Antonio Conte hit back at critics of Inter and star forward Romelu Lukaku after his high-flying side stayed level on points with Juventus atop Serie A.

Lukaku scored twice as Inter defeated Napoli 3-1 away from home on Monday, following Juve's 4-0 rout of Cagliari earlier in the day.

After celebrating his 100th Serie A victory as a coach, Conte responded to comments about Inter's counter-attacking strength.

"I don't think Inter defended and went on the counter, as we tried to press Napoli right on the edge of their own area for the whole game," Conte told Sky Sport Italia.

"I hear people always saying we play counter-attacking football, but this is a side that knows what it has to do every time it is in possession.

"We play knowing full well everything we have to do at any moment of the match. Fortunately, our opponents respect us more than the media seem to. People say we win away because we defend deep and go on the counter, but that is certainly not our approach."

Inter's record signing Lukaku took his Serie A tally to 14 goals this season thanks to his brace at the San Paolo, where Lautaro Martinez was also on target.

Lukaku has starred since arriving from Manchester United, where he only managed 12 Premier League goals in 32 appearances last season.

"I heard people say Lukaku was a donkey. I heard all sorts not even that long ago! It's easy to speak highly of Lukaku now, but if we look back to a few weeks ago…" Conte said.

"I always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed work to smooth him out. Lautaro Martinez is the same. These lads are 26 and 22 years old, they are still young.

"I wanted Romelu very strongly when I was at Chelsea, even back at Juventus. I wanted him, now I can get to work on polishing the diamond."

Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen has been heavily with a move to Inter but Giuseppe Marotta insisted there has been no contact between the clubs.

Eriksen's contract at Spurs will expire at the end of the season, but it has been reported Inter are willing to part with €20million to sign him in January.

Barcelona's Arturo Vidal is also understood to be a target for the Nerazzurri and chief executive Marotta confirmed they are keen to add a midfielder and a winger in the transfer window.

However, Marotta denied Inter are in talks with Spurs over the Denmark international.

"Inter are often linked with players of great quality, and that is flattering, but we have not had any contact with Tottenham," he told Sky Sport Italia.

"Eriksen is a talented player, I don't need to tell you that, and he will be a free agent in June.

"I think many clubs are interested, he is an interesting player, but I will not stand here and tell you that we are in negotiations with his club or agent."

When asked about Vidal, Marotta said: "We are having various contacts with agents and clubs to increase the quality level of a squad that is already doing extraordinary things.

"We've not yet reached a conclusion, as we want to take it calmly and make the right decisions, even if that should mean no signings at all.

"I prefer not to name names, but we are very active in the transfer market. Who we get depends also on those who exit.

"Right now, we are seeking a midfielder and a winger. If players should ask to leave, we will try to make them happy, but so far we have not received any such pressure from our players."

Antonio Conte registered his 100th win as a coach in Serie A by leading Inter to a 3-1 victory over Napoli on Monday.

Inter boss Conte reached the milestone thanks to Romelu Lukaku's first-half double and Lautaro Martinez's goal after the break at the San Paolo, where the Nerazzurri claimed their first league triumph since October 1997.

The former Italy boss became the fastest manager to reach triple figures for wins among those who made their Serie A coaching debut from 1994-95 onwards.

Conte's first win in the division was a 3-1 success at Udinese during a stint in charge of Atalanta in the 2009-10 season.

After a spell in the second tier with Siena, Conte took charge of Juventus in 2011 and led them to three successive Scudetti.

Inter's victory over Napoli was their 14th of the season and saw them regain their place at the top of Serie A at the expense of Juve, who beat Cagliari 4-0 earlier in the day.

Romelu Lukaku scored a double as Inter comfortably beat Napoli 3-1 for their first Serie A win at the San Paolo in just over 22 years.

Inter were on Monday briefly replaced at the top of the league by Juventus, who downed Cagliari 4-0, but regained their spot at the summit with an impressive triumph.

