Inter great Walter Zenga dismissed criticism of Antonio Conte and his side as they close in on the Scudetto, while insisting mentality is the key to the Nerazzurri making the leap from Serie A to European success.

Not since their treble-winning season under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10 have Inter claimed the Scudetto, rivals Juventus dominating domestic Italian football with nine consecutive Serie A titles.

But Inter – led by head coach Conte and spearheaded by Romelu Lukaku – are on the cusp of glory this season, with the Nerazzurri 10 points clear atop the table after 32 rounds.

Only Atalanta (73) have scored more goals than Inter (71) this season, while Conte's men have the joint-meanest defence in the league alongside Juve, having conceded 29 goals with six rounds remaining.

However, Conte and Inter have still been criticised for their performances in 2020-21.

Regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, Zenga – who amassed 473 appearances for Inter, winning two UEFA Cup titles, the Serie A trophy and Supercoppa Italiana during his time at San Siro – was asked about the criticism and he told Stats Perform News: "Now listen, you don't have to make a confusion about this point because the only person that knows everything is the coach because the coach has the players every day, takes training, decide the tactics, decides everything because he knows the quality of the player. 

"All the other people me and you included, we cannot talk about if they play good or not because first of all, we never watched one training, secondly we don't see from the stadium, we watch on TV and it's totally different. We make a confusion between playing well, tactics and everything. But then we forget one point, the only real things important in football are the end of the game, the table, what the result is, rankings and if you play in the Europa League, Champions League or whatever. These are the only important things. Then if we want to talk about one club like Inter who are first in the standings, they won 11 games in a row, they are almost close to winning the championship. 

"So, if it means that they play poor football, I would like to be a coach that plays poor football and wins the league! How many times do you read an interview about some coaches that say we play very, very well but we missed a chance, we are still in the middle of the rankings. We are in trouble, but we play well, we play well. With Crotone, two years ago in the first division we played very well but we got relegated to the second division. Probably if we play worst, and we just pray for a draw in some games probably we would still be in the first division but we are looking for our philosophy to play, play, play. But any coach, any game that they have, the philosophy for themselves depends on the quality of the player, depends on the quality of the mentality of the player."

Lukaku has been instrumental for Inter, scoring 21 league goals this term – only Juve's Cristiano Ronaldo (25) has managed more.

The Belgium international has barely missed a beat since Inter splashed out a club-record €80million to prise him from Manchester United in 2019, the Italian giants quickly moving on from former captain Mauro Icardi – who was deemed surplus to requirements by Conte.

Lukaku – linked with a return to Chelsea, as well as Clasico rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona – has netted 44 times in 67 league appearances for Inter, while he boasts an overall total of 61 goals in 90 matches since arriving in Milan.

"Icardi, he had a great balance between games and goals. He was a killer in the box. It's not easy to replace a player with this goal average," said Hall of Famer Zenga, who last coached Cagliari in 2020.

"Lukaku, Conte wanted him with his whole soul and heart. When one player arrives and he knows that the coach believes in him 100 per cent, he gives 200 per cent for him and himself not to disappoint the coach. 

"What I appreciated about Lukaku that I know him personally, he is a quiet man and a gentleman. He follows only one way, to close the mouth to everybody, work and work hard, not for himself, for the team. And this is the difference between one big player and one normal player. Talent is not enough.

"Now he is the top striker in Italy in my opinion. I think that now, there is not one club around the world that doesn't want him."

For all of Inter's success this season, their Champions League campaign left a sour taste.

Inter – Europa League finalists in 2019-20 – looked on track to the Champions League last 16 in a group featuring Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach and Shakhtar Donetsk. Instead the 2009-10 winners finished bottom.

Conte's Inter also failed to make it out of the group last season, taking a backseat to Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.

As Inter dream of a 19th Serie A trophy, are they capable of mounting a European challenge next term or do they require reinforcements in the transfer market?

"In Europe you play different. In the Champions League you play totally different, in the Champions League it looks like no tactics, only who is stronger," said the 60-year-old Zenga, who emerged from Inter's youth team in 1978 before leaving the club permanently in 1994.

"We are thinking about tactics all the time [in Italy] and this is our mentality. If you see the game of the Italian league, it is a very strong game, if you think that is boring, in the stands it is not boring because if you are involved, you have to take an aspirin after the game because it's so strong. If you see the Spanish league, it looks like they play slow, but when you play against the Spanish teams, [sometimes] you don't touch the ball because you don't know where they are. 

"In Germany or in France, it is less interesting the season, then when you play against them in in Champions League, you have to make a big effort because you're thinking, 'Oh in Germany there are only two teams, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, it is not competitive championship' and then when you play against them, you see it is so strong.

