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."

Erling Haaland is the name on everyone's lips as Europe's elite queue up to get their hands on Borussia Dortmund's prized asset. 

From Real Madrid, Manchester City, Barcelona and Manchester United, to Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich - there is no shortage of interest in the Norwegian sensation.

"I don't think there's a sports director or trainer in the world who would say 'not interested'," Haaland's agent Mino Raiola told BBC Sport in February. "It's like saying: 'Is there a Formula 1 team who would not be interested in having Lewis Hamilton?'"

The issue is, only a handful of clubs – in a coronavirus-impacted transfer market – could realistically afford to prise the €180m-rated Haaland from Dortmund, where the 20-year-old is contracted until 2024 and his reported €75m release clause does not come into effect until 2022.

Step forward, Dusan Vlahovic.

A revelation for relegation-threatened Fiorentina in 2020-21, the powerful but nimble left-footed Serbia international has emerged as a cheaper alternative in a Haaland-dominated market. Vlahovic's 16 league goals this season have reportedly caught the eye of a host of top European clubs, ready to upgrade their forward line in the next window.

Present, not the future

Vlahovic has been destined for the top, the player says so himself.

"I am a Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Belgrade, I will play for the strongest clubs," is what former Fiorentina forward Valeri Bojinov recalled being told by Vlahovic in an interview with Transfermarkt earlier this year.

There have always been high expectations for Vlahovic – the youngest debutant in Partizan Belgrade's history after making his debut aged 16, while he became the youngest goalscorer in the club's 75-year history that season – but he is more than just the future, he is the here and now.

In a struggling Fiorentina side fighting to preserve their top-flight status, Vlahovic has been a shining light. The 21-year-old's tally of 16 goals in 31 appearances this season only behind Haaland (23 in 25) for most goals by players aged under 22 in the top five European leagues in 2020-21.

 

Vlahovic is the first Fiorentina player to score 16 goals in a single top-flight campaign since Giuseppe Rossi in 2013-14, the first player born after the year 2000 to reach 20 Serie A goals and one of just four players born post-2000 to net 20 career goals in Europe's top-five leagues. He also became the first Fiorentina player to score a first-half Serie A hat-trick since Kurt Hamrin in 1964 after his treble against Benevento in March.

Vlahovic has 22 goals in 71 Italian top-flight appearances, one more goal than Juventus' Paulo Dybala (21) from one game less (72) before the age of 22, though Alexandre Pato bagged 50 goals in 102 Serie A games and Bojinov tallied 22 goals in 86 league matches in Italy before celebrating his 22nd birthday – it did not exactly go according to plan for the latter pair.

The average non-penalty shot conversion rate in Serie A this season is 11.1 per cent and Vlahovic has performed comfortably above this average, by converting 17.6 per cent of his shots – in line with the quality of chances he has been given, with his expected goals (xG) per non-penalty shot at 0.173. 

Being able to sustain this over a longer period will reveal more about the qualities he possesses as a forward, but the Belgrade-born sensation is on the right track.

 

Smarter and wiser

There were signs of promise in 2019-20, but Vlahovic's form was patchy with six goals in total.

Expected to hit the ground running this term, Vlahovic had a dismal return of just one goal from his first 10 appearances of the season. Despite growing pressure, he kept the faith thanks to some advice from star team-mate Franck Ribery.

"When I was down, he spoke to me and told me to never give up," Vlahovic said. "That’s how I understood what it means to be a champion on the pitch and in life."

Starting to realise his enormous potential, Vlahovic made his senior international debut in October last year and scored his second goal for Serbia in March's World Cup qualifier against Ireland – his improvement is clear to see.

In 2020-21, the average quality of his shots is 0.17 xG, not far off being double what it was in 2019-20 (0.10). Now finding more intelligent shooting positions his shot conversion rate has unsurprisingly jumped from 7.8 per cent to 17.6 per cent across the two seasons. 

Being able to produce shots from wiser positions on the pitch is a sought-after skill and the 21-year-old has excelled in 2020-21. Of the 13 players to have scored at least 10 non-penalty goals in Serie A this season, only Simy (0.21 xG) and Romelu Lukaku (0.20 xG) have averaged better quality shots from open play than Vlahovic.