Lukaku struck twice in the first half, the second coming thanks to a blunder from Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret, before Arkadiusz Milik halved the deficit in the 39th minute.

Lautaro Martinez made sure of the result in the second half, with the victory Antonio Conte's 100th as a coach in Serie A.

Giovanni Di Lorenzo was punished for an unfortunate slip in the 14th minute, as Lukaku latched onto the loose ball and raced forward to fire in off the left post.

Meret did well to deny Matias Vecino and Martinez but he undid his good work in the 33rd minute when he diverted Lukaku's powerful drive from 18 yards between his own legs and in.

Napoli stayed positive and, after Samir Handanovic just about kept out Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon squared Piotr Zielinski's diagonal delivery into the six-yard box for Milik to tap home before the break.

The tempo dropped off in the second half but Inter again made Napoli pay for an error. Kostas Manolas was unable to clear Vecino's right-wing delivery and instead teed up Martinez to stab home with 62 minutes played.

Tempers flared when Fabian Ruiz forcefully kicked the ball into the Inter dugout, with Sebastiano Esposito and Antonio Conte going into the book for their reactions.

Insigne clipped the crossbar with a 20-yard free-kick as Napoli proved unable to spark a comeback.

Martinez almost doubled his tally in stoppage time but, after rounding Meret, was dispossessed by Di Lorenzo, who looked fortunate not to concede a penalty for his challenge.

 

What does it mean? Conte brings up his ton

Conte's first win as a Serie A coach came in October 2009 while in charge of Atalanta and he reached 100 victories in 145 matches. That is the quickest of any boss to have made their debut in the division from 1994-95 onwards. He will hope to keep up the impressive pace and lead Inter to their first Scudetto since 2010.

Lukaku looking sharp

Lukaku has been prolific away from home this season and now has 10 goals in his nine appearances on the road. He was a threat from the off and thoroughly deserved his brace.

A demerit for Napoli's keeper

After making decent saves from Vecino and Martinez, Meret committed a howler when he let Lukaku's stinging shot squirm through him to hand Inter a 2-0 lead.

What's next?

Inter will be without Milan Skriniar after he was shown a fifth yellow card of the season when they entertain Atalanta at San Siro on Saturday, while Napoli head to Lazio the same day.

Stefano Pioli was pleased with Zlatan Ibrahimovic's performance but was frustrated Milan did not make better use of him in the 0-0 draw with Sampdoria.

Ibrahimovic, who returned for a second spell at the club this week, made his first Serie A performance in 2974 days as a second-half substitute at San Siro.

The 38-year-old saw a header saved by Emil Audero but was generally starved of service as Milan controlled possession but failed to offer enough cutting edge in attack.

Pioli now hopes the players can get used to having Ibrahimovic in the side in order to make the most of his goalscoring threat.

"From my perspective, his impact was positive," the Rossoneri boss told Sky Sport Italia. "He gave us presence and support. In my opinion, the team isn't yet used to having that presence. At the end of the game, I think we could have looked for him more.

"When it comes to quality, it's also down to the choices made, particularly in the last quarter of an hour, when the energy was lower.

"We've always been a skilled team in the build-up, skilled in dribbling, and we did that today. Now, there are other solutions we have to be good at exploiting."

Pioli admitted a lack of quality continues to hold Milan back, with Monday's San Siro stalemate leaving them 12th in the table, 13 points adrift of the top four.

"We obviously wanted to win and the fact we didn't manage to is certainly disappointing," he said.

"We almost played in the middle of Sampdoria's half. We put an impressive number of balls into their area but lacked quality. We didn't lack for desire and generosity, but we couldn't find the right chance."

When asked where more quality should come from, he said: "From all AC Milan players. We needed more precision but, I repeat, we got into their box many times."

Cristiano Ronaldo scored his first Serie A hat-trick as Juventus overcame Cagliari and he was pleased to put the pressure on Inter, who topped the league during the mid-season break.