"So it's a question about the mentality and everything. To win in Europe in my opinion, you have to play to win. And probably you find either the clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, like this team that if you read the line-up specially at the top… the talent and the quality, class is the difference in Europe. I don't know what is in the mind of Conte or of the management of Inter, but in Europe, I think that you need the world-class players."

Zenga added: "Don't forget, you can buy either three-four great players, then the most important thing is that all good players they must play good together. I buy the best central defender, I buy the best striker and I put together and the quality together doesn't work. If we follow this idea, Inter of the [Massimo] Moratti era with [Christian] Vieri and Ronaldo up front, they should be winning every single day."

Between 2003 and 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo won three Premier League titles and the Champions League among other honours at Manchester United.

Ronaldo has since gone on to play for Real Madrid and Juventus, but he could be set for an Old Trafford reunion.

Watch this space…

 

TOP STORY – UNITED MAKE RONALDO CONTACT

Manchester United have made contact with Cristiano Ronaldo's agent Jorge Mendes over a return to Old Trafford, according to the front page of Friday's Gazzetta dello Sport.

Juventus superstar Ronaldo has been tipped to leave Turin, where he arrived in 2018, amid links with former clubs United and Real Madrid, as well as Paris Saint-Germain.

Ronaldo, who starred for United between 2003 and 2009, would have to take a wage cut in order to make a Manchester reunion a reality.

 

ROUND-UP

- Diario AS claims Madrid are willing to sell Raphael Varane in order to raise transfer funds amid strong links with Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and PSG star Kylian Mbappe. Varane has been linked with United and Chelsea.

- Staying at the Santiago Bernabeu, and AS says the future of captain Sergio Ramos looks less likely to be at Madrid. The likes of United and PSG have emerged as possible destinations for the superstar Spain skipper.

Barcelona are prioritising the signing of Lyon captain Memphis Depay, reports RMC Sport. Juventus have also been linked.

Rodrigo De Paul is wanted by Leeds United, Juve, Inter and Napoli, according to Calciomercato. Juve have been eyeing the Udinese star, but the Italian giants are also weighing up moves for United's Paul Pogba and Sassuolo midfielder Manuel Locatelli.

Barcelona said it would have been an "historical error" not to sign up for the European Super League and the club remains convinced structural reform is needed to protect the financial future of football.

The Blaugrana were announced on Sunday as one of 12 founding members of the highly controversial breakaway league, which received widespread criticism due to the closed-shop nature of the competition.

Less than 48 hours, all six of the Premier League teams that had agreed to sign up all withdrew their participation following a fierce backlash from fans, players, supporters, the Football Association and the UK government.

Atletico Madrid and Serie A rivals Milan and Inter later followed suit, seemingly leaving the league dead in the water before it even took off the ground.

But Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli – leading figures in the Super League – both launched a staunch defence of a competition they remain convinced has to happen as clubs struggle to contend with the economic impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Newly re-elected Barca president Joan Laporta earlier said the lucrative Super League was "absolutely necessary" and a club statement struck a similarly pleading tone about their belief that change is a must.

"FC Barcelona shares the view of most major European football clubs, and even more so given the current socio-economic climate, that there is a need for structural reforms to guarantee the financial sustainability and feasibility of world football by improving the product that is offered to fans around the world and by consolidating and even increasing the fan base on which this sport is sustained, which is its mainstay and greatest strength," the statement began.

"In this context, the FC Barcelona Board of Directors accepted, as a matter of immediate urgency, the offer to form part, as the founding member, of the Super League, a competition designed to improve the quality and attractiveness of the product offered to the football fans and, at the same time, and as one of FC Barcelona's most inalienable principles, seek new formulas for solidarity with the football family as a whole.

"The decision was made in the conviction that it would have been a historical error to turn down the opportunity to be part of this project as one of its founding members. As one of the world's top sports club, our intention shall always be to be at the forefront, this being an indispensable part of the club's identity and its sporting, social and institutional spirit."

Despite the project seemingly being left in tatters, Perez insisted the project the Super League is "not dead" in an interview with Spanish radio station El Larguero.

Barca said more analysis is clearly needed but said such examination must take place in the absence of "unjustified pressure and intimidation".

The statement added: "Given the public reaction that the aforementioned project has generated in many and various spheres, there is no question that FC Barcelona appreciates that a much more in-depth analysis is required into the reasons that have caused this reaction in order to reconsider, if necessary, and to the required extent, the proposal as originally formulated and resolve all those issues, always for the good of the general interest of the football world. Such in-depth analysis needs time and the necessary composure to avoid taking any rash action.

"We feel it is equally important to highlight the objective fact that a Court of Justice has already granted urgent legal protection as requested, thus confirming right of the initiative on the part of the founding clubs of the Super League project.