More than meets the eye

Standing six feet and three inches, Vlahovic is a towering presence on the field. Powerful and quick but technically astute and comfortable with the ball at his feet – trademark Balkan traits.

Vlahovic has been involved in the second-most aerial duels in Serie A this season – 206, behind only Sampdoria midfielder Morten Thorsby. For his stature, it is surprising to discover he has only won 42 per cent of those duels, among the lowest of players to be involved in at least 100 aerials this season in Italy's top-flight.

You would also expect a healthy portion of Vlahovic's goals to come in the air, but this is not the case. Only one of his 16 goals have come from a header, this despite attempting the second most headed efforts in Serie A (17) and just three of these have been on target (18 per cent).

There is more to him than meets the eye, just look at his stunning stoppage-time equaliser against Inter last season – starting with his back to goal in his own half, he left Milan Skriniar and Stefan de Vrij scrambling before producing a clinical shot across Samir Handanovic. Vlahovic's control, awareness, speed and finishing on display for all to see in Florence.

Or there is the Turin example seen in December, Vlahovic splitting Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci and leaving the Juventus pair in his wake as he expertly scooped the ball over the onrushing Wojciech Szczesny.

Fiorentina's Vlahovic is only involved in 25 per cent of shot-ending sequences for the Viola, with just one in four of their open-play shots involving him either as someone in the passing build-up for the shot, the assister of the shot or the player to take the shot. When Vlahovic is involved, he is usually the end of the chain.

Compare this to Haaland, the Norway international is far more involved in the build-up or as the provider than Vlahovic and it is the same story with the Serie A's top two goalscorers, Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Inter's Romelu Lukaku.

Haaland is much more of a box player than Vlahovic – 24.5 per cent of the former's touches are in the penalty area, with 12.1 per cent shots. If you compare that to his Fiorentina counterpart, whose 15.2 per cent of touches are in the box and just 7.6 per cent are shots.

 

"I watch him and I try to understand his finishing and how he moves," Vlahovic, whose has scored a lot of his goals from central areas, told La Repubblica of Haaland. "Then, I focus on my strong points and my weaknesses. It may be presumptuous, but with commitment, I can get there too."

While not yet as clinical, Vlahovic is confident he can reach the same level as Haaland and there are not too many reasons to doubt him.

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."

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."

Andrea Pirlo will consider no longer placing Cristiano Ronaldo in defensive walls after Juventus conceded from another free-kick in their win against Parma.

Ronaldo covered his face and failed to jump as Gaston Brugman lifted a superb 25-yarder over the five-man Juve wall and past a stationary Gianluigi Buffon.

The home side recovered from that setback thanks to a couple of Alex Sandro goals either side of half-time and a header from fellow defender Matthijs de Ligt.

However, Pirlo was not overly pleased with his side's display and hinted Ronaldo - criticised for turning his back on Sergio Oliveira's extra-time free-kick that saw Porto knock Juve out of the Champions League last 16 - will no longer form part of the wall.

"Unfortunately, these things happen, but we'll have to evaluate it over the next few days," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"We made life difficult for ourselves with that opening goal, then ran a few other risks on set-plays. It's a pity because we'd done well defending from dead-ball situations this season."

Juventus have now conceded goals in each of their last eight Serie A games, which is their longest such streak since May 2019.

Pirlo had a couple of defenders to thank for bailing his side out, with Alex Sandro scoring more goals against Parma in Wednesday's clash than he managed in his previous 115 matches in all competitions.

While the under-fire boss is happy to have come away with all three points, he accepted there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"We were too distant in the first half and that slowed down the passing movement," he said.

"Maybe we don't maintain the same concentration and pace from match to match. Sometimes we are a little slow, we hold onto the ball, allow the opposition to occupy the space and it all grinds to a halt.

"We did well to turn it around and the win was important for our confidence as we played well and needed to take home the three points.

"We have instinctive players, but must also give them directions on the positions to hold. They did it better in the second half than the first, especially with the body positioning to receive the ball."

