The main challenge for the ambitious clubs of Italy is as evident as it is daunting: to try to bring an end to Juventus’s nearly decade-long Serie A reign. Things like qualifying for and making a run in the Champions League are important, as is success in the domestic cup. But all of it must be subservient to or in furtherance of the true goal of snatching the scudetto out of the hands of the giants in Turin.
In recent years, Napoli have done the most admirable work on this front; Roma can be proud of their efforts, too. But because of a combination of club size and financial might, it’s long felt like the clubs with the best shot at stopping Juve were the two teams in Milan—should one of the two ever get their act in order after years of mismanagement. With today’s announcement that Inter have hired Antonio Conte, the man who started Juventus’s current run of eight consecutive league titles, as their new manager, Inter might finally have found the right blueprint to begin their assault in earnest.
As an X’s and O’s manager, Conte is one of the best in the world. The 49-year-old Italian has on his resumé three consecutive Serie A titles won in as many years at Juventus, a laudable stretch with the Italian national team, and a Premier League trophy won in runaway fashion in his first of two seasons at Chelsea. What Conte does on the field at Inter will surely be interesting. But what will be even more important is whether he is able infuse a talented but relatively underachieving side with enough elite quality through the transfer market to assemble a roster capable of overtaking Juventus.
Conte’s first order of business on that side will surely be dealing with Mauro Icardi. The Argentinian striker is undoubtedly talented, but has been criticized for his inconsistency and his shaky commitment to the club. Icardi, especially through his wife/agent/hurricane of locker room-fracturing controversies, Wanda Nara, has constantly waffled in recent years about his future at Inter and his demands for a new contract. Predictably, this has infuriated Inter’s infamously demanding fans, as well as his coaches and teammates. Icardi is both Inter’s best player and their biggest headache.
If there’s one trait that Conte has embodied in his managerial tenures, it’s that he does not mesh well with player egos. If Conte has his say, it’s a veritable lock that he’ll try to offload the striker. (Italian media have already started banging that drum.) Conte has a well-documented thirst for Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku—he tried to sign him at Juventus at the start of the decade, and went after him again when at Chelsea—and all reports are that Conte is once again desperate to acquire the Belgian’s services. Finding a solution will be difficult (United and Juventus feel like the most likely destinations for Icardi), but whether Conte is successful at getting rid of Icardi and replacing him with Lukaku will probably go a long way toward determining the overall success of Inter’s new project.
There are other holes on the Inter side. While the center of defense is stacked (particularly with Diego Godín’s imminent arrival), the squad could use help everywhere else. Marcelo Brozović is the only midfielder whose place should be secure for next season, and the team has to find some reliable creators to feed the goal scorers. But the pieces for the title contention puzzle are there, they just need some re-fiddling and perhaps a few corner pieces to settle the whole thing.
More than anything, though, what the Nerazzurri need is a man with a vision of the kind of club Inter are to be. It’s not entirely clear whether Conte is that guy. Except for maybe José Mourinho, no top boss in recent memory wears out his welcome faster or with more noise than Conte. He gets results, but his method is madness. Between swapping formations seemingly at will, his famously intense training sessions, or sending Diego Costa on a long vacation, Conte is not known as a player’s manager. Whether or not the Inter contingent respond well to his style will be the main question for the club this season. Going forward, whether Conte finds in Milan a home in which he feels comfortable sticking around at for a good while, long enough to really build something lasting for this huge but rudderless ship, will likely determine if Inter will be successful in their attempt to become champions of Italy any time soon.
But Conte been here before. When he took over Juventus, they hadn’t won the league since the calciopoli scandal of the mid-2000s. Juventus built on the foundation Conte laid, and they are now enjoying the most overpowering era of dominance Italy has ever seen. Now Conte takes over at Juve’s hated rival, and has a chance to topple the empire and cement his legacy as one of the greatest coaches in Italian soccer history.
Juventus are still the huge favorites to go on to win another scudetto next season, and probably the next couple league titles after that. But Inter do have the pieces to for an upset if everything breaks right. They have the history, the money (the club is majority-owned by a multi-billion dollar Chinese holding company), the will, and now they believe they have the coach. They could make it happen. After all, who better to destroy a world-historic juggernaut than the man who created it?