"In this regard, FC Barcelona considers that it would be improper for the necessary process of reflection and debate to be established under criteria of unjustified pressure and intimidation.

"Despite being perfectly aware of the importance and interest raised by this matter, as well as the need to always act with the utmost transparency, FC Barcelona shall act at all times with due prudence and asks for the utmost understanding, respect and most of all patience among FC Barcelona supporters and public opinion in general."

Aleksander Ceferin says Florentino Perez is "the president of nothing" and believes the controversial European Super League was "an attempt to create a phantom league of the rich".

On Sunday, Real Madrid president Perez was named as chairman of the hugely divisive competition, with Los Blancos named among 12 founding members planning to play in a breakaway league.

However, just two days later, Premier League clubs Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham all pulled out amid a huge backlash from the Football Association, the UK government, fans, pundits and players.

Despite the competition crumbling before it got off the ground, Perez launched another staunch defence when speaking to Cadena SER's El Larguero radio show late on Wednesday, having earlier this week stated the Super League was vital for the future of clubs struggling financially in the COVID-19 pandemic.

UEFA chief Ceferin believes Perez and other presidents should not be solely blaming the coronavirus crisis for huge losses, making pointed remarks in an interview with Slovenian broadcaster Pop TV.

"I might want to say something else that Perez said earlier – clubs have losses, but also because they are poorly run," Ceferin said.

"If you overpay players, unsuitable players, and therefore do not achieve a result, it means a loss to you. 

"For example, Bayern Munich have no losses and have won the Champions League. You cannot just blame COVID-19, which many do.

"Perez is the president of a Super League that didn't exist. At the moment he's the president of nothing.

"Perez would like a [UEFA] president that will listen to him and a president that will do as he tells him. But I am trying to work in European and world soccer's best interests.

"I'm actually horrified that by being enormously rich, profit means so much more than values. You can tell lies; you can enter players and the coaches into a new competition without them knowing anything about it."

Perez insists the idea of the Super League is not dead in the water, but Ceferin remains convinced it was little more than a power play to try to protect the interests of football's richest clubs.

"In my opinion, the Super League never existed," Ceferin added.

"It was an attempt to create a phantom league of the rich that wouldn't follow any system, that wouldn't take into account the pyramid structure of football in Europe, its culture, tradition or history."

Perez bizarrely cited a lack of interest from the younger generation among reasons for wanting to form the league, even suggesting matches could be shortened from the current time of 90 minutes.

But Ceferin again disputed the point, adding: "Young people are very interested in a football match, it's completely clear to me.

"The fact is that football is a sport, it's a passion, a school of life, you can learn a lot from football. I learned a lot from football myself.

"You can't look at football as a product, you can't look at the players as customers or consumers, you can't look at how many you have in your account or how many new followers you have on Twitter instead of the result after the game. This has become common with certain big club owners and they have simply lost touch with reality and reality was clearly shown in the UK 24 hours or so ago."

Alongside the righteous anger that helped bring about its rapid demise, there were multiple moments of hilarity to accompany the fleetingly brief existence of the European Super League.

By Wednesday, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez once again went in to bat for his pet project and aired his ever-tenuous grasp on reality, the whole thing had gone a bit Monty Python.

"If you think the Super League is dead, you're absolutely wrong," he told El Laguaro

The Super League is no more, Florentino! It has ceased to be! This is a late Super League! Stiff, bereft of life!

As events spun rapidly away from the control of Perez, Andrea Agnelli and the other arch-schemers associated with the 12 teams signed up to the ill-fated enterprise, it was undeniably rousing to see players, coaches and supporters united in the same aim, speaking with one emphatic voice.

It begs the question of how this sense of common purpose can now be harnessed to tackle the ills of football that brought us to this moment of defining crisis.

Champions League reform

Perez described the Champions League format as "obsolete", which was a little rich given the reforms to UEFA's flagship competition that were signed off this week – a revamp Juventus president Agnelli described as "close to ideal" and "beautiful" as recently as last month – share some common features with the Super League plans.

Teams will be guaranteed more matches in an expanded group stage, while two spots are reserved for sides who have the highest club coefficients of those who have failed to qualify, an element widely viewed as a move to protect ailing European giants against the consequences of short-term failure.

UEFA's arrival at the so-called Swiss model for the round-robin phase was understandable as the latest move to placate the super clubs, safeguarding their income and averting the prospect of a breakaway.

Since that happened anyway and failed spectacularly, what impetus remains for the Swiss model? Why not consider supporter-friendly alternatives that cater to a greater number of clubs from outside the elite?