The win for Juve moves them into third, one point above fourth-placed Atalanta and five ahead of Napoli in fifth, both of whom have a game in hand in a tight battle for Champions League qualification.

It was an important victory in more ways than one for the fallen champions amid a backdrop of unrest over the European Super League proposal, which is now in tatters after the vast majority of teams pulled the plug.

Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli was one of the chief architects of the breakaway plans and Pirlo reiterated his pre-match comments that, while he is not against change, the club must "respect the rules".

"Agnelli explained what was happening, but that the most important thing was to secure a place in the top four to qualify for the Champions League," Pirlo said. "He reassured and encouraged us ahead of this game.

"I already spoke about [the Super League] yesterday, so did the president and the director. We all know the same things. 

"Something has to be changed on the European level, because the ideas that were proposed were good ones, but we are also open to other suggestions and will respect the rules."

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.

Stefano Pioli did not take the opportunity to highlight Milan's involvement in the European Super League saga as a distraction after their 2-1 defeat to Sassuolo.

The Rossoneri were among 12 elite clubs - including three from Serie A - to sign up for the controversial breakaway competition on Sunday.

An angry response from fans, players, coaches, governing bodies, governments and the media prompted several outfits to rethink, though, with England's 'big six' all backing out on Tuesday.

Milan followed suit on Wednesday, confirming their withdrawal just five hours before kick-off against Sassuolo.

With their place in a continental tournament no longer secured as a result, Pioli's side have work to do to qualify for the Champions League.

Milan are second but the loss to Sassuolo, having led through Hakan Calhanoglu, opens the door for fifth-placed Napoli to close to within three points if they win their game in hand against Lazio.

Giacomo Raspadori was Sassuolo's two-goal match-winner, but Pioli chose not to look for an excuse.

"It did not affect us," he told Sky Sport. "We did not let ourselves be distracted by anything.

"We are focused on our goal. These are things that we have not decided and we have not talked about."

Pioli was asked about comments made by Milan technical director Paolo Maldini before the game in which the Rossoneri great apologised for the club's Super League involvement despite insisting he had no knowledge of the discussions.

"I don't think anyone could have had any doubts about Paolo's moral integrity," Pioli said.

"He has many values, he expressed himself for what he feels. If he said those things, it means that he has these feelings."

Maldini had said: "I have never been involved in the discussions related to the Super League.

"I only heard the news on Sunday, like all of you, through the joint communications that have been published.

"It's something that's been decided at a higher level than my role. In any case, this does not exempt me from taking responsibility for apologising to Milan fans who have felt betrayed in the fundamental principles of sport that we have always respected."

He added: "It is normal that in 2021 a manager [director] of a great team cannot fail to know that revenues and sustainability are important concepts.

"But if we can learn a lesson from this story it is to have understood how far we can go.

"[We can] definitely not change the principles of sport that consist of meritocracy and dreams that must be guaranteed to everyone."

Milan's hopes of Champions League were qualification were hit by a 2-1 home defeat to Sassuolo in their first match since playing a part in European football's remarkable Super League saga.

The Rossoneri were among 12 elite clubs signed up to play in a controversial new continental competition until England's 'big six' backed out on Tuesday and prompted its collapse.

Milan have not played in the Champions League - the tournament the lucrative Super League sought to rival - since 2013-14 and have work to do to clinch the top-four finish that would end that wait, barring any UEFA sanctions.

Substitute Giacomo Raspadori's quickfire late double, after a superb Hakan Calhanoglu opener, leaves the second-placed side still well within reach for Napoli in fifth, six points ahead but with a game in hand to come for the Partenopei.

Milan are "proud" to be part of Serie A but their chief executive Ivan Gazidis believes the European Super League will open up football to billions of fans.

The Rossoneri, along with Juventus and Inter, were among 12 teams included in Sunday's seismic Super League announcement.

Reaction has been sustained and vitriolic, with UEFA, FIFA and the Premier League among those to condemn the plans, alongside Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola – despite Liverpool and Manchester City also being on the initial roster.

Those involved have been accused of undermining their domestic competitions, by foregoing the challenge of qualifying for continental competitions in favour of a closed-shop arrangement.