After a goalless first half at Allianz Stadium, Ronaldo showed great anticipation to beat Sebastian Walukiewicz to Ragnar Klavan's loose pass and round Robin Olsen for the opener.

The 34-year-old added a second from the penalty spot following Marko Rog's foul on Paulo Dybala.

Gonzalo Higuain extended Juve's lead further in the 81st minute and five seconds after Cagliari restarted the match Ronaldo slotted in his third.

The victory sent Maurizio Sarri's men three points clear of Inter ahead of the Nerazzurri's trip to Napoli later on Monday.

"The year has started very well. The most important thing despite the hat-trick is that the team wins," Ronaldo told Sky Sport Italia.

"We played well and created a lot of chances. I am pleased with the hat-trick, but the most important thing was to win and put pressure on Inter.

"The team is getting better, not just in defence but in all areas. We must improve in all aspects, not just one. We are a complete squad and have to work together in every move."

On whether he will watch Inter's game against Napoli, Ronaldo added: "I don't know, but obviously I hope Inter lose, because that would help us.

"In any case, we've done what we needed to do and can only wait now."

Milan spent much of the previous decade battling Manchester United to decide which of Europe's grandest clubs could fall hardest from their perches.

Such has been their relative misery that each team was linked with bringing back a former star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to inject a little optimism at the start of 2020.

It was Milan who made that particular move, Ibrahimovic returning this week to much fanfare to the club he led to the 2011 Serie A title. He came on as a substitute against Sampdoria on Monday, the self-professed lion greeting the San Siro cheers with an encouraging roar of this own.

If bravado bought points, Ibrahimovic's arrival would have Milan pushing Juventus at the top of the table before the season is out. As it is, his 35 minutes on the pitch served only to show how far the Rossoneri find themselves from those title-winning standards of nine years ago.

Ibrahimovic came on for Krzysztof Piatek, a one-time goal machine who at the moment looks about as likely to escape a man-marking centre-back as his own shadow.

Piatek managed one shot, 14 touches and five passes in his 55 minutes on the pitch. The Poland international showed lots of endeavour, but when you have scored just six league goals in eight months, hard work counts for little.

As a whole, Milan cannot be accused of a lack of effort since Stefano Pioli took charge in October, but the dearth in quality in their play has reached alarming levels. This is a team assembled at no little expense, under the directorship of former stars Paolo Maldini and Zvonimir Boban, who must spend each passing week remembering the Rossoneri's seven European Cups and wondering how much further from those standards they can drift.

Ibrahimovic, of course, has never won the Champions League – a blot on a career trophy haul that is otherwise the envy of entire football clubs – and that will not change at San Siro. This draw leaves Milan 12th in the table, 13 points adrift of the top four and only eight above the relegation zone, and only some rather panicked finishing from Samp striker Manolo Gabbiadini prevented this result from being worse. Realistically, Ibrahimovic will be in his 40s by the time Milan are even close to Champions League football again.

But Zlatan was brought back with a more immediate impact in mind. He certainly injected something into this Milan performance, starved of service as he was: he led the attack tolerably well, saw a header saved by Emil Audero and set up Rade Krunic for a chance he failed to take.

It was Mateo Musacchio who set up Rafael Leao for their best chance, only for the winger to give a non-committal stab at the ball and lift it over the bar. It was a finish unbecoming of this club, or even of Ibrahimovic himself, who watched on impassively.

"I don't come as a mascot, to stand next to the devil [Milanello] and dance," Ibrahimovic said this week. "I'm here to help out on the pitch."

Monday's stalemate means Milan have won four of their past 15 league games. Given the quality around him, perhaps a little cheerleading is the best Zlatan can do for now.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unable to make a winning return to Milan as the Rossoneri were held to a 0-0 draw by Sampdoria at San Siro on Monday.

Veteran striker Ibrahimovic rejoined Milan on a free transfer at the start of the window and made his first appearance as a second-half substitute.