The six Premier League clubs, Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juve, Inter and Milan all gave up their European Club Association memberships to join the Super League. Their collective clout has not been less significant for decades.

Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi has replaced Agnelli as ECA chairman, but a new hastily convened executive board also features Dariusz Mioduski of Legia Warsaw and Aki Riihilahti of HJK Helsinki. What might a Champions League giving more consideration to those kind of clubs look like?

The fan fantasy of straight knockout in the style of the old European Cup is never going to happen for a number of reasons, but expansion could still bring more interest and fewer dead rubbers.

Say, for example, the four-team group format remained, but entry was opened to 48 clubs. The top two from 12 groups progress to a round of 32, along with the best eight third-placed teams.

This arrangement is to be used in the expanded World Cup and has come in for its fair share of criticism – it is a lot of games to lose just a third of the participants – but would generally keep qualification for the knockout rounds open to more teams for longer.

For the purists, the four-pot system could be loosened into one recognising 12 seeds for the group stage, with seedings abandoned altogether when straight knockouts get underway.

Share the wealth

Financial motivations obviously drove the Super League plot, Perez pleading poverty on Madrid's behalf entirely in line with its other grasps for PR success.

"UEFA and its member associations believe in a truly European model that is founded on open competitions, solidarity and redistribution to ensure the sustainability and development of the game for the benefit of all and the promotion of European values and social outcomes," the governing body said in a statement decrying the Super League.

There is a real opportunity to make good on this vision because the teams who had been demanding an ever-greater slice of the pie stormed away from the table in such a huff they left all their cutlery behind.

The trickle-down benefit of Champions League money has sometimes been hard to spot, not only with a parade of usual suspects progressing to the latter stages each year, but also across a host of Europe's less-celebrated domestic leagues, where a club benefitting from UEFA prize money has been able to dominate at home with few notable challengers. Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine and BATE Borisov in Belarus are examples of this.

Equitable distribution across the wider structure of European football can definitely be encouraged to the good of all, something certainly true in the Premier League.

The vitriolic reaction to the Super League in England means the big six can be told with a straight face that they need the other 14 more so than the other way around.

Demands for the six to be docked points and fined heavily certainly serve a palpable sense of hurt and betrayal. But if, for example, Manchester City began 2021-22 on -10 points with the rest of the breakaway bunch, they would still probably be favourites to win the title.

That speaks of a deck unacceptably stacked against other teams and this is what needs to change. Distributing Premier League television income equally 20 ways, or even a less radical split, would effect more lasting change than any punitive measures against the big six. Again, their hand has rarely been weaker so the time is now.

Empower fans

Bayern Munich's absence from the Super League rebels, as reigning European champions, was noteworthy but hardly surprising.

Germany's vaunted 50+1 model, where fans hold a majority of voting rights when set against commercial investors in their clubs, is not a one-way ticket to utopia. If it was, Bayern would not be on the brink of cantering to a ninth successive Bundesliga title.

However, it makes Bayern joining a breakaway that might otherwise be in their interests virtually impossible. The cringing mea culpas embarked upon by John Henry, Ferran Soriano and others this week would not have been necessary had they simply been required to consult fans in the first place.

Barcelona and Madrid's "socio" models are also an example of member ownership, but outside of presidential elections, fan power is negligible. Perhaps there will be moves to change that in the aftermath of this humiliation, but once more, the febrile atmosphere in England suggests the greatest appetite for change.

The Super League crisis brought about government involvement in the UK and, while aping 50+1 might be impractical, enshrining a requirement of meaningful fan representation at clubs in law suddenly feels like a possibility.

Make the game affordable for youngsters

With or without this, the Premier League showing gratitude to the people who played a huge role in saving their competition is a must. Ticket prices have to come down to widen access to the game, particularly among younger fans.

Entirely in line with establishment executives of his stripes, the 74-year-old Perez has done an awful lot of talking at the much-discussed 18-24 demographic, using them as a faceless example to justify his self-interested schemes.

Young people are bored of football, you see. Computers have turned their brains into cheese and maybe we need shorter games for their dwindling attention spans.

Perhaps, or maybe a generation priced out of football by high admission prices and subscription television packages are less inclined to engage with a game telling them to show us your money or shove off.

Getting young fans through the turnstiles when they reopen has never felt more important. This week there was a big enough mass opposition to say, "No! Not on our watch!". If football fails to nurture the next generation it will not have the same frontline defence the next time the foundations of the sport are challenged.

Reformed major competitions, through which there is a more equitable distribution of resources across a sport where fans of all ages are accommodated and given a voice will not be an easy vision to realise. Now the unifying big bad of the Super League is slain, whatever Perez says, conflicting and splintering interests will return.

