020.

The Azzurri boss also spoke about the vaccine push for players ahead of Euro 2020, you can read the rest of his comments here.

When it comes to picking his squad for the tournament, it looks as if Roma talent Zaniolo will miss out.

“The Zaniolo situation is a delicate one, because we have to wait and see if he recovers. He is a young player, he’s already had two serious injuries and we cannot afford to put him at risk,” said Mancini.

“Moise Kean is doing very well in Paris, he is maturing, is a player who can really become excellent, and I’m sure he’ll be playing with the Italy side for many years to come.”

Back to club level, Inter are 11 points clear at the top of the Serie A table and Antonio Conte said he faced the ‘ultimate challenge’ by accepting the job.

“Inter are a team with great prestige in Italy and the world. They have a great team this year and it proves that when you work hard with consistency and focus, the results arrive. They should set the example for everyone.

“When I arrived at Inter, the club hadn’t won for many years then either, then we got the Coppa Italia and the Scudetto, building up to the Inter that won everything with the Treble. There are many affinities between the experiences.”

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Napoli’s new fashion designer kits

Napoli are expected to announce the release of two new kits and accessories in collaboration with Kappa and fashion designer Marcelo Burlon.

The jerseys continue Burlon’s recurring motif of neon wings, which you can usually see on his T-Shirts for hundreds of pounds.

The first is yellow with the blue wings, while the second kit is black with blue wings.

This collaboration seems to also include hats and even a football.

Although the announcement is not yet official, the images of the photo shoot have emerged on social media.

It’s reported they could be used this weekend against Inter.

The yellow one is for the goalkeeper and the black kit for the outfield players.

This effectively takes the number of kits Napoli have released this season to six, including the special edition ‘Argentina’ tribute that was produced in tribute to Diego Armando Maradona.

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Skriniar: ‘Inter are reaping the rewards’

Milan Skriniar admitted Inter ‘never thought’ they would be 11 points clear with eight games left. ‘We are reaping the rewards for the work we have done’.

Skriniar has played 26 times in the League this term and has contributed to a great run of 11 consecutive wins in Serie A, to give the Nerazzurri a great advantage in the Scudetto battle.

“We would never have thought of having this advantage with eight games left,” Skriniar told Sky Sport Italia. “But we are working to get as high as possible.

“We train everyday with great joy and a great attitude. Every day we know we can improve and do better and better.”

Skriniar said coach Antonio Conte always tells them to focus on the next task in hand and not look too far ahead.

“He tells us every day that we have to work, train every time without looking at how many games we have left,” Skriniar added. “We just have to work at each training session, thinking about the next opponent without calculating.”

And the Slovakia international said it’s not only the three defenders who are working for the clean sheets and praised his teammates for helping out at the back.

“It’s not just the three of us in defence, the whole team does,” he added. “You can see even in the last few games that we all defended a little lower, very compact.

“The opponents hardly ever had a shot on target. Our defensive phase begins with the attackers and our offensive phase starts with the goalkeeper.

“The important thing is to know that in front of us we have strong players who hold up the ball and who can score goals when we break, from outside or inside the area.

“I have to praise them for the work they are doing in defence.”

Despite the success in the League, Inter were eliminated from both the Champions League and the Coppa Italia before their rivals in Serie A.

“The elimination from the Champions League has given us a little more strength,” he said. “It allowed us to unite even more.

“Now, we are reaping the rewards of the work we have done in a year and a half. We are happy and proud of this, and we want it to continue.”

Skriniar was asked if the Scudetto was a word he was allowed to use.

“As I said, we take one game at a time,” he said. “But the sooner it comes, the better.”

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Lukaku: ‘Serie A is hard work’

Romelu Lukaku admits he did not expect Inter to be on the verge of Scudetto success already, while Antonio Conte’s staff won’t let him bench press weights.

The striker spoke to 433 in an Instagram Live chat, sitting pretty 11 points clear at the top of the Serie A table.

“I feel good, we are working really hard. There were lots of ups and downs last season, but there are a lot of young players in the squad, so I think taken another step forward. There are many games to go and we’re hungry to achieve our results.”

Lukaku was asked if he expected to be this far ahead of the chasing pack in mid-April.

“Honestly, no. I think Serie A is a really complicated league, you have to prepare for every single game and are always challenged. Every match is a different test. It all helps me become a better player, but it’s hard work.

“I think the defenders and goalkeeper are doing a great job, while we forwards also know that, if we don’t allow chances at the back, then sooner or later we’ll score a goal.

“Conte always says the striker is the first line of defence, so with Lautaro Martinez, Alexis Sanchez and Andrea Pinamonti, we all try to block the opposition from building out from the back. We make life difficult for them.

“I think all four of our strikers are very generous and the whole team benefits from that.”

While Lukaku is known for blowing past defenders with sheer power, he reveals the Nerazzurri don’t encourage him to get too muscular.

“When I was 15 years old, I could bench press 100kg, but I’m not really allowed to since I came to Italy. The first day I arrived, I tried to go on the weights, and our fitness coaches gave me a bad look.

“Basically, the only thing I’m allowed to do in the gym is co-ordination exercises with these elastic bands around my waist to find stability.”

It is a turning point for Inter, who even unveiled a new club logo and changed their name to Inter Milano.

“It’s part of the modernisation of Inter. I think last season we did really well and people had been waiting 10 years to see Inter at the top again. We reached the Europa League Final and I can’t wait to see this logo on the shirt next season.”

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