Conte: Inter's hard work is starting to bear fruit

By Sports Desk February 28, 2021

Antonio Conte believes Inter's hard work is paying off as they target a first Serie A title since the 2009-10 season.

The Nerazzurri sealed a fifth consecutive top-flight win on Sunday, with goals from Romelu Lukaku, Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez securing a 3-0 victory over Genoa at San Siro.

It was Inter's sixth straight top-flight win against Genoa without conceding a single goal – the first time they have achieved this against any opponent in the competition.

The result moved them seven points clear of Milan at the Serie A summit, although Stefano Pioli's side had the chance to rein them in with victory over Roma later on Sunday.

Conte was pleased with his side's display and said his players deserve recognition for being this season's standard-bearers ahead of Juventus, who have won the last nine titles.

"We played against a Genoa side in great shape," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"We had the right approach, allowing Genoa little other than a few crosses. We scored three goals, [Genoa goalkeeper] Mattia Perin had to make several big saves, so we are happy.

"All the work is paying off. It had already started to last year, but the team is developing belief in its capabilities, understanding the situations both on and off the ball, when to be aggressive, when to hold possession.

"These are Inter players, they must always have the ambition to win. It has been many years since Inter won anything, we came very close last season [they finished one point behind Juve], despite the fact it was my first year.

"In previous years, the gap with Juventus was a good 15 points for Inter. So, if we want to be objective and calculate the gap from the leaders and Inter before I arrived, last season was already an enormous step forward.

"I think we simply continued the project and we are doing something important, but there are 14 games to go.

"We have to continue like this, knowing the team have grown in every way, that we created wonderful synergy and empathy between everyone here, but winning is the aim."

Inter endured a disappointing Champions League campaign earlier this term, finishing bottom of Group B having won just one of their six games.

Conte believes that disappointment could well have provided the impetus for their Serie A title challenge, acknowledging it forced them to raise their game.

"I think we went out of the Champions League undeservedly, but that made us look inside ourselves and realise we all had to raise the bar, to be more competitive," he added.

"If we had been in the Champions League right now, I think we could've had our say in that tournament."

Inter travel to Parma in Serie A on Thursday before hosting Atalanta four days later.

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  • Euro 2020 data dive: De Ligt's passing masterclass, Belgium keep winning run going Euro 2020 data dive: De Ligt's passing masterclass, Belgium keep winning run going

    Belgium and the Netherlands joined Italy in booking their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 with victories over Denmark and Austria respectively.

    The world's top-ranked side Belgium had to bounce back from a goal down to beat an inspired Denmark, with both teams paying tribute to Christian Eriksen after 10 minutes as the midfielder continues his recovery from a cardiac arrest.

    Roberto Martinez's side need a point in their final Group B match to make certain of top spot, but the Netherlands are already through as Group C winners after seeing off Austria.

    Ukraine also picked up all three points against North Macedonia in Thursday's action – just their second-ever victory at the European Championships.

    Using Opta data, we take a look at some of the best facts from across the day's action.

    Ukraine 2-1 North Macedonia: Shevchenko's men end losing Euros streak

    Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk were on target for the second match running to end Ukraine's six-game losing streak at the European Championships.

    With Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk's first-half goals, Ukraine became the first nation to have the same two players score in their first two games at a single Euros.

    Ezgjan Alioski pulled one back at the second attempt after his penalty was saved, making it two goals in three games – as many as in his previous 17 for North Macedonia.

    His penalty was given after a foul on Goran Pandev, who – at at 37 years and 325 days – is the oldest player to win a spot-kick in the Euros since data was first recorded in 1980.

    Ruslan Malinovskyi failed to convert from 12 yards late on in a game which saw both sides win a penalty in the competition for the first time since England v France in 2004.

    It means four of the six penalties taken at Euro 2020 have not been converted. The last tournament with more was Euro 2000 (five).

    Denmark 1-2 Belgium: Red Devils bounce back from early setback

    Belgium showed why they are ranked number one in the world as they recovered from an early setback to make it 11 wins from their last 12 group games at major competitions.

    However, they had to do things the hard way after Yussuf Poulsen struck early on in Copenhagen.

    Poulsen opened the scoring after 99 seconds – the second-earliest goal ever in the tournament, behind only Dmitry Kirichenko for Russia against Greece in 2004 (65 seconds).

    The one shot on target Belgium managed in the first half came via Dries Mertens, who was earning his 100th cap for his country – the fifth Belgian to reach that landmark.