But this unquestionably is not a moment to be squandered as football's flirtation with nuclear disaster casts the game in a new light.

Florentino Perez continued his staunch defence of the European Super League on Wednesday, despite the proposed breakaway competition having crumbled before it started.

Real Madrid president Perez had been appointed as the chairman of the competition, which was announced with 12 founding teams and to widespread criticism on Sunday.

Perez spoke on Monday about a need to change football, with clubs struggling financially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, while he also cited a lack of interest in the game from younger generations.

Yet his words did little to appease the furore and, on Tuesday, the six English clubs involved in the competition all pulled out amid pressure from the Premier League, Football Association (FA), UEFA and the UK government.

The owners of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City all offered apologies to their fans for their part in the plans. 

Atletico Madrid, Inter, Milan and Juventus subsequently pulled out on Wednesday, albeit Perez has claimed the latter two remain committed.

Yet Perez insists he will not let the proposals die, and is adamant that there must be drastic reform to football, maintaining the European Super League was put together as a plan to save the game.

Speaking on the El Laguaro radio show following Madrid's win over Cadiz, Perez said: "We were working last night until late. We have been working many years on this project. We have not explained it very well, perhaps.

"They have not given us a chance either. Some do not want anything to happen. It cannot be that in England, the six lose money, and 14 make money. In Spain the top three lose money, and the others make money. It cannot continue – at the moment the rich are those who are losing money.

"I am a bit sad, disappointed. We have been working three years on this project, on fighting the current financial situation in Spanish football. You cannot touch LaLiga, so you look for more money midweek and the Champions League format is obsolete.

"I have never seen aggression greater on the part of the president of UEFA, it was orchestrated, it surprised us all. Insults and threats, as if we had killed football. 

"We are just working on saving football. We have worked very hard on something that would satisfy everyone.

"There was a campaign, totally manipulated, that we were going to finish the national leagues. That we were ending football, it was terrible. But we were working for football to survive.

"If you think the Super League is dead, you're absolutely wrong."

Perez was also bullish in the face of UEFA and FIFA's condemnation.

"Reality is reality. Look at the TV records, and how many people watch big games, and how many people watch the other games. We have to be real," he said.

"That new Champions League format in 2024 has no meaning. No one can understand it. We need a new format to create more money. Young fans don't watch football, they have other hobbies.

"I talk to [Joan] Laporta, Barcelona are still with us. Juventus did not leave. I'm not scared of FIFA or UEFA."

Concluding, Perez also stated that no club would be able to afford major signings at the end of the season.

"It's impossible to make signings like [Kylian] Mbappe and [Erling] Haaland without the Super League," he said. "Not just for us, there will be no big signings, for any club, without the Super League.

"When I took over, Madrid could not pay its players. We changed the world with the Galactico signings. Now after COVID-19, things have to change again."

Antonio Conte believes "sport must be meritocratic" but called on UEFA to reflect after the European Super League project Inter signed up to crumbled.

Inter were among the 12 teams from Serie A, the Premier League and LaLiga to on Sunday back the formation of a breakaway tournament.

However, following widespread criticism, the plans fell apart on Tuesday as clubs opted to pull out in the wake of significant backlash from supporters, politicians and the media.

The Nerazzurri announced prior to their Serie A meeting with Spezia on Wednesday they would no longer be taking part in the Super League.

Conte is confident the club have made the right decision, but he urged UEFA to understand why the teams wanted to step away from the Champions League.

"As a sporting man, I think we mustn't ever forget tradition. This is history and it should be respected," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"We mustn't forget the passion for sport, and sport must be meritocratic. We work to win and to earn something. Meritocracy must always be first and foremost.

"Having said that, everything that happened shows it's only right that UEFA reflect too. They organise tournaments, take all the revenue and reserve only a minimal part of that for the teams who are actually taking part in these tournaments.

"The players are squeezed like lemons with this packed fixture list and get very little for it. The organisations need to consider better remuneration. Clubs invest in coaches and players, so they deserve some of the revenue they help to generate.

"If you get 10 from rights and keep seven of it for yourself, giving out just three to everybody else, that's not really fair. I think the split needs to be reconsidered."

UEFA announced on Monday that a new format for the Champions League would come into effect in 2024, with the competition expanding to accommodate 36 teams.

Instead of being split into groups, qualifying clubs will be part of a single league and play a minimum of 10 games rather than six.

Asked for his opinion of the new set-up, Conte replied: "I haven't really reflected on the format. It doesn't matter how many teams are in there, the important thing is that there is meritocracy, otherwise sport loses its meaning.

"Meritocracy is the most important thing, but also the organisations including those who run the international fixtures need to consider spreading out the resources a little better."

