Juventus slipping against Empoli took some wind out of the massive clash, which would have been more interesting with the Bianconeri on top and Inter chasing, even if only virtually. Instead, it restored the season-long cat-and-mouse narrative, with Old Lady working from underneath.
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The result won’t be the final sentence since there’s almost half a season to go, but the opportunity to deal a devastating one-two punch to the title race surely won’t be lost on Inter. The Old Lady had the momentum and an easier fixture on paper in the last round, especially since the Nerazzurri were without Hakan Calhanoglu and Nicolò Barella against Fiorentina, but they won anyway, and their rivals didn’t.
The asterisk on the standings could be a double-edged sword. It looks a lot better if you are ahead, but it can also convey false confidence. They already lost a Scudetto due to a make-up game, so they are already wary of that. Fortunately, the contest will take place a lot sooner than a couple of seasons ago, so it will be a factor just for a month or so.
The parties had switched just for a minute because of the Supercoppa, and the recent turn of events further cements the notion that it’s up to Juventus to keep things intriguing. Still, this bout represents an unprecedented chance for them as far as this season is concerned because putting some cushion will help them manage the upcoming return of Champions League football a lot better. Last season’s run, which was involuntarily assisted by the fact that they weren’t competing for the title, created expectations. It’ll be fascinating to see whether they’ll be able to juggle the double objective properly.
The hierarchy was aware of the challenge and undoubtedly built the squad for it. The backups showed up when they had to in the last game, Davide Frattesi and Kristjan Asllani in particular, while Carlos Augusto is a little behind schedule and not playing at the same level he was at Monza. They certainly wouldn’t mind something more from Alexis Sanchez and Marko Arnautovic, but it’s tough to be too demanding with somebody who plays so sparingly and would need more consistency to get into a rhythm. Not having a spark plug off the bench is arguably the lone flaw of their roster. Perhaps they thought the Chilean talisman could be that, but he has done it only occasionally. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nit-picking.
Their going since the previous head-to-head clash has been impressive, as they have dropped just two points against Genoa in a weird fixture. They haven’t let the frustration for not being able to shake the opponents creep in. That’s a sign of great mental fortitude that hasn’t always been there in the past. The Coppa Italia elimination is the only negative of their season, but it is what it is, and it’d be easily washed away if they win the Scudetto.
Both sides would have an interest in being the aggressors in this one, but it’s also true that Inter are very comfortable and menacing when they sit back and counter. Their forwards run rampant in open spaces. Despite their and their enemies’ reputation, they are more organized in the back and a better bet to get away scot-free if they let the opponents have the ball and a few chances, inevitably exposing themselves since an extra effort is always needed to break their defense.
But they are home in front of a roaring crowd, so the temptation to go full send and crush the hopes of the opponents will be strong. They’ll have to handle that and not overdo it, or they’d fall right into Massimiliano Allegri’s trap. While a fast-paced affair would be a spectacle and lift the league, the odds of that happening are very slim. Still, that doesn’t mean that the final score won’t be extra meaningful big picture-wise.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Sommer; Pavard, Acerbi, Bastoni; Darmian, Barella, Calhanoglu, Mkhitaryan, Dimarco; Thuram, Martinez.
Injury Report: Cuadrado (Achilles tendon surgery).
Obviously, Allegri couldn’t have anticipated Arkadiusz Milik dooming them with an incredibly silly foul, and there was some logic in going with a more physical frontline against the suddenly sturdy Empoli, but the controversial choice to pick the Pole over the red-hot Kenan Yildiz couldn’t have worked any more poorly. All the usual cliché about the Tuscan gaffer resurfaced after their glorious run had silenced his critics. Dusan Vlahovic going like gangbusters had even quashed the ‘corto muso’ talk.
Juventus stuttered when everybody least expected it, as their attack found its groove despite Federico Chiesa’s continuous physical problems and the defense was back to its best with peak Danilo. They couldn’t escape the common mistake of looking ahead, which started in the lead-up by not pushing the envelope to recover the Italian forward and Adrien Rabiot from their minor injuries and culminated with the decision to bench the Brazilian because he was one yellow card away from disqualification. The message couldn’t have been more blatant, and Empoli were overlooked from the beginning. They couldn’t anticipate the unfavorable circumstances during the game, but ‘homo faber fortunae suae.’
The right call should have been to field Yildiz along with Milik and Vlahovic, instead of Fabio Miretti, who just seems in over his head when he has to do too much, since the Azzurri are now a very defensive-minded team. While it makes sense to shield the young Turk from excessive hype and expectations, his late insertion was even more of a black eye, as he was literally the only sub who could provide some oomph. The staff was way too optimistic if they thought the one-goal lead could have been enough considering the toll caused by the one-man disadvantage. Empoli played it perfectly and almost ransacked the Stadium.
Vlahovic has turned his season around in a month and a half, and he’s in such good form that they just need to find him in the box with a sliver of room for him to score. Maybe it was just a matter of fitness and confidence, but they really did a number on him after a few lackadaisical months. Bagging loads of goals masks any defect and will make the pivotal call about his future/contract a lot easier.
It took them the entire window and Rabiot going down with an ailment to finally realize that a midfield constructed with a rock-solid playmaker like Nicolò Fagioli and the hope Paul Pogba would ever be available couldn’t hold up without both of them. Andrea Cambiaso and Hans Nicolussi Caviglia answered the bell when they had to, but Miretti is too inconsistent, and their depth is not nonexistent.
The laughable hesitancy in not messing with what was working cost them some juicy opportunities, but the end result was half-decent. An extra body was a must, so anybody would have been helpful, even veterans like Giacomo Bonaventura and Roberto Pereyra, who are still going strong despite their age, and whose versatility would have been an asset. The lack of Serie A experience will be a problem at first, but Carlos Alcaraz isn’t far off in terms of skillset, and he abounds in energy and technique, which they are short on.
It’s another signal that the natural order has been restored with the hiring of a top director like Cristiano Giuntoli, who really went in his bag to pull this one off, as Allegri would have surely gladly signed a retread. The odds of the Argentine staying put past the loan spell are small, but they can always re-negotiate, and they have reportedly plotted a major investment at the position. He’ll have a six-month audition to prove to be worthy of that.
It was already the case before the Empoli game, but the pressure is surely on them this week. The threat of Inter breaking away has never been more real. They should go all-out to get a win that would give them the mental edge while the foes have to focus on the Champions League. However, chances are, since they’ll be in a hostile environment, they’ll play for the draw to kick the can down the road. It’d be a grave error, as the Nerazzurri excel when they smell blood.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Szczesny; Gatti, Bremer, Danilo; Cambiaso, McKennie, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Vlahovic, Yildiz.
Doubts: Kostic/Weah, Rabiot/Miretti, Yildiz/Chiesa.
Injury Report: Chiesa (knee bruise), Rabiot (calf muscle fatigue), Djalo (ACL tear), Kean (tibia injury) – Probable;
De Sciglio (ACL tear) – OUT
Suspensions: Milik, Fagioli, Pogba.
Inter win, Under 2.5 Goals