‘La maledizone della Coppa Italia’ the curse of the Coppa Italia, that is what Gazzetta called it at least. This was the tag line attributed to Antonio Conte when he was bringing consecutive titles to Juventus. It stayed with him, he could not win the Coppa, failed in Europe and eventually, as the story goes, he was replaced with Massimiliano Allegri partly because of this. Mud sticks and despite an FA Cup win in 2017-18 with Chelsea, he continues to be criticised as a man who struggles with the ‘cup format’ competition. Now, as Inter are on the brink of the Europa League Final, he can potentially rid himself of this unwarranted title forever.
Serie A coach of the year three times running, Gazzetta coach of the year, Premier League Manager of the season, LMA manager of the season, the list goes on and on. Conte has won three league titles with Juventus (back to back), he has won the Premier League and albeit at a push, he has won three Cup competitions: one FA Cup and two Italian Supercups. Despite this, he will be to many the man who cannot win in Europe. Think about that tag, how many coaches are revered and have not won a European trophy? Arsene Wenger or what about Massimiliano Allegri? So why does Conte get smeared with this repeatedly?
Conte seems to have this weight on his back, more to the Coppa Italia than his European prowess it seems. It is a ‘hashtag’ that has morphed. The first time it came to the Italian media’s attention was in 2012. Juventus reached the Coppa Italia final and faced Napoli, they were expected to win, but lost 2-0 to a Partenopei side who were clearly more motivated. That was excusable and ‘The Old Lady’ had just won Serie A and perhaps, had slipped off the pace. Let us not forget, this modern Bianconeri side was created here. It was not always win at all costs.
That season then was excusable for most, they had won the league, it was a big deal back then, nobody would have imagined no one else would win it again for a decade. The next season Conte wanted to do it again and create a legacy of Turin-based dominance. He set out not just to beat his points tally, but to smash Inter’s record of 97 points set in 2006-07. To do this, he prioritised the league and in the semi-finals, he rested players such as Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio, the Roman side won 3-2 on aggregate and Juventus went out.
The obsession with continued league domination was realised in his third and final season with the Bianconeri. He managed to finish with 102 points, a monumental effort which told the whole of Italy that Juventus are not just back, they are here to stay. That season they faced Roma in the quarters of the Coppa. Conte rested most of the first XI, despite being on a 13-game winning streak. They duly lost, the cup competition had been sacrificed again.
This on its own may have been okay if Juventus had been successful in Europe. Defeats to Bayern Munich and Benfica certainly remain in the mind and it seemed as though, to many, Conte was one-dimensional. Look at how Allegri is viewed in comparison, he focused on the Coppa also and tactically, admittedly, he was more flexible, but he also did not manage to win in Europe.
Success in England finally came and for Conte himself, (even if the Italian media do not follow this line) he has vindicated himself from the Cup curse. The energetic workaholic is now with Inter and they face a tough task against Shakhtar Donetsk in the semi-finals of the Europa League. If they can make it past the Ukrainians, they will face a Sevilla side who have just beaten Manchester United and have a recent record in the competition to suggest they may be favourites. Inter also have a tradition on what was the old UEFA Cup and to win this competition would be very special for the club. If Conte can navigate his team past tonight’s opponents, he could start a legacy at Inter, just as he did at Juventus.
It is certainly true that the one game knock-out format seems to suit Conte’s way of playing. The aggressive approach means he can give a ‘shock and awe’ game plan rather than a two-legged tactical chess match. To win the Europa League would not only put Inter back on the map, but it would fire a shot across Juve’s bow for next term. More importantly, it would take a yoke off Conte’s back that he has held unjustifiably for too long. As the Italian media said this morning in the papers, this truly is Conte’s night.