Inter were held to a 1-1 draw at Spezia but extended their lead at the top of Serie A to 10 points due to Milan's 2-1 home defeat to Sassuolo earlier in the day.

"Pressure is inevitable, and let's not forget that many players are challenging for something important for the first time. They are doing very well and I think we could easily have deserved the win," said Conte.

"I was happy with the intensity of the performance, though we could've had more quality in the final third, which is why we're talking about a draw rather than a win.

"There are fewer rounds left. We can see the finish line and the pressure is taking its toll.

"We used up a lot of energy and have another physical game coming up against [Hellas] Verona [on Sunday]."

Inter extended their lead at the Serie A summit to 10 points but could only draw 1-1 with Spezia following another Samir Handanovic error on Wednesday.

In their first match since joining and withdrawing from the much-criticised European Super League project, league leaders Inter failed to fully capitalise on second-place Milan's 2-1 loss to Sassuolo earlier in the day.

After scoring an own goal in the 1-1 draw that ended Inter's 11-game winning run in Serie A at Napoli on Sunday, some more shoddy goalkeeping from Handanovic enabled Diego Farias to put Spezia in front early on at Stadio Alberto Picco.

Ivan Perisic bundled in the equaliser on his 200th appearance in all competitions for Inter, who saw Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez each denied by the offside flag late on as they failed to find the winner that would have boosted their Scudetto hopes further.

Spezia were without their top scorer M'Bala Nzola but managed to take a surprise lead in the 12th minute when Farias' effort from just outside the box squirmed past Handanovic.

Inter's final pass was often lacking but after Nicolo Barella sliced their best opportunity wide, Achraf Hakimi teed up fellow wing-back Perisic for the equaliser ahead of half-time.

The Nerazzurri were buoyed by the goal and Martinez saw his shot come back off the post before being gathered by Spezia goalkeeper Ivan Provedel.

A woeful back pass from Ardijan Ismajli gifted Lukaku a chance to put Inter in front after the hour mark but he was unable to round Provedel cleanly and the keeper recovered well to block his second attempt.

Milan Skriniar was unable to turn substitute Alexis Sanchez's free-kick home before Martinez rattled the upright again in the 80th minute.

Lukaku and Martinez were frustrated by offside decisions, but it looked like the winner was finally about to arrive when the pair combined in stoppage time. However, the Argentina international lashed his effort straight at Provedel.

Manchester United co-chairman and part-owner Joel Glazer has issued an apology to fans for the "unrest" caused by their European Super League misadventure.

United were one of 12 founding clubs for the close-shop competition announced on Sunday, but more than that they had frequently been cited as among the biggest pushers for a new tournament to rival UEFA's Champions League.

Super League involvement would have seen United – along with the other founder clubs – guaranteed participation every year, thus threatening the ideals of competitiveness and sporting merit.

Much of the significant backlash, which United players Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw were a part of, related to this lack of competition, with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola suggesting it could not be considered sport.

But less than 48 hours after the plans were announced, the proposed tournament began to crumble as the English clubs withdrew – United confirmed their disassociation at the same time as Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, with City doing so earlier in the day and Chelsea following.

United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward also confirmed his resignation, which the club claimed was unrelated to the defeat of the Super League plans.

Criticism was directed at United for their brief statement upon withdrawal as well, though Glazer – co-owner with his brother Avram – says he is "committed to rebuilding trust" in a lengthier open letter.

United supporters will surely argue there was never trust in the deeply unpopular Glazers in the first place, with the letter representing the family's first communication with the fanbase since 2005.

It read: "To all Manchester United supporters, over the past few days we have all witnessed the great passion which football generates, and the deep loyalty our fans have for this great club.

"You made very clear your opposition to the European Super League, and we have listened. We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right.

"Although the wounds are raw and I understand that it will take time for the scars to heal, I am personally committed to rebuilding trust with our fans and learning from the message you delivered with such conviction.

"We continue to believe that European football needs to become more sustainable throughout the pyramid for the long-term. However, we fully accept that the Super League was not the right way to go about it.

"In seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game, we failed to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions –promotion, relegation, the pyramid – and for that we are sorry.

"This is the world's greatest football club and we apologise unreservedly for the unrest caused during these past few days. It is important for us to put that right.

"Manchester United has a rich heritage and we recognise our responsibility to live up to its great traditions and values. The pandemic has thrown up so many unique challenges and we are proud of the way Manchester United and its fans from Manchester and around the world have reacted to the enormous pressures during this period.

"We also realise that we need to better communicate with you, our fans, because you will always be at the heart of the club. In the background, you can be sure that we will be taking the necessary steps to rebuild relationships with other stakeholders across the game, with a view to working together on solutions to the long-term challenges facing the football pyramid.

