ROME (AP) — Antonio Conte is a master at winning ugly.
He did it as a defensive, over-achieving midfielder at Juventus who was able to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses.
He did it in his first major coaching success when the bruising defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini suffocated opposing strikers for the Bianconeri.
He did it with a more defensive approach at Chelsea that produced Premier League and FA Cup titles.
And he’s doing it again at Inter Milan, where his relentless efforts have transformed 21-year-old center back Alessandro Bastoni into a pillar of his favored three-man defense and talented midfielder Christian Eriksen into a sacrificial team player.
“During the games, he directs everything, from the pressing right down to individual plays,” said former Italy midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini, who played under Conte with both Juventus and the national team.
“Now, without the fans, you can hear him at home, too. He’s a commander, a motivator, a fighter,” Giaccherini told the Gazzetta dello Sport earlier this year. “He gets everything out of you.”
On Wednesday, Conte also got everything he wanted out of a tricky matchup with Sassuolo despite virtually handing over control of the game to the visitors.
Inter’s 32% of ball possession was its lowest in years and the Nerazzurri also produced only eight shots to Sassuolo’s 14.
“We knew we would be up against a side that makes possession their main strength, so we knew it would be risky leaving room in behind,” Conte said after Inter won 2-1 by scoring twice on counterattacks to solidify its status as the Serie A leader.
“We took big risks at the start of the season, pressing very high and creating one-on-one situations. It paid off at times and at other times it didn’t. … We’ve now found the right middle ground where we’re also able to make the most of the characteristics of our players.”
Still, the tactics left Conte and Inter open for criticism from anyone who was looking for “The Beautiful Game” at the San Siro.
Conte responded by recalling how Sassuolo played in a 3-3 draw in Milan last season and how Inter showed off some flair in the Champions League this season but finished last in its group following wild matches with Real Madrid and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
“We showed some nice play but in the end nobody cared one bit,” he said. “Now we’ve got an objective and, while we don’t exclude aesthetics, we adapt to the situation, because the objective is really important.
“If the aesthetics are there, that’s great. But if they’re not, the important thing is that we win the title, because the title has been lacking here for a really long time.”
Indeed, Inter is seeking its first league title in more than a decade.
What’s more is that the Nerazzurri are poised to end the nine-year domination of Juventus in the Italian league, with Conte himself having coached the Bianconeri to the first three titles of their record streak.
“If we’re able to dethrone Juve that would be huge,” Conte said. “Whereas if we’re looking for aesthetics, we’ll go to a beauty center and get a facelift.”
The victory over Sassuolo extended Inter’s winning streak to 10 matches and kept Conte’s team perfect in second half of the season — conceding only four goals.
Buoyed by the successful partnership between Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, who have a combined 36 goals, Inter is tied with Atalanta for the league’s top attack and has conceded only one more than Juventus, which has the best defense.
“We’re now much more mature and solid than we were in the past,” Conte said. “Without being solid, you can’t be contenders in the league.”
With nine matches remaining, Inter is 11 points ahead of AC Milan and 12 ahead of Juventus.
And to think that Conte openly contemplated leaving Inter at the end of last season — despite leading the team to the Europa League final — when he severely criticized the club’s Chinese owners for failing to “protect” the squad from criticism.
There have also been ongoing distractions this season amid reports that struggling retail giant Suning can no longer afford to hold onto Inter.
But Conte is keeping the team focused, with a match coming up Sunday against a Cagliari team fighting to avoid relegation.
“There will be tension from here on,” Conte said. “It will feel like the ball weighs more at our feet.”
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf