This season’s Serie A title race is undoubtedly the best Italian football has produced in a decade.
It has become almost impossible and completely futile to count in or rule out any team in their pursuit of scudetto glory, and yet, we can’t help but try and make sense of this bonkers 2020/21 campaign.
Juventus have been in and out of the race like the hokey-cokey, putting their left boot in with a nostalgic display of dominance before removing it equally as quickly with a lacklustre draw or defeat.
The last time they apparently bowed out of the battle at the top was on 17 January, when they lost 2-0 to Inter at San Siro. Even more damning than the result on that night, was the manner in which they submitted to I Nerazzurri’s desire and tactics.
It was a blow from which many thought they wouldn’t recover. But this is no ordinary season. Since that humbling loss, Juve have won five on the bounce, a run which has left them with a record of nine wins in ten across all competitions in 2021.
League leaders Milan’s shock 3-0 slip at home to Atalanta has allowed I Bianconeri to close the gap even further, meaning that victory in their game in hand would see them climb to within four points of I Rossoneri.
So, despite the overreactions and hyperbole, Juventus are still in the mix. And Tuesday evening’s impressive win over rivals Inter in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final was a demonstration of strength, maturity – and champions.
What was most telling of all however, was not the growth within the players, but in their rookie coach. Andrea Pirlo was schooled by his old master Antonio Conte in the convincing defeat earlier in the month, and had absolutely no answer for the tactical tweaks the former Juve player and manager made to nullify his visitors.
It was an indication of the boss’ current level, and just how much he has to learn. But Tuesday’s performance was one of vindication for Pirlo, who learned from his mistakes in their previous meeting, and taught a lesson of his own to his ex-master.
Juve denied the hosts the space or time on the ball, and were much warier of any threatening counterattacks. Nicolo Barella, the man of the match in the last encounter, was offered zero room to manoeuvre and no space to run into, preventing the box-to-box midfielder from providing the link between defence and attack, which worked so effectively on 17 January.
And when he did evade their grasp, I Bianconeri weren’t afraid to get heavy-handed with the midfield maestro. Indeed, Pirlo’s men racked up six yellow cards over the course of the 90 minutes, with Matthijs De Ligt laying a crunching challenge on Barella at the start of the second half.
Let him know what kind of a 45 minutes he’s in for, eh?
Most importantly, Juve took their chances, and showed great character in the face of adversity. They fell behind on nine minutes thanks to a well-worked move between Barella and Lautaro Martinez, and the Argentine drilled a smart finish underneath the 43-year-old body of Gianluigi Buffon. Not the ideal start, but plenty of time to either capitulate, or wake up from this recurring nightmare and attack.
Fortunately, they opted for the latter.
Ashley Young somehow managed to turn Federico Bernardeschi’s wayward, miserable cross into a decisive one, tugging at an onrushing Juan Cuadrado in the box. Referee Gianpaolo Calvarese saw enough in the incident to award I Bianconeri a penalty, and Cristiano Ronaldo did the rest.
Inter were rocked and clearly agitated by this decision, and Juve seized their chance to capitalise on this descending red mist. Ronaldo was the protagonist once again on 35 minutes, pouncing on a moment’s hesitation from the usually reliable Alessandro Bastoni, pinching the ball off his toes and rolling it home into an empty net, with Samir Handanovic nowhere to be seen.
It sounds simple enough, but it was actually an incredibly tough finish to execute. Juve continued to play on the front foot, edging the possession statistics at the final whistle and landing more shots on target than their hosts, who chased the game for around an hour of play.
Of course, it’s only half-time in this two-legged encounter. But coming away from San Siro with their pride restored, a solid lead to take back to Turin, and firing a warning shot to the rest of their title rivals is reason enough to be optimistic as a Juve supporter.
In a topsy-turvy Serie A title race in which you can’t guarantee anything, there’s one team you can always count on to deliver when it matters most. Fino alla fine.
Source From: 90min EN