"Right now, our priority is to continue to support all of our teams as they push for the strongest possible finish to the season. In closing, I would like to recognise that it is your support which makes this club so great, and we thank you for that. With best regards, Joel Glazer."

Avram Grant believes the owners of Europe's top clubs must learn football is completely different to the NBA.

Former Chelsea and West Ham manager Grant is thrilled that the breakaway continental competition – which would have rivalled UEFA's Champions League and impacted the future of domestic pyramids – has fallen through.

All six English clubs involved withdrew on Tuesday, prompting Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli to acknowledge on Wednesday the project was effectively over as further teams rushed to the exit.

Grant feels the saga was a huge victory for football supporters.

He pointed out how the sport is different to any others, which may have surprised some of the American owners as they tried to force through a project that would have guaranteed the involvement of founding clubs every year.

"They [the owners] compare it the NBA, but it is not a good comparison," Grant said to Stats Perform News.

"What they say is not right. This is not the NBA - there is a draft in the NBA.

"Of course, they misjudged it as they don't come from football. Take the three Americans. I met one of them, fantastic person but they don't know the nature of the game. 

"In football, one plus one is not two. The decision making is different. Football is a game of emotions. The game is not pure business. It's a lot of passion. 

"Supporters are paying money and I'm so happy about the reaction of the PM [prime minister, Boris Johnson] and of Prince William who I know and really like. 

"It's a lesson for all the owners, money is important but the passion needs to stay as it is. They will learn their lesson, they are clever guys. 

"We love that Leicester City became champions – you cannot take Euro opportunities from clubs. 

"And even the LA Lakers don't always get a place in the playoffs, they need to work for it."

Grant was pleased to see his former boss – Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich – among the first to withdraw following fan protests at Stamford Bridge.

He insisted the Russian should not take all of the blame for signing up as he must have been badly advised.

Grant added: "I'm very happy about that as I know him, he took a step back.

"And it's not just Roman, but the people around the owners. Where have you been? You need to tell them [the owners]. 

"It was the wrong decision and I'm very happy about their reaction. 

"Football can be improved, I understand the big clubs, some of the things they are asking for are right, but this decision [to try a Super League] is very wrong.

"I was not shocked [by the idea] because you know big clubs have been speaking about it for a long time, but I was shocked they did it. 

"I understand where they are coming from financially but they have tried to create classes in football, when instead you have to prove yourself on the pitch. 

"Imagine if I told a squad, quality doesn't matter, you five players will play always!

"UEFA need to find a solution with big clubs to keep the balance [between finance and sport]. They need to keep the nature of the football." 

Grant was asked about the future of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who was poised to lead the Super League as its chairman.

He added: "No more Super League, forget it, it will not happen. I said to Florentino Perez: forget it! It’s not good for you! 

"I understand what he tried to do, but it was wrong. He can stay – but if he still thinks it is the right way to go and destroys football then that is something else. 

"It's a big, big victory for the supporters. Football comes from the heart. 

"It's a victory for the people. This is the biggest victory. In democracy people vote, this is democracy and the people said no. 

"We don't want Real Madrid v Liverpool every day. You can't give an advantage to any player to play. I can't just play Didier Drogba because I like him! Only because he is good. 

"So, it is a big, big victory for the people."

Juventus remain convinced over the validity of a European Super League but admit the planned breakaway competition cannot possibly go ahead following a raft of withdrawals.

Milan followed Serie A rivals Inter in pulling out on Wednesday, as did Spanish side Atletico Madrid in a move welcomed by head coach Diego Simeone.

All six English teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham – ended their involvement on Tuesday following widespread criticism of the proposal, including from some of their own players and coaches.

Juve president Andrea Agnelli confirmed to Reuters that the mass exodus of the Premier League contingent had effectively ended the possibility of a Super League going ahead – for now at least.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Bianconeri made clear the necessary procedures required for clubs to end their involvement have yet to be completed, as well as outlining how such a tournament still has merit from a sporting and commercial viewpoint.

"With reference to the press release issued by Juventus on April 19, relating to the project to create the Super League, and the subsequent public debate, the issuer specifies that it is aware of the request and intentions otherwise expressed by some clubs to withdraw from this project, although the necessary procedures under the agreement between the clubs have not been completed," a statement read.

"In this context, Juventus, while remaining convinced of the validity of the sporting, commercial and legal assumptions of the project, believes that it currently has limited possibilities of being completed in the form in which it was initially conceived.

"Juventus remains committed to building long-term value for the club and for the entire football movement."

Milan's U-turn came after taking into consideration the reaction from supporters to the tournament. The founding members would have been involved each season regardless of their performances in domestic leagues, a rule that received widespread condemnation.