Despite his introduction it was Samp who looked more dangerous and Stefano Pioli had goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and the profligacy of Manolo Gabbiadini to thank for things remaining level.

Milan, who lost 5-0 to Atalanta in their last game before the mid-season break, were unable to find a winner in the closing stages and remain 12th due to Hellas Verona's 2-0 win over SPAL on Sunday.

Ibrahimovic received a warm welcome at the warm-ups but the low-key action on the pitch during the early exchanges stood in stark contrast to the excitement and anticipation around his return.

Milan finally threatened in the 23rd minute, but Giacomo Bonaventura's volley from the edge of the box was blocked by Omar Colley.

Theo Hernandez clipped the crossbar with a curling cross from the left and on the stroke of half-time Jakub Jankto – a 42nd-minute substitute for Fabio Depaoli, who went off 12 minutes after replacing Gaston Ramirez – had a goal correctly ruled out for offside.

Donnarumma stopped Gabbiadini putting Samp ahead early in the second half, though a clearance from Hernandez ensured the ricochet did not drop into the net.

Ibrahimovic was introduced to a great roar in the 55th minute but it was the visitors who continued to look more threatening, Donnarumma rushing off his line to keep out Gabbiadini before Davide Calabria's block denied Ronaldo Vieira on the follow-up.

Gabbiadini lost his composure after rounding an out-of-position Donnarumma before the hour mark, with Ibrahimovic mustering a couple of headers as he made himself a nuisance in the box.

Substitute Rafael Leao wasted a glorious chance to take all three points in the 71st minute, leaving Milan without a win in three Serie A matches.

 

What does it mean? Milan need more than Ibra

Ibrahimovic proved of more use to Milan than Krzysztof Piatek, who was barely involved before being replaced by the former Sweden international.

The 38-year-old offered a focal point to the Rossoneri's attack and regularly looked to link the play, but a lack of creativity and flair going forward continues to hamper Stefano Pioli's side.

Hernandez one of few bright strikes

Former Real Madrid left-back Hernandez motored up and down the wing to great effect at San Siro. He caused Samp problems going forward and made an important goal-line clearance in the second half.

Quagliarella goes quiet

Although Gabbiadini was unable to take any of the chances that came his way as Samp enjoyed a strong start to the second half, Fabio Quagliarella was the major disappointment. The veteran attacker was rarely involved and did not have a single shot on goal.

What's next?

Milan face a tricky trip to Cagliari on Saturday, while Sampdoria take on fellow strugglers Brescia the following day.

Cristiano Ronaldo got his 2020 up and running with a hat-trick as Ragnar Klavan's error helped gift Juventus a 4-0 win over Cagliari, sending the champions back above Inter at the Serie A summit.

Despite a dominant first-half display, Juve - who were defeated by Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana in their final match of 2019 - were unable to find a way through before Klavan's calamity.

But once presented with a clear chance, Ronaldo made no mistake, keeping his composure to beat Robin Olsen, who was beaten again by the former Real Madrid star from the spot in the 67th minute.

Ronaldo's penalty came after Giovanni Simeone almost snatched an equaliser against the run of play, but a strike from substitute Gonzalo Higuain and a composed third from Ronaldo comfortably ensured Juve made it 30 consecutive home league matches without defeat.

 

Juventus are unlikely to allow either Adrien Rabiot or Emre Can to leave the club in the January transfer window, according to chief executive officer Fabio Paratici.

Both Rabiot - signed on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain in the close season - and Can have struggled to cement themselves as regular starters under Maurizio Sarri so far this season.

Rabiot has featured 10 times in total in Serie A, while Can, who was left out of Juve's Champions League squad, has played seven league matches so far, and the pair have both been linked with moves away from Turin.

However, Paratici is adamant neither player will leave this month, though confirmed there has been interest. 

"I can exclude Emre Can leaving, as he will certainly remain with us," Paratici told Sky Italia prior to Juve's encounter with Cagliari on Monday.

"On an international level, he is one of the most wanted players, but I think he can be important for our project.

"Rabiot arrived here after not playing for eight months. It's only natural on a physical level he should take time to adapt. He paid the price for that, but he has done well when used.

"We are confident, he is an important player and a guarantee for Juve, not a question mark or a doubt. We have an important squad, with a lot of competition for places, and that's how it should be at this level."

Juve have already secured their first signing for next season, agreeing a deal to bring in Atalanta midfielder Dejan Kulusevski, who is on loan at Parma this term, and at a reported €35million plus add ons, Paratici believes Juve have got a bargain.

"We would've liked to bring him to Juve straight away, but there was already a clear agreement from the start of the negotiations," Paratici told Sky Sport Italia.

"We are happy and knew full well he'd remain at Parma. He is an important player for the future of Juve and we are very happy with this deal."

Wolves star Adama Traore is reportedly attracting interest from Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester City.

Traore, formerly of Barcelona, has continued to impress this season, helping Wolves sit seventh in the Premier League.

Now, the former Spain youth international is reportedly being targeted by three of Europe's biggest clubs.

 

TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL, BARCELONA & MAN CITY EYE TRAORE

Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester City are interested in signing Traore, according to 90min.

Traore has scored four goals and provided four assists in the Premier League this season.

The report says Wolves want at least £70million for Traore.

 

ROUND-UP

- Dani Olmo is expected to leave Dinamo Zagreb and is being eyed by several European giants. Goal reports Barcelona lead Chelsea and Manchester United in the race for the 21-year-old Spain international.

- Arturo Vidal is linked with a move to Inter, but he may be going nowhere. The cover of Sport reads 'You stay', with the report saying Barcelona have told the midfielder he will remain with the LaLiga giants due to his importance to the club.

- Chelsea have identified their top January transfer target. The Daily Express reports the Premier League side want Inter forward Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa this month to ease the pressure on Tammy Abraham.

- Inter are considering reinforcements on the left-hand side. CalcioMercato says Chelsea's Marcos Alonso and Parma's Matteo Darmian are both being considered by the Serie A high-flyers.

- It seems Edinson Cavani's time at Paris Saint-Germain is just about over. Gianluca Di Marzio reports Atletico Madrid and Cavani have an agreement in place and the LaLiga club want the forward to arrive in January.

- Wojciech Szczesny is set to extend his stay at Juventus. The goalkeeper will re-sign with the Serie A giants until 2024, according to CalcioMercato.

Mario Balotelli has accused Lazio fans of racially abusing him during their club's win over Brescia in Serie A on Sunday.

Balotelli opened the scoring for Brescia but Ciro Immobile struck twice after Andrea Cistana's red card to turn it around for the visitors.

During the game, a warning was read out over the stadium's public address system after chants appeared to be aimed at Balotelli.

The Italy striker used social media after the match to hit out at Lazio supporters.

"[It] is a loss that hurt but we will come back stronger and we are on the right way!" He posted on Instagram with a clip of his goal.

"Lazio fans that were today at the stadium SHAME ON YOU! #saynotoracism."

It is not the first time former Milan and Manchester City striker Balotelli has been the target of abuse since he signed for hometown club Brescia at the start of this season.

Last November, Balotelli kicked a ball into the stands and threatened to walk off the pitch after being subjected to monkey noises during a Serie A match against Hellas Verona.

In the same month, there was a controversy involving Brescia president Massimo Cellino, who said Balotelli is "black and is working on lightening up, but he is facing troubles".

The word 'nero' in Italian means 'black' but can also be used for 'gloomy'. Brescia defended Cellino's comments as "a paradoxical joke, clearly misunderstood, released in an attempt to defuse excessive media exposure and with intent to protect the player himself".

Antonio Conte believes he shares "the same passion" as Napoli boss Gennaro Gattuso as he prepares to take his table-topping Inter side to Stadio San Paolo.

