What happened between Antonio Conte and Inter owner Steven Zhang? This is the most pressing question that the Italian and international media ask about the future of the former Chelsea and Juventus boss who earlier this month accused the club of being absent and of not doing enough to protect the team.
Conte is hurt by the fact that he is not being heard by the club. The 51-year-old was appointed to win silverware for the Nerazzurri but, in Conte’s eyes, has not been afforded the off-the-field serenity needed to dismount Juventus in Serie A.
And now Conte approaches judgment day. The Inter boss is ready and willing to discuss his future which, barring any surprises, will be far away from Inter.
Following his side’s 3-2 defeat by Sevilla in the Europa League final on Friday, Conte told Sky Sport: ‘It was worth training this team.
I am not holding back, we will evaluate the future in 2 days and the future with or without me because there is a limit to everything.’ Conte’s views cast huge doubt over his future at the club, and appear to signal the end of a fractious relationship with Zhang and the board.
Sportsmail looks at how Conte and Inter have grown apart, and what the future holds for the fiery Italian.
AN UGLY MESSAGE SENT TO CONTE Conte suffered an unprecedented cowardly and threatening attack when an envelope containing bullets was delivered to the Inter headquarters earlier this season.
With the Nerazzurri floundering in their pursuit of Serie A to Juventus, a club where Conte has strong connections having spent over 12 years with the Old Lady as a player and manager, fans decided to send an ugly message to the Italian.
The Inter boss was provided with protection from the Italian police, who closely guarded his Milan home as well as the club’s training ground, but the episode had a serious effect on Conte, who understandably suffered from the threat to himself and his family.
‘I have a family that comes first and I cannot sacrifice family affections for work,’ he told Sky Sport in his interview after Friday’s game.
For Conte, that is non-negotiable. Given the gravity of the incident, Conte would have appreciated greater public protection from the club to condemn the cowardly and horrendous threat. None was forthcoming.
MARTINEZ AND BROZOVIC DISTRACTIONS For Conte, differences of opinion and dressing room tensions must be kept behind closed doors, and that sort of privacy is expected at every club he manages.
However, the 51-year-old has been left frustrated by numerous stories that have unsettled his team. The future of Inter star Lautaro Martinez has been in the balance for some time and it is a delicate situation for the player and the club.
Conte has worked hard to keep the young forward focused on the task at hand amid rumours of a move to Barcelona, but he has felt aggrieved that Inter chiefs have not attempted to assist him in keeping the player settled.
Conte has complained about the lack of protection with respect to the Martinez rumours and has attributed the loss of many crucial points to the performance of the Argentine.
In Conte’s eyes, had Inter chief Giuseppe Marotta made a clear stance on the player’s future, those points could have been salvaged.
The Italian has also been unhappy with the disciplinary issues of Marcelo Brozović. Conte expects full commitment from his players and the behaviour of his midfielder in running into trouble with the law has been viewed as a threat to the mood of the dressing room.
SPIES WITHIN THE CLUB? As a player and manager, Conte’s way of leading is the result of his experiences at Juventus where protection of the dressing room was integral.
At Inter, the Italian was desperate for the club to be tougher on dressing room leaks, with confidential stories emerging regularly to the Italian media.
One of which was a dressing room bust up involving Romelu Lukaku following a 0-0 draw with Slavia Prague in the Champions League earlier this season.
It was a problem that Conte’s predecessor, Luciano Spalletti, was upset about during his short time as the club’s manager, and the situation has not improved for the current boss. Conte has demanded an internal investigation to unmask and remove the person responsible for the numerous stories being reported to the press, but the problem still has not been addressed by Marotta and Zhang.
POOR TRANSFER STRATEGY AND THE ERIKSEN CONUNDRUM Despite splashing roughly £160m on the market, Conte is not satisfied with the club’s recruitment this season.
Promises made when Conte arrived have not been kept and the Italian coach has regularly complained since last summer’s pre-season tour about the inability of the Inter board to utilise the market.
‘We are late on the market’, he told the press last summer. Roughly three days later, Lukaku was signed from Manchester United, leading to a happy Conte and a brief improvement of relations with with Marotta However, the signing of Christian Eriksen from Tottenham in January was a misunderstanding that appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the relationship between Conte and the Inter CEO has been incredibly frosty since.
Conte has not been convinced by the Dane and in decisive moments of the season, including Friday’s Europa League final against Sevilla, the Italian has opted against giving the former Spurs star a chance.
WHERE NEXT IF CONTE LEAVES INTER? So Conte is left at a crossroads. Clearly, all is not well at Inter, and it would appear best for all parties that Conte parts ways with the club.
But where does he go next? There are currently no vacancies at any of the big clubs, with the Barcelona post being handed to Ronald Koeman following the sacking of Quique Setien.
In the Premier League, Serie A and LaLiga, all clubs have a manager in place for the 2020-21 season, leaving Conte in a quandary if he decides to leave Inter.
Conte could take a 12-month break, bide his time and wait for the right opportunity to arise.
Paris Saint-Germain are possibly the only club that would be willing to give Conte the financial flexibility he desires – but the French club are on the verge of Champions League glory and are thriving under Thomas Tuchel.
The Italian’s contract with Inter, worth around £10m a year, expires in 2022, and the club have landed Achraf Hakimi in what has been seen as a coup for the Italian side.
For now, Conte has decided to devote himself to his family and take time to rest following a tumultuous campaign, but a showdown with Zhang will take place in Milan before the start of the new season.