Antonio Conte’s future as Inter Milan coach remains a source of speculation, but he stands two Europa League victories away from ending the club’s long wait for a major trophy.
Inter take on seasoned European fighters Shakhtar Donetsk on Monday in Dusseldorf in their first European semi-final since the 2009-10 Champions League.
The Italians will start favourites, courtesy of a storming finish to the season. But former Juventus, Chelsea and Italy coach Conte will be wary of the threat Shakhtar pose.
“We have a lot of respect for Shakhtar. They have established themselves over the years,” Conte said.
“They are the strongest opponents we have faced so far in our Europa League path.”
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Conte has spent heavily since being hired in May 2019, bringing in the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen, Nicolo Barella, Diego Godin and Alexis Sanchez.
But friction between himself and the club’s Chinese owners has fuelled rumours that former Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri is being lined up to replace Conte.
Even winning the Europa League might not save him, although the feisty Italian would love nothing more than to depart having delivered some major silverware.
It would also help redress his rather poor record in European competition as a coach.
“I’d be happy for the club if Inter were to win the trophy. I don’t think about my own personal success, just the club that hires me to do the job,” he said.
Conte certainly has the respect of Shakhtar’s Portuguese coach Luis Castro, whose side, like Inter, are also in top form having not lost for 11 games.
“We know that there is a fight with a very strong team, and that is not surprising. We are prepared for this,” he said.
“There is a very difficult game ahead, but Inter also, I think, will face difficulties. Calmness is our DNA and I am sure that we are fully prepared for the match.”
Shakhtar Donetsk are looking to reach only their second ever European final, last achieving that feat in 2009 when they beat Werder Bremen to win the UEFA Cup.
They narrowly missed out on a spot in the last 16 of the Champions League this season but have waltzed past Benfica, Wolfsburg and Basel since dropping into the Europa League.
“Since the very beginning of the season, we haven’t suffered a single defeat outside Ukraine - neither in the Champions League nor in the Europa League,” Castro said.
“If you work as hard as my players do, if you have the kind of mettle my guys have got, then they don’t fear any match.”