    But the half-time introduction of Kevin De Bruyne for Mertens transformed the Red Devils, the playmaker setting up Thorgan Hazard's leveller and then drilling in the winner.

    De Bruyne's fantastic strike was teed up by Eden Hazard, who joins the Manchester City star as the two European players to assist a goal at each of the last four major tournaments.

    Belgium survived a nervy finish as they won their first two European Championship matches for the first time, while Denmark have lost their first two for the first time since 2000.

    Netherlands 2-0 Austria: Faultless Oranje ease through

    The Netherlands followed up their opening-game win against Ukraine with a routine victory against Austria in Amsterdam.

    It is the third time the Oranje have won their opening two Euros matches, having previously done so in 2000 and 2008, when they exited the competition at the semi-final and quarter-final stage respectively.

    Frank de Boer's men are now unbeaten in their last nine matches at major tournaments, which is the longest run by a European nation since Portugal went 12 without defeat between 2014 and 2018.

    Memphis Depay opened the scoring for the Netherlands from the penalty spot, the Lyon forward's eighth goal for his country since De Boer took charge last September, with only Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scoring more (10) across all competitions for a European side over that period.

    Denzel Dumfries added the second goal and is just the second Netherlands player to net in his first two appearances at the Euros after Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004, this after the right-back failed to score in his first 19 senior caps.

    One of the unsung stars for the hosts was Dumfries' fellow defender Matthijs de Ligt, who completed 100 per cent of his 40 passes – a record for a Netherlands player in a European Championship match since records began in 1980.

  • Austria wasting Alaba but De Jong runs the show as Netherlands excite Austria wasting Alaba but De Jong runs the show as Netherlands excite

    Despite plenty of doubts heading into Euro 2020, Frank de Boer's Netherlands side could well just be a surprise package.

    The Netherlands joined Belgium and Italy in qualifying for the last 16 as they claimed a 2-0 victory over Austria in Amsterdam on Thursday, ensuring they will top Group C.

    In truth, they came up against an Austria team who are failing to get the best from the talent Franco Foda has at his disposal, though that will not dispel the positivity surrounding the Oranje after two vibrant attacking displays.

    With Matthijs de Ligt back at the heart of their defence and Frenkie de Jong commanding midfield, the Netherlands looked solid at the back, and this encounter seemed to pit a team with a set system – if sometimes overly offensive – against a side with little idea as to how they want to play.

     

    Austria wasting Alaba's talent

    David Alaba is a player whose versatility has always come in handy both for Bayern Munich and Austria. Indeed, he has more often than not played in midfield for his country.

    He managed to advance forward from a position on the left of a back three in the 3-1 win over North Macedonia on Sunday, providing the assist for Austria's second goal, but in Amsterdam, stationed in the middle of the defence, he looked a shadow of the world-class talent he truly is.

    While still managing to create two chances – matching his total from game one – he was too often forced to stay deep and marshall Austria's line, subsequently becoming a victim of the Netherlands' press. It was only at 2-0 down that Foda made the decision to move his talisman into a more advanced position, from which the Real Madrid-bound left-footer went close to a stunning goal which would have set up a grandstand finish.

    It rounded out a frustrating night for the 28-year-old, whose rash lunge on Denzel Dumfries led to Austria falling behind.

     

    De Jong serves up midfield masterclass

    As Alaba became bogged down in defence, De Jong had free rein in midfield. The Barcelona man sure made the most of it.

    The Netherlands actually had less possession (46.9 per cent) than their visitors, but they always looked to have the match under control and De Jong, whose 77 touches was a team-high, was crucial.

    No player made more tackles (three) or regained possession on more occasions (12) than the former Ajax star, who was at his silky best when on the ball, effortlessly gliding through midfield and picking out his team-mates 49 times, out of 58 attempts, giving him a passing accuracy of 84.5 per cent.

    With the bombarding Dumfries stretching the pitch down the right, De Jong was afforded the time and space to run the show.

    Depay shows his best... and worst

    Memphis Depay had five of the Netherlands' six efforts at goal in the first half, with his penalty – won by the excellent Dumfries – putting the hosts ahead after 11 minutes.

    Depay has scored 27 goals for his country, five more than any other Dutch player since his debut, with Georgino Wijnaldum (22) his closest challenger.

    He really should have had added more to that total. Depay lashed into the side-netting in the 24th minute, but his glaring miss came when he sliced over with the goal gaping just before half-time.

    Nevertheless, his talent is there for all to see, with his six efforts a game-high – albeit the only one which hit the target was his goal.

