EPL

Conte: Koulibaly one of the best - I wanted him at Chelsea

By Sports Desk April 17, 2021

Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the top three defenders in the world, according to Antonio Conte, who wanted to sign him during his time at Chelsea.

Conte was keen to take Napoli centre-back Koulibaly to Stamford Bridge during his two seasons at the helm in west London, with a reported €58million offer turned down in 2016.

The 29-year-old has remained a key part of the set-up at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona and will hope to lead Napoli to a positive result against Serie A leaders Inter on Sunday.

Since making his Serie A debut in 2014-15, Koulibaly ranks first among defenders in the competition for clean sheets (76), tackles won (315), recoveries (1,526), successful passes (12,852) and successful passes in the opposition half (5,291).

He will need to call on all that experience when he goes up against Inter striker Romelu Lukaku, whose haul of 21 league goals this season is only bettered by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Asked about Koulibaly, Conte told a news conference: "He is one of the best two or three defenders in the world and I wanted to bring him 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 goalscoring opportunities."

Inter are on track for a first Scudetto since 2010, heading into this weekend 11 points clear of second-placed Milan with eight games remaining.

The Nerazzurri have been criticised for a defensive, counter-attacking style despite their healthy advantage, but Conte believes he is the target of the negativity rather than his team.

"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," said Conte.

"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 it's counter-productive.

"We mustn't fall into the trap of taking the Scudetto for granted because it hasn't been decided 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."

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    The Uruguayan was dismissed just before the hour mark at Anfield by referee Paul Tierney during Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace after he reacted to being shoved by Joachim Andersen by pushing his head into the Dane's face.

    The Reds were 1-0 down at the time, but still managed to salvage a point after Luis Diaz equalised Wilfried Zaha's first-half opener with a thunderous effort from all of 25 yards at the Kop end.

    The hosts could have won it at the death, with Mohamed Salah and substitute Fabio Carvalho both going close with volleyed efforts, though Zaha also nearly snatched it at the other end.

    Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, Milner said Nunez will learn from his mistake, with the help of his team-mates.

    "I didn't see the incident," the 36-year-old said. "Obviously he's going to be disappointed with that and it's down to us to get round him and rally. I'm sure he'll learn from it.

    "I think the reaction [from the team] was the most important thing. The team reacted very, very well and the ground reacted very well – as they always do – they got right behind us and we could've nicked a winner. It wasn't to be but we move on.

    "That's what good teams do, they get together with disappointments and you stick together. We've got a great team spirit at the club and you don't have to say too much about the fans here. They're obviously incredible and always get behind us, especially when things are tough. They did that and we rallied.

    "It was disappointing not to get the winner but I think the reaction was incredible from the boys – 10 men and kept pushing."

    Liverpool have already lost ground in the race for the title, sitting four points behind champions Manchester City after two games, but Milner is not concerned given the campaign is still in its infancy.

    "It's not the ideal start but you see the readiness for the season and it's obviously a long, long season," he said. "It's not the start we would want but you see the fight there.

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    Liverpool went into the break 1-0 down despite having 17 shots on goal to Palace's four in the first half, but Milner heaped praise on Diaz for the quality of his leveller in the second.

    "When we had the chances we had and the moments around the box and didn't quite get the break, sometimes you need that moment of brilliance," he added.

    "Obviously when you've got players like [Diaz] on the pitch that can create something out of nothing, it was an incredible goal and hopefully there'll be many more to come this season from him."

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    The Uruguayan had already endured a frustrating home debut after having five shots with none on target, before seeing red both figuratively and literally just before the hour as he threw his head into Joachim Andersen's face after the Dane shoved him.

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    Zaha gave the visitors the lead in the first half after running onto a through ball from Eberechi Eze and placing his finish past Alisson into the far right corner.

    Luis Diaz equalised for Liverpool shortly after Nunez's dismissal, beating several players down the left side before cutting inside and smashing a shot into the same corner of the net Zaha had found earlier.

    Speaking to Sky Sports after the game, Klopp said Nunez knew he made a mistake, but added he will have to get used to the physicality of defending in the Premier League and react accordingly.

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    Klopp was happier with the contribution of his other South American forward, Diaz, whose goal brought Anfield to life as the hosts tried to force a winner, with Mohamed Salah and substitute Fabio Carvalho both hitting volleys narrowly wide in the closing stages.

    "Luis played a super game, especially after the goal, he played like three or four players," Klopp added. "Incredible goal and of course, we needed that, then we had from the edge [of the penalty area] two nice opportunities, one with Fabio, one with Mo, but in the end it's a point."

    The German coach was philosophical despite the fact his team still await their first win of the season, and already sit four points behind rivals Manchester City in the Premier League table.

    Klopp has a number of players missing through injury, including Ibrahima Konate and Joel Matip, meaning Nat Phillips had to start in defence with Joe Gomez only fit enough for a late cameo from the bench, while Thiago Alcantara, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino are also currently unavailable.

    "[A point is] not exactly what we wanted before the game of course but after this game and all the things that happened, we have to take it," he said.

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