If there is a gap in Inter Milan’s trophy cabinet, there is a similar void on Antonio Conte’s CV.
The only ever-presents in Serie A’s long history have gone nine years without any kind of silverware. One of the outstanding managers of the last decade has no success in Europe to show for his considerable talents.
Each could change on Friday evening. Conte’s relationship with Inter has been rocky at times, but both will have cause to celebrate if they beat Sevilla in the Europa League final.
Inter’s decline was a precipitous affair, from Champions League winners in 2010 to, after three lesser prizes the following year, nothing in eight subsequent seasons; in three, they did not even experience European football.
But Conte has been a specialist in reviving fallen giants. He took over a Juventus side who finished seventh and led them to three straight Serie A titles. He inherited a Chelsea team who had come 10th and won the Premier League in his debut season. Inter did not have a top-three finish in eight years but Conte steered them to second, a solitary point behind Juventus.
If he is not always bracketed among his generation’s greats, it is in part because he is a tactician in an age of philosophers, a throwback to earlier Italian strategists rather than a pioneer at the vanguard of something radical, but also because of the importance of Europe to his standing.
Like Roberto Mancini, another to have won both Serie A and the Premier League, his relatively meagre returns on the European stage have come at a cost to his reputation.
A failure to reach the 2014 Europa League final when it was being held at the Juventus Stadium represented a particular disappointment. His successor Massimiliano Allegri reached two Champions League finals. Conte has a lone quarter-final in the most prestigious competition of all, as many as Craig Shakespeare.
If the Champions League group stages tend to result in the 16 biggest or richest clubs qualifying for the knockout stages, Inter did not this year, albeit from a group that included Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.
Yet if it felt further underachievement, the Europa League affords a second chance to reframe things. It could be the making of Conte’s Inter; the danger is that it is the end.
But the last time Inter ended a nine-year wait for a trophy, it was the start of a golden age under Helenio Herrera, another brilliant pragmatist who spent heavily.
And Conte does not come cheap. Romelu Lukaku may have justified his club-record fee with 33 goals but he, Christian Eriksen, Alexis Sanchez, Diego Godin and co amount to hefty investments in wages.
As he did at Chelsea, Conte has pushed for more signings. Much like Mancini, he appears impervious to football’s finances, seemingly believing clubs have bottomless pits of money. His demanding nature can be draining. It could be called creative tension, but some of his comments appear self-destructive complaining.
“We had to eat dung for months and got zero protection [from the club],” he said after the Serie A season ended.
His assertions this week that he is “not a political person” and “what I say is always aimed at being constructive” defied credibility. He and chairman Stephen Zhang may now have an uneasy truce, but beating Sevilla would help each commit to the other for another year.
They should. He is Inter’s best chance of reclaiming the Serie A title but even managers of Conte’s stature might not find too many clubs who are as supportive in the transfer market.
Especially not if he is still deemed a disappointment in Europe.