    It helps that Depay has found support in the goalscoring stakes, Dumfries putting the seal on victory in this game and becoming only the second Dutchman to score in his first two appearances at the Euros, after Ruud van Nistelrooy.

    Sabitzer crowded out as Arnautovic's absence felt

    Marko Arnautovic's suspension for his over-zealous celebration against North Macedonia left Austria short of one of their best options in attack, but Foda is also struggling to find a way to bring Marcel Sabitzer's creativity to the fore.

    The RB Leipzig midfielder showed quality with a supreme cross for the opener against North Macedonia, yet he failed to create any chances for others throughout Thursday's match, only managing one shot himself.

    Sabitzer scored eight Bundesliga goals in 2020-21 for Leipzig, setting up a further three, but like Alaba, it feels as though his ability is not being sufficiently harnessed by a coach who has guided his team to just two wins in their last eight games.

  • Denmark inspired by recovering Eriksen but De Bruyne quality shines through Denmark inspired by recovering Eriksen but De Bruyne quality shines through

    Belgium planned to kick the ball out of play after 10 minutes against Denmark to pay their own mark of respect to Christian Eriksen. The world's top-ranked football nation were perhaps not anticipating, however, that they would be chasing the game – and indeed Danish shadows – at that early stage in the match.

    In the end the referee, Bjorn Kuipers, seemingly had to remind the Belgium players to bring the contest to a temporary halt, sparking emotional scenes as supporters and players - Eriksen's current and former club-mates Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld among them – applauded in unison.

    It was that type of occasion and that type of start for Denmark as they produced a fitting tribute to stricken team-mate Eriksen, who was likely to have been watching on from his hospital bed barely 400 yards away, where he continues to recover from a cardiac arrest.

    Football was put into perspective the moment Eriksen went to ground in the Danes' opening Group B defeat to Finland – he was "gone", in the words of team doctor Morten Boesen – but thankfully updates in the five days since the incident have been largely positive.

    Whether we will see the Inter playmaker on a field again remains to be seen; that he is able to smile and laugh once more with his colleagues is a huge victory in its own right. A bigger victory, indeed, than Denmark were on course for against Belgium until the Kevin De Bruyne show ensued.

     

    Long before the Manchester City playmaker's half-time arrival, just 99 seconds into the game at a raucous Parken Stadium, Yussuf Poulsen finished expertly into the bottom-left corner for the second-quickest goal in European Championship history.

    Poulsen profited from a Jason Denayer error, the Lyon defender looking rusty in the early stages after returning to the side in place of Dedryck Boyata at the back following a rare day off in the 3-0 win over Russia.

    Roberto Martinez's Belgian charges lived up to their tag as the world's number one side in their previous match against Russia, and the professionalism of this performance – as bad as they were in the first half – will arguably heighten expectations that they can go all the way when at full strength.

    Belgium mustered just one attempt in the first half – a flicked effort from Dries Mertens on his 100th cap.

    The last time they managed only one effort in the opening 45 minutes was in a 2-0 loss to Spain in September 2016, Martinez's first at the helm, which preceded a run of just three defeats in their next 56 matches.

    Denmark could not quite add their name to that rare list of nations to have conquered the Red Devils over the last five years, with the visitors' quality eventually shining through. Make that De Bruyne's quality.

    Still recovering from a facial injury sustained in Manchester City's Champions League loss to Chelsea last month, the playmaker was introduced for the start of the second half and made an instant impact.

    Against the run of play, Lukaku turned his marker and pulled the ball back for De Bruyne to tee up the unmarked Thorgan Hazard. The finish from six yards was simple, the build-up to it anything but.

    That assist made De Bruyne the only European player to set up a goal in each of the last four major international tournaments and he added his own name to the scoresheet 16 minutes later.

    Another flowing team move culminated in De Bruyne driving a low shot past Kasper Schmeichel. A broken nose and a broken eye socket for De Bruyne; broken dreams for Denmark as their tournament hopes are now perhaps as good as over.

    This game was never solely about the result, though – one that ensures safe passage through to the knockout stages for Belgium with a game, against Finland, to spare.

    The defining moment was not Denayer's error, De Bruyne's match-changing introduction or Martin Braithwaite skimming the crossbar at the end, but rather the moment when all within the stadium united to pay respect to the popular Eriksen.

    "All of Denmark is with you, Christian," a banner in one of the stands read. And boy did Denmark's players show that as they gave Belgium's hugely talented squad a run for their money.

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