Feature Photo: Passione Inter
These are, indeed, strange and challenging times. For Italian football in particular, and the country of Italy in general.
The threat of COVID-19 – or Coronavirus – has not only led the Italian government to prohibit entry to and exit from the northