THEY CAME, they saw, they rained on Inter’s parade – and how it frustrated the home fans in the 75,000 San Siro crowd! It was Serie A champions against pretenders to the throne and once more, Juventus, perpetual wearers of the crown of Italian football for almost a decade, demonstrated they are still the big occasion team.
Neutral Italy, indeed neutral Europe, has been hoping this season might just be different, but as they have done in the past, Juventus floored their contender. They deserved victory, there can be no question about that.
Serie A is rapidly becoming a convalescence home for former Chelsea managers. Maurizio Sarri is at Juve, Antonio Conte at Inter and Carlo Ancelotti is down south with Napoli. Sarri was Conte’s successor at Stamford Bridge, and it should not be forgotten that it was Conte who was at the start of Juve’s current era of dominance. Now he’s returned to Italy, like Sarri, and he’s injected new life into a once ailing giant.
But the touchline winner of this game was clearly Sarri, who started with Pablo Dybala up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and had Federico Bernardeschi just behind the front two. Gonzalo Higuain was on the bench, looking thoroughly miserable and itching to get involved.
Six wins out of six and some interesting new signings ahead of the Derby d’Italia had given Inter hope they can become credible title candidates again. But in order to do that, they have to knock Juve off their perch, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson when he referred to Manchester United taking over from Liverpool at the top. Last season, Juve showed no sign of relinquishing their position, topping Serie A for 37 games and finishing 11 points clear of second-placed Napoli.
Although it is too early in the season to suggest Conte’s team can end the eight-year run of titles won by Juve, Inter’s start to the 2019-20 campaign has given everyone encouragement that Italy may actually get an engaging title race this time. That’s assuming Juve will sit back and let that happen – the way they competed and carved out chances against Inter suggests they are just as motivated as they’ve been in every Serie A season since 2012. Furthermore, anyone who doubts whether players like Ronaldo, Higuain, Chiellini (when he’s fit), Bonucci and Khedira can keep going should just remember that when Real Madrid were in their pomp in 1960, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás were both 33 years of age. Different times, of course, but true brilliance can be modified in footballing middle age.
Inter had not fallen behind this season before meeting their old rivals, but after just four minutes, Dybala shot through Milan Škriniar’s legs and caught goalkeeper Samir Handanovič slightly off guard to give Juve the lead. Just the start Sarri needed. It was also the first goal conceded in the opening period of a game by Inter, but it could have been even worse for them in the ninth minute had Cristiano Ronaldo not struck the crossbar after he had glided past Diego Godin and Stefan de Vrij and took advantage of a generous amount of space.
Inter were awarded a penalty in the 17th minute when the ball struck Matthijs de Ligt’s arm and Lautaro Martinez netted from the spot. It was difficult to dismiss the idea that Juventus had just a little too much for this Inter side, as Ronaldo showed when went close after being set-up by Blaise Matuidi and then had a goal disallowed for offside. The warnings were there for Inter.
Higuain entered the arena as a substitute for Bernardeschi. With 10 minutes to go, the fabled “Sarriball” created what proved to be the winning goal. There were more than 20 passes, including some neat interplay between Ronaldo and Rodrigo Bentancur, before Higuain finished from close range.
There was a sense of inevitability about the final result, mostly because Juve have had eight years of winning games like this and they have seen off a few challengers during that time. Juventus have won 10 of 16 games against the teams that have finished runners-up to them over the past eight seasons, and have lost just three. Success has been self-perpetuating since 2011-12, a cycle of trophies, domestic transfers to weaken their rivals and success in Europe.
Perhaps Inter are not quite ready to square-up to Juventus, maybe another transfer window or two has to pass before Turin starts to worry. We’ve said it before, but Italy needs the hegemony to come under pressure. Juve, though, rose to the task of asserting their authority as champions. It was an excellent contest, but Inter and Conte will be disappointed that they were unable to upset Sarri’s plan. As a benchmarking exercise, this game probably told Conte a lot about his team and what he needs to do to ensure Serie A’s programme lasts the distance in 2020.
Juventus are in the driving seat once more and they have rarely lost the leadership once they have it, but it is only October. The eternal question remains, can anyone really worry the big J for an entire season?