An elated Antonio Conte claimed Inter’s Champions League exit was a significant moment in their season as he celebrated winning the Serie A title.
Atalanta’s 1-1 draw with Sassuolo on Sunday meant the Nerazzurri were crowned champions of Italy for the first time since Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning side in 2009-10.
It also ended a run of nine consecutive Scudetti for Juventus, three of which were won by Conte when he was in charge from 2011 to 2014.
With four games remaining, Conte’s men have matched their points (82) and clean sheets (14) totals for the whole of last season, when they finished a point behind the Bianconeri.
They are 13 points clear at the top and have only lost twice in all competitions since the turn of the year.
Their form in 2021 looks all-the-more impressive considering they endured a run of two wins in 10 games in all competitions in October and November, while December saw them crash out of Europe after one win from six games in their Champions League group.
Conte felt criticism of Inter’s European form was unjust and thinks that disappointment strengthened his side’s resolve in their Scudetto challenge.
Speaking to Rai and Sky Sport Italia, he said: “I think the key moment was in the week we exited the Champions League, when criticism rained down on us in perhaps an exaggerated way.
“It wasn’t easy. We had a group of guys who weren’t used to winning. We did well to compact ourselves and take criticism to become even stronger.
“The best thing that happened to me is to have found a group that trusted me and my leadership implicitly. The players’ growth has led to this result.
“They asked me what Inter needed; I replied that every player must raise the bar, not only from a footballing point of view, but also from a mental point of view.
“The boys are no longer players who take part, but who have won.
“I put it among the most important successes of my career. It was difficult because it was not an easy choice for me to come to Inter, during a time when the team was certainly not competitive or had the resources to achieve something important.
“Plus, I was going to a club who are rivals with Juventus, where I played for many years, and who were dominating the league. There were many negative situations that I was going into.
“Instead, I eagerly accepted the challenge and I think the hard work repaid all those sacrifices.”
Conte will take his Inter to face old club Juve on May 15, where he intends to put on something of a show even though their season is effectively over.
“It will be a match where, beyond the table, we want to do our best. We managed to win with four games to spare, but we’ll still go there to play for the victory,” he said.
“It’s always a pleasure for me to enter the [Allianz] Stadium. Now, I’m learning how to do it as an opponent.
“Having won with four games left is testament to the good work everyone has done. We want to continue to do well, but it’s right to give more room to those who have played less.
“We’ll try to do our best until the end. They know the mentality I expect from them.”