INTER MILAN went back to the top of Serie A after beating SPAL 2-1 while Juventus surprisingly slipped-up against Sassuolo, relying on a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo – his first goal since the end of October – to maintain their unbeaten record.
While Juve still haven’t been beaten, Inter’s resilience under Antonio Conte underlines that they are genuine contenders for the first time in years, despite losing the Derby d’Italia when Juve won 2-1 at the San Siro earlier this season.
Is all well at Juventus? There has been talk of Cristiano Ronaldo having some issues at the club. Recently, he stormed out of the Allianz Stadium after being substituted in the 55th minute of a clash with AC Milan for the second successive game. The Italian media reported that he is unfit and hampered by a knee injury, and others suggested he is losing some of his sharpness in front of goal. Another publication said he was having “crisis talks” with the club and that Ronaldo has a problem with coach Maurizio Sarri, who said CR7 needed to “recover his brilliance”.
At 34, any injury is going to take longer to repair and apparently, his knee has been troubling him for a while. He has had a disappointing start to 2019-20 and not only have the goals slowed-up, but his accuracy and energy have suffered. It is almost certainly too early to write him off, but Ronaldo has shown signs of ageing, even though he finished third in this year’s Ballon d’Or.
Juventus’ era of dominance is definitely under pressure – of their 11 Serie A wins, nine have been by a margin of one goal and their total of 25 goals is lower than last season’s 31 and 2017-18’s 40 after 14 games.
With Buffon (41), Bonucci (32), Khedira (32), Matuidi (32), Ronaldo (34), Cuadrado (31), Higuain (31) and Mandžukić all over 30, Juventus have something of a problem and they will need to accelerate their rebuilding process. It has started, but this season, they have really stiff competition in the form of Inter. Meanwhile, in the Champions League, Juve have performed well and have qualified for the knockout phase. This will surely be their last chance with their current squad to win the competition.
Inter have been rejuvenated by Conte’s arrival and have set a club record with 12 wins from their first 14 games. But he has warned his team to avoid complacency – wise words given Juventus’ habit of seeing off any challenger to their crown. “Having 37 points and 12 wins gives us reasons to be enthusiastic but it must not be negative enthusiasm, we must not start thinking we’re better than the others. We have to follow one path, the path of work.”
Already the rumour mill is working overtime about who Conte wants to add to his squad when the transfer window opens in January. Three players feature heavily in tap-room talk, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Barcelona’s midfielder Arturo Vidal and Udinese’s Rodrigo de Paul. Conte won’t discuss transfers at this stage, calling it “disrespectful”.
It’s not all wine and roses for Inter, however, as they recently announced that their sponsorship revenues are poised to decline by € 55 million this season. This is due to a number of partners terminating their relationship with the club, including two prominent Asian brands. Chinese marketing agency Beijing Yixinshijie also opted not to renew its arrangements with Inter.
On the field, though, Conte’s influence is very obvious, bringing a level of high performance consistency to the team. The partnership between Romelu Lukaku and Barcelona target Lautaro Martínez is becoming more telepathic by the week and between them they have already scored 18 goals in Serie A. Lukaku’s strength has been particularly intimidating for Italian defences this season. Inter have not had such a prolific duo up front for around 30 years, the title winning strikeforce of Aldo Serena and Ramon Diaz.
The way the Serie A season is shaping up suggests interest in the title race is going to extend well into 2020. For the neutrals and those tired of Juventus’ glorious run at the top of the table, that could be good news. The black and white quarter of Turin won’t necessarily agree with that sentiment.