Gattuso took charge of Napoli on December 11, replacing Carlo Ancelotti, and after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Parma he guided the Partenopei to victory at Sassuolo in his second game at the helm.

Conte has backed Gattuso to succeed in Naples and claims the former Milan boss was not given the praise he deserves for his near 18-month spell in charge of Inter's rivals.

"I see he has the same passion as me," Conte told reporters. "He has lots of desire to do well and, like me, he started in the lower leagues.

"I have lots of respect for him. He also coached abroad and had challenges. Not everyone is willing to do that or coach in the lower leagues. Other coaches might have it easier.

"Everything Gattuso has earned is down to his effort. With Milan, people underestimate how well he did as coach. Last season he did a very good job there. He deserves to be in charge of Napoli.

"We are in for a hard game in Naples. They have a lot of quality. Gattuso has come in for Ancelotti and will be very motivated. He is able to get the best out of his teams."

Inter are unbeaten in their last 10 Serie A matches and are top of the table by virtue of having a better goal difference than second-placed Juventus.

The Nerazzurri have been linked with January moves for Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal and Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen, but Conte admitted that it could take the club time to re-establish a reputation that can attract Europe's top players.

"This is part of a journey and It takes time," said Conte. "You cannot change things in a day.

"In recent years a gap has developed between Inter and the other top teams. I do not have a magic wand. We are taking our time and need patience too.

"We have young players who are developing all the time. Through hard work and effort we will improve the situation."

Lazio's 2-1 victory at Brescia levelled the club's record for successive Serie A wins at nine.

Mario Balotelli put the struggling hosts in front on Sunday, but the game turned before half-time when Andrea Cistana was dismissed after fouling Felipe Caicedo in the box, with Ciro Immobile converting the resulting penalty.

Serie A's top scorer then struck the winner in the first minute of added time, Immobile taking his tally for the season to 18 in the league.

The last time a player was so prolific at this stage of a Serie A season was back in 1959, when Antonio Valentin Angelillo was in fine form for Inter.

Lazio won nine games in a row during the 1998-99 season under Sven-Goran Eriksson, but they narrowly missed out on the title to Milan.

Victory at Brescia moved Lazio within three points of the top two sides in Serie A, Inter and Juventus.

Stefano Pioli says Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a "champion" but cannot win games singlehandedly, as Milan target improvement across the team and potentially further January moves.

Ibrahimovic is in line to make his first appearance since rejoining Milan as Serie A returns from the mid-season break this weekend.

The 38-year-old is in the squad to face Sampdoria, having arrived from LA Galaxy on a free transfer.

Head coach Pioli is delighted to welcome Ibrahimovic back to the club, but he sees plenty more work to do, with the Rossoneri 11th ahead of this round of fixtures.

"It's not that we think Ibra is the saviour - nobody thinks that he can solve all the problems," Pioli told a news conference.

"He certainly has an added value in everyday life, but we all have to do something more. He won't make us win games alone - we will do that if we play as a team.

"Ibra is a champion. He will prove it again because he has the desire and passion, but it is the team that will have to do much better."

Discussing Ibrahimovic's condition, Pioli added: "He is in the squad. He is fine as a player who last played two months ago. He has had few training sessions but is improving.

"If he is in the squad, it means that he is available. There is a possibility that he will play."

Krzysztof Piatek was Milan's big signing last January, but he has scored only four times this season, prompting reports in England of a bid from Newcastle United.

But Pioli suggested Piatek could yet play alongside Ibrahimovic, although the coach will not leave his new veteran signing out just to keep others happy.

"Everyone can play together," Pioli said when asked of Piatek. "What matters is balance and creating more scoring chances than opponents.

"We are already putting the cart before the horse [discussing the response to potential line-ups], but I will not be influenced by this. My goal is only to deploy the best possible line-up."

Milan may not yet be done in the market either, as Pioli added: "We are looking for a defender.

"We already have clear ideas. If there is a chance to change something and improve, the club will do it."

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