"We accepted the invitation to participate in the Super League project with the genuine intention to deliver the best possible European competition for football fans around the world and in the best interest of the club and our own fans," Milan said in a statement.

"Change is not always easy, but evolution is necessary for progress, and the structures of European football have evolved and changed over the decades.

"However, the voices and the concerns of fans around the world have clearly been expressed about the Super League, and Milan must be sensitive to the voice of those who love this wonderful sport.

"We will continue to work hard to deliver a sustainable model for football."

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez made a big mistake over the European Super League and seriously damaged his image at the club with his "grotesque" leadership, according to Ramon Calderon.

Perez was named as chairman of the newly-created organisation behind the breakaway competition, which initially saw 12 of Europe's biggest teams sign up to be involved.

However, following widespread backlash to the plan, the 'big six' from the Premier League - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham - all announced they were withdrawing on Tuesday.

The proposal included founding members being certain of playing in the Super League each season, regardless of where they finished in their domestic leagues.

Along with Madrid, LaLiga duo Atletico Madrid and Barcelona were among the initial group announced in a statement released on Sunday, along with Serie A sides Inter, Juventus and Milan.

In an appearance on El Chiringuito TV on Monday, Perez had said the primary aim of the Super League was to "save football", having "found a solution to the very difficult situation that football is experiencing" amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Yet Calderon, who was Madrid president between July 2006 and January 2009, has criticised such "grotesque" leadership of the Spanish club.

"I think it has been hugely embarrassing," Calderon told Stats Perform News.  

"Besides, I believe he has led in a grotesque way, if we can say it, attending late-night TV shows and claiming he was coming to save football.

"Moreover, he has done so admitting Real Madrid has had millionaire takeovers, which makes weaker at one point our club.

"I think it has been a big mistake. And, also, he has done so while not consulting the members. It is a project which would have had an influence in the future of the club if it would have gone through.

"He said, and we all say because it is a fact, that this club belongs to its membership. Therefore, it looks obvious that such an important project has to be consulted to them. He hasn't done that, though, and obviously now his image is seriously damaged."

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin sounded a conciliatory note as plans for a European Super League unravelled in the face of wide-ranging backlash. 

Little more than a day after hitting out at a proposal he said was "fuelled purely by greed above all else," Ceferin indicated a willingness to move forward with the clubs that have backed out of the breakaway league. 

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham all confirmed they were ending their involvement with the European Super League after a popular uproar about the plans. 

“I said yesterday that it is admirable to admit a mistake and these clubs made a big mistake," Ceferin said in a statement. 

“But they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer not just to our competitions but to the whole of the European game.

“The important thing now is that we move on, rebuild the unity that the game enjoyed before this and move forward together.”

The English clubs' withdrawal from the venture leaves Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Milan and Inter to continue, but it is unclear what shape the proposal might take with half of its projected participants no longer involved. 

The European Super League said after the defections it would "reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project". 

UEFA plans to move ahead with the Champions League revisions announced Monday in the face of whatever threat might remain from the Super League proponents. 

Those plans include an increased field of 36 teams as the present format -  whereby there are eight pools of four – will be scrapped.

Instead, each team will play 10 group games before advancing to a last-16 knockout format. The changes are due to be introduced for the 2024-25 season.

Gerard Pique became the first Barcelona or Real Madrid player to openly criticise the attempted formation of a European Super League.

Twelve major European clubs came together to confirm the creation of a closed-shop competition on Sunday, but within 48 hours it has been left in ruins.

Manchester City became the first club to withdraw on Tuesday and Chelsea were also reported to have begun such proceedings at a similar time, though an official statement is not expected until Wednesday.

The four remaining English teams, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United – who earlier on Tuesday confirmed club chief Ed Woodward has resigned in an apparently unrelated move – then released simultaneous statements announcing their disassociation with the breakaway.

None of Milan, Inter, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Madrid nor Barca have addressed the situation in public since the English clubs began to set their mass-withdrawal in motion.

But the cracks have started to appear, with Barca great Pique seemingly becoming the first player from the Spanish clubs to denounce the proposals that have been left in tatters.

Around the same time that Arsenal, Liverpool, United and Spurs confirmed their exits, Pique tweeted: "Football belongs to the fans. Today more than ever."

Madrid president Florentino Perez was expected to appear on Spanish radio on Tuesday but ultimately failed to show.

With half of the 12 founder members pulling out, the next move of the remaining six is yet to be revealed.

However, it looks like a troubling period awaits Madrid, with Perez openly admitting on Monday that the club needed the money from the Super League due to their financial difficulties.

Pique's Barca also have issues, with their debts confirmed earlier this year to be in excess of €1billion.

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