Antonio Conte already feeling the pressure
It was clear that word had spread around town that Inter. Were on the way back from their morning training session. All of a sudden, a crowd gathered outside the JW Marriott. The Philippe Starck-designed hotel where the team were lodging in Singapore. Tens of Inter fans hung around the foyer, an eclectic bunch of people. For which the South Korean artist Lee Lee Nam’s seven-meter-high wall installation. Popping and mixing in the entrance, felt like an analogy. Antonio Conte already feeling the pressure…
There were locals, expats and practically every nationality from the Southeast Asia region. Kitted out in new and old replica jerseys, the names and numbers. On the back reflected what an odd time it is to be an Inter supporter. Aside from the guy who had bought stock early in Andrea Pinamonti. The teenage striker Inter sold (with a buy-back clause) to Genoa this summer. The other members of the blue and black flock congregating along this stretch. Of South Beach were identifying with an excommunicado, Mauro Icardi.
Icardi was not on the bus returning from Choa Chu Kang stadium. Where Inter had completed the first of their daily double sessions. Sent home from Inter’s first training camp of the offseason in Switzerland. Icardi had effectively been quarantined, made to train alone. As far from the team as possible, while the club awaited in hope. For now, in vain — for the right offer to sell him. Stripped of the captain’s armband in February after the latest. In a series of provocations that split the dressing room, there is no way back. For a player who, at 26, is already Inter’s eighth all-time top scorer. Had the chance to eventually succeed Giuseppe Meazza at the top. Antonio Conte already feeling the pressure…
‘Frustrated is a big word’
When Inter’s transport finally arrived and the players and coaching staff filed into the lobby. Security had to intervene to protect only one of the Inter party from the autograph and selfie hunters.
Raised in Belgium but of Indonesian origin, Radja Nainggolan has a huge following in this part of the world. He stopped, signed autographs and smiled. Emerging as the biggest rival to the Inter colour-coordinated Lamborghini Urus parked outside. The hotel for the title of most popular photo opportunity with fans. And yet when game day arrived, Nainggolan would not even make the substitutes’ bench.
Conte and Inter’s general manager, Beppe Marotta. Had been clear at the coach’s presentation to the media two weeks ago: Nainggolan is in the same boat as Icardi. He crossed the line last season. It doesn’t matter that his skill set is exactly what Conte wants from a midfielder. The goal he scored to clinch Champions League qualification on the final day of last season apparently changes nothing. Nor does his presence on tour. Antonio Conte already feeling the pressure…
Those who thought it was indicative of a rethink on the club’s part were wrong. For all the compassion shown to Nainggolan amid the news of his wife’s fight against breast cancer, the club is not wavering its stance regarding his future. Conte has ideas for Inter’s midfield, and they do not include the 31-year-old who likes a smoke and a late night on the town.
The prevailing sentiment in Singapore amounted to this: The team is here, just not the team everyone hoped to see. It was one thing for the fans to feel that way, another entirely to learn that no one felt it more than Conte. Barely a fortnight after his unveiling as Inter’s new coach, he gave the opposite of the vibe of being on honeymoon in Asia, instead cutting the same figure he did for much of his second year at Chelsea.
‘When the games that matter come around, we’ll be ready’
In Nanjing, China, the home of Inter owners Suning, Conte seemed to walk back his demands, striking a more realistic and diplomatic tone providing expectations are lowered, too. Anyone familiar with Conte, though, knows he will not settle for second place and the messaging within the camp is very different from that without.
“I’m confident,” Antonio Candreva said after the United defeat, and he isn’t the only one. His teammate, midfielder Roberto Gagliardini went further. “I’m convinced it’s going to be a great year for us. It’s only the beginning and there’s a lot of work to do, but when the games that matter come around, we’ll be ready.”
As for Barella, he didn’t have to join Inter. Former club Cagliari accepted an offer from Roma before coming to agreement with the Nerazzurri, but there was never any doubt in his mind about where he wanted to go. “I was totally convinced by Inter’s project, I’m an ambitious kid,” he said. “I think I’ve joined an ambitious club with a great coach, a great club. They want to improve, I want to improve, so I think I’ve joined the best club for me.”
There’s still a lot of work to do on and off the pitch. United, Juventus and Spurs all attracted more fans in Singapore. The Straits Times described Inter’s arrival as “generally an inconspicuous affair,” and but for a couple of thousand at the National Stadium, the crowd was almost entirely red. “Today was Old Trafford,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “It felt like we were at home. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”
When Inter’s goalkeepers came out to warm up, Tommaso Berni applauded the crowd, thinking the roar from the stands was for them. Little did he know United’s players were running out behind him. The International Champions Cup hype man, busy highlighting the players to look out for, elicited a big reaction while listing off the names of David de Gea, Paul Pogba and new signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka. When he switched to Inter, it was evident Samir Handanovic and Stefa de Vrij, both fine players in their own right, didn’t capture the imagination in quite the same way.
The absence of a superstar with a truly international profile hit home to all but the magnificent Inter Club Indonesia, who did the Curva Nordproud. Led by a megaphone-wielding capo ultra, they marched to the ground, sang Inter songs and unfurled the choreography they brought with them from Jakarta.
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