Scoring too many goals is graceless. In Italy, when a team gets a few goals ahead, an unspoken agreement settles over the pitch; the team in the lead won’t score too many goals and the team behind won’t try too hard to get back into the game. The energy and the pressure eases off and the three points are settled early on.
But social graces are not always adhered to. Roma fans will remember the time when an uncouth Manchester United scored seven goals against their club at Old Trafford. As it happened, Daniele de Rossi scored one of the goals of his career, a long-range pile driver which was as much a reproach of the uncivilized English as it was a late consolation goal.
This weekend, in Serie A, the goals did flow. Strangely enough, in two separate matches, the winning side racked up a large number of goals. Napoli demolished Bologna 7-1, while Pescara were on the losing end of a 6-2 score line against Lazio.
In the former match, a red card apiece opened up the game, allowing Napoli’s forwards acres of space and a reason to feel aggrieved. In the latter, a Pescara side who haven’t won a game on the pitch this season had the audacity to crawl back to a draw from two nil down, forcing Lazio into a show of dominance.
But the best game of the weekend, the one which will grab all the headlines, took place late on Sunday. The Derby d'Italia – Juventus versus Internazionale – has a long, acrimonious history.
Unlike games between Juventus and Milan (where both sides seem to respect one another) or between Milan and Inter (a geographical happenstance), or even between Juventus and Fiorentina (wherein one team has been wildly more successful than the other), this rivalry is based entirely on animosity. These teams do not like one another.
And so, the stage was set. On a weekend where goals had been flying in, the derby rested on top of the Sunday evening schedule, the crown of the round of fixtures. To make things even more interesting, these were sides in form.
There is no need to quantify Juventus’s quality. Champions of the last five years, current leaders and the best squad in the league. A shocking (and comprehensive) defeat against Fiorentina had become a minor blip; the champions had since corrected course.
Inter have seemingly transformed their season. The sacking of Frank de Boer and the appointment of Professional Ship Steadier Stefano Pioli meant that the side’s awful start had turned into a run of nine straight wins. Inter had been climbing up the table, asserting themselves as a legitimate contender for the Champions League spots.
Hell, if they won the Derby, whispers of a Scudetto might be heard around the black and blue parts of Milan. There was everything to play for.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) February 5, 2017
As the whistle sounded, with the Juventus Stadium rising to a cacophony, the match began at a hundred miles an hour. Rather than the Premier League’s unrestrained brand of international and often-intentional chaos, or the Bundesliga’s whirlwind of pressing, this was a particularly Italian thunderstorm.
Pioli had made changes to his team. Rather than the 4-2-3-1 which had suited the side so well in previous weeks, he adjusted slightly. Instead of a fixed line up, he instituted a malleable, shifting formation — sometimes three at the back, sometimes four.
There was discussion before kick off on how Inter would settle on their defensive shape, on who was playing where. The truth was that the shape adjusted in response to Juventus, allowing Inter to contain and hit their opponents when they pleased.
Juventus themselves had gone through something of a change in recent weeks. Over the last few seasons, the 3-5-2 formation has become the default; a tactical comfort blanket which Juventus use to play their three world class centre backs all at once. When the big matches roll around, it’s not uncommon for Massimiliano Allegri to switch back to the familiar set-up, especially when it so often works.
But in recent weeks, the manager has tried something new. A 4-2-3-1 formation of his own, with Mario Mandzukic out on the left wing and Juan Cuadrado moved forward from wing-back. It’s an odd shape, one which – on paper – shouldn’t work. But it does.
While many expect Juventus to revert to type, they continued with their chaotic attacking style. Perhaps it was because Andrea Barzagli was injured, perhaps it was because of a sense of ambition or confidence. Whatever the reason, the typically reserved opening salvos of a big Serie A match were turned into a slobberknocker, both sides hoping to land a knockout blow early on.
Paulo Dybala tried an overhead kick which tested the keeper, and then tried again with a looping, curling shot. It hit the bar. Miralem Pjanic tried one of his trademark free kicks, but that too was pushed on to the woodwork.
Gianluigi Buffon, at the other end, was tested. He pushed a Roberto Gagliardini shot onto the frame of the goal and was then caught by the camera blowing out his cheeks in relief after a Joao Mario shot trickled just wide of an unguarded post. Mauro Icardi, too, had a shot roll the wrong side of the post.
Usually a poacher of the highest quality, a lurking marksman who is defined by his ruthlessness, the Inter captain seemed to be working almost too hard for the team. Icardi has never been a player defined by the amount of turf he covers, but the appointment of Pioli (and perhaps a renewed sense of responsibility as captain) has turned the Argentine into one of the hardest working players in the Inter side.
The number of goals he scores has dropped as a result, but the team has performed much better.
The first half was coming to a close. To say the result was balanced on a knife edge would be an understatement. Such was the quality being shown by the two teams that even the slightest error, the tiniest mistake, could lead to a breakthrough for the opposition. Just as fans and managers were beginning to check their watches, anticipating the end of a breathless first half, Cuadrado stepped forward.
Pjanic launched a corner into the box which was cleared by the Inter defense. It fell to the waiting Colombian, who had been stationed thirty yards from the goal. The ball bounced once, twice and the twenty-one players began to assemble themselves into some sort of position, trying to figure out what was happening. But, by then, Cuadrado had taken a step, steadied himself and struck an incredibly sweet shot straight into the top right corner.
— FMFootball (@FTB_FMFootball) February 6, 2017
It was rifled; caught with just the right amount of lace so that the ball barely moved. A keeper of Samir Handanovic’s standard would normally back himself to save a shot from outside the box. Given the quality on the strike, he didn’t stand a chance. As the half ended, it was one nil.
The game was far from over, but the complexion of the match had changed. No longer did Juventus need to attack. With one of the world’s best defenses, they were happy to absorb pressure and counter attack. Defying Inter to break them down, the more congested, slower game did not suit the side from Milan. They huffed, they puffed and Inter had a number of penalty calls which failed to materialize, and the game ended 1-0 to Juventus.
In the dying minutes, frustrations boiled over and Ivan Perisic managed to get himself a needless red card. He had been goaded and provoked all evening by Giorgio Chiellini.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) February 5, 2017
In the Juventus defense, it is Barzagli who is the classicist (the traditional center back who defends better than anyone else), it is Leonardo Bonucci who is the modernist (with a range of passing better than most midfielders) and it is Chiellini who is the cynic, the wielder of the dark arts of the defender, a man made up of sly pinches, trodden toes and his own broken nose.
He had been working his magic on Perisic all match and the Croatian finally broke. He’ll now face a ban. Icardi has also been banned, a retrospective action for kicking the ball in the referee’s direction.
And that is where Juventus really won. The three points will be welcome but were worth a lot more to Inter than they will be to the Champions-elect. The loss of Perisic and Icardi for two games is a psychological blow, a cynical victory for Juve that will hinder their enemies’ pursuit of a Champions League spot.
They made Inter lose the composure that Pioli had worked so hard to construct. As Inter try and pick up the pieces, Juventus will be celebrating another victory that drags them ever closer to yet another title.