By Michael Ottolenghi
December’s first verdict may yet prove to be historic. That sounds dramatic, but if Juve’s 1-0 away win in last Friday’s crunch game against Napoli proves to be a turning point in the title race, Juve could be on their way to winning a record seventh successive Serie A title.
Because for all the excitement generated by Napoli’s frenetic attacking displays, Inter’s resurgence and the strength of the Roman sides, Juve have one more point than they had at this stage last season and veteran watchers of Italian football have a sneaking suspicion of where the league title is going to end up.
But we are not there yet, and December’s second key game is arguably even more important than last Friday’s one. Because while Juve beat Napoli, Inter crushed Chievo 5-0 at San Siro on Sunday and now lead the league on 39 points, with Napoli on 38 and Juve on 37. Roma sit in fourth place on 34 points, with Lazio on 32. And so the derby d’Italia between Juve and Inter at the rebranded Allianz Stadium in Turin will be a key test of Inter’s unlikely title credentials.
This was meant to be a season of rebuilding for the Chinese-owned Milan club, with manager Luciano Spalletti hired over the summer to bring a semblance of stability and qualify for the Champions League. The players brought in over the summer reflected that ambition, with low key purchases of midfielders Matias Vecino and Borja Valero from Fiorentina, as well as Brazilian full back Dalbert, Slovakian defender Milan Skriniar and French youngster Yann Karamoh.
But Spalletti has managed to rouse the sleeping giants in Inter’s squad and extract performances few expected from former role players such as Danilo D’Ambrosio, Davide Santon and Yuto Nagatamo. Spalletti and Inter have been blessed by the remarkable form of captain and top scorer Mauro Icardi, who has 15 goals in the league already.
Croatian winger Ivan Perisic is another player reborn under Spalletti, and his hat trick against Chievo means he and Icardi are the most prolific strikeforce in Serie A with 23 goals (2 more than Juve’s Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain). With Skriniar developing into a world class defender, Inter’s weakness appeared to be their squad depth. But then against Chievo Spalletti made some enforced changes and squad players from Andrea Ranocchia to Marcelo Brozovic performed to very high standards.
So Inter appear ahead of schedule in their development, but winning the title this season still seems premature. They have beaten Roma in Rome and drawn away to Napoli, but collapses in past seasons remain fresh in the memory, so Juve will represent a key test for the nerazzurri, particularly on their current form.
The champions showed both their resilience and their killer instinct against Napoli, with Higuain pouncing to capitalise on their sole chance of the game. Manager Max Allegri has also managed to again integrate a summer signing seamlessly into his system, with former Bayern Munich striker Douglas Costa earning man of the match honours for his tireless work. With their defence having survived Napoli’s pressure, Juve will be confident their home support will carry them over the line against an Inter squad still objectively inferior to them. But giants must fall sometime, and Icardi has a great record against Juve.
Elsewhere in the league, Napoli will host Fiorentina on Sunday, hopeful of reclaiming top spot in the table if Inter slip up and eager to dismiss their loss to Juve as a blip. Roma play Chievo in Verona while Lazio host Torino. Away from the fight for the top places, all eyes will be on Gennaro Gattuso’s Milan side, who host Bologna at San Siro. Gattuso’s reign was always going to be entertaining, and his first game in charge did not disappoint. Handed the perfect opportunity to collect three points against Benevento (aka the worst team in Europe), his Milan side contrived to draw 2-2, courtesy of an injury time headed equaliser scored by Benevento’s goalkeeper Alberto Brignoli. While that goal has gone viral, Gattuso should nonetheless get a decent reception in his first game in front of his home fans, although he knows they will not extend a warm welcome for long if results do not turn around.