Nevertheless, Gazidis sought to reaffirm his club's commitment to Italy's top flight in a letter to commercial partners and sponsors.

"Serie A will remain the most important weekend competition in Italy and Milan are proud to remain an important part of the pinnacle of Italian football," he said.

"We're confident that this new competition will capture the imagination of billions of football fans all over the world and will be a new, exciting chapter for the game.

"The Super League will provide value and support to the whole football pyramid with greater financial resources."

Milan are back in action at home to Sassuolo on Wednesday, with solidifying a spot in the top four the priority for head coach Stefano Pioli – irrespective of what that might now mean in the greater scheme of things.

“Milan have never finished top four in the last few years. It would be an important target for us that would prove our growth,” Pioli told a pre-match news conference.

“We have a target, and it's an important one. We are focused on this. We'll see what happens in the future. I repeat, this is not the right time to talk about the Super League."

David Trezeguet believes domestic leagues will "lose their charm" and suffer huge damage as a result of the European Super League.

The 12 founding clubs of the breakaway competition have indicated they want to remain in their domestic leagues, despite threats of severe punishments.

But World Cup winner Trezeguet, whose former club Juventus are among the group, thinks the excitement will disappear from the Premier League, LaLiga and Serie A.

He also fears for the Champions League's lustre should UEFA attempt to continue with it if the European Super League is ultimately launched.

Trezeguet said to Stats Perform News: "From an emotional side it is nice to conquer your right to play in the Champions League and Europa League on the pitch. 

"At the moment in Italy we discuss if Juventus can qualify, if Napoli can overtake them, if Lazio can get closer. 

"All these everyday chats will be lost because with the Super League you already know those three clubs [Juventus, Inter and Milan] will be in and maybe somebody else will be added.

"Although they clearly stated they would go on, domestic leagues will lose their charm.

"You lose the charm of understanding clubs' goals... who aims at Champions League? Who at the Europa League? And other goals.

"And the Champions League will lose these 12 big clubs who boast a big enchantment on marketing and fans." 

But Trezeguet understands why top clubs would be tempted by the huge financial rewards on offer after the coronavirus pandemic.

He added: "Read the economic value of the Super League and what Florentino Perez said [about huge financial losses]. If these are the losses, they are huge and they are due to the pandemic. 

"My opinion is divided. They even said they don't want to give up on other [clubs] - this is yet to be verified. 

"If you read those figures, you see a big leap in quality [of finances] for these 12 clubs but whether they will help the others is yet to be seen. 

"But from an emotional point of view I don't agree because you lose the principle of qualifying on the pitch. 

"We all know for sure that football has become a big business but lest we forget the sporting side of this game. 

"Earning your titles, playing a high-level season that makes you qualify for European cups - this is a job well done. 

"I know these big clubs are used to playing at such levels.

"But from an emotional viewpoint I am perplexed because you already know these three clubs [in Italy or Spain] will be automatically qualified regardless of their seasonal path in the league."

Trezeguet foresees a lengthy political battle ahead and is unsure whether players and fans will ultimately be listened to.

He added: "It will be a long bureaucratic clash and it is not a surprise. The Super League on one hand and the UEFA on the other have been very clear. 

"They have both their ideas and formats and the economic part should not be forgotten since these figures [for losses] are huge.

"First we have to see if they will be able to do the Super League as I was watching Leeds v Liverpool and already you can see fans were emotional. 

"And the UEFA president gave a speech that was more emotional than concrete about treason, wrong ideas, phone calls unreturned.

"But it is true that we are entering in a critical moment. UEFA and FIFA were straightforward on this from a sporting point of view. 

"Politicians in very important football countries like France, Germany and England have opposed the Super League. 

"Even in Italy and Spain the prime minister and the ministers have backed UEFA rather than the Super League. Now it is politics.

"The players will be the least listened to - this Super League has been decided without even consulting the players or the fans. 

"What has struck me is fans and players coming forward very clearly against it. Will it go on regardless? We'll see."

Andrea Pirlo and his Juventus team are "calm" about the club's involvement in the breakaway European Super League and remain focused on first qualifying for the Champions League.

Juve were among 12 elite clubs to announce plans to launch a lucrative new continental competition on Sunday. All founding clubs would controversially be guaranteed participation every season.

Bianconeri chairman Andrea Agnelli is at the forefront of the plans, prompting criticism from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who is charged with organising the rival Champions League.

Ceferin has made a number of threats towards the dozen clubs involved, including the suggestion their players could be banned from international fixtures.

But Pirlo is confident the saga is not providing a distraction ahead of Juve's game on Wednesday against Parma, who they could beat in four successive Serie A meetings for the first time.

Three points would be particularly precious with Pirlo's men in fourth, struggling to qualify for the Champions League.

While Super League proposals suggested a swift start to the new tournament, meaning Juve would no longer play in UEFA's competition, Agnelli has encouraged the players to ensure they finish in the top four this term.

"We are focused on what we need to do and that is to qualify for the Champions League," Pirlo said.

"This morning the president told us about the Super League. We are calm, because the president is planning this thing, but we have to think about the present, which is qualification for the Champions League.

"[The Super League] is a development for the world of football. There's been a lot of change over the years, but I'm not the right person to explain this.

"The president is at the forefront and he will be better able to explain things as they are these days, as the other presidents are doing.

"I didn't hear anything further from the president, because we see him most days and so he's always been close to the team.

"He explained the project to us broadly, not in detail, but he gave us great confidence and told us that the most important thing is to continue our work to earn the Champions League on the field.

"For now, [the Super League] is just a project and [the players] have to rest easy because football goes on.

"They know that the present is tomorrow's game and they must focus on the present and Parma."

Juve have lost five of their 31 league games so far this season, their most at this stage of a campaign since 2010-11 (nine) - the last time the title went anywhere other Turin.

The most recent of those defeats came last time out against Atalanta, but Pirlo was without Cristiano Ronaldo.

The coach confirmed Ronaldo, along with Gianluigi Buffon and Paulo Dybala, would start against Parma, one of the superstar forward's favourite opponents.

He has scored two or more goals in three games against Parma in Serie A. Against no side has he done so more often, also netting at least twice in three matches with Cagliari.

Claudio Ranieri sneered at the prospect of a Super League as Italy's football coaches association boss Renzo Ulivieri called for Juventus, Milan and Inter to be thrown out of Serie A.

Ranieri used Leicester City's against-the-odds 2015-16 Premier League title march and subsequent involvement in the Champions League as an example of an underdog having its day.

He was manager of the Foxes as they rose to that unexpected prominence, and it is something he fears would be impossible under the new proposals, with the Champions League being seemingly imperilled by such a rival competition and the biggest clubs set to see their incomes soar.

The Premier League 'big six' have confirmed their readiness to compete in the new Super League, along with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Italian giants Juve, Milan and Inter. They would then be permanent members of the big-money competition, guaranteed huge annual payouts, but also plan to keep playing in their domestic leagues.

A backlash has followed Sunday's announcement, with concerns expressed by supporters, leagues, national associations, leading politicians, and even some players and coaches from clubs involved.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola expressed reservations on Tuesday, although the Premier League title race front-runners have said they will enter.

Ulivieri, president of the Associazione Italiana Allenatori Calcio, told Rai Radio 1: "It is a dirty trick against the football system, even at the lower levels, designed to solve teams that have done everything wrong in the management of the clubs.

"This is a serious blow to the national championships. Juventus, Inter and Milan cannot continue to stay in Serie A.

"Juve have won many championships because they organised themselves better, because they spent more money but also because they made a lot of debts."

Ranieri, now coach of Sampdoria, said: "Reading what some European clubs want to do, the first thing that comes to my memory is precisely the feat accomplished by Leicester.

"Regardless of the fact that I was involved too, it was a result obtained by the smallest who managed to compete with the great giants of the football world. In my opinion this spirit represents the essence of sport."

Former Chelsea boss Ranieri added, according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport: "What they are trying to do is wrong. Maybe they are doing this to cover all the debts they have.

"I hope that FIFA and UEFA have the tools to combat this big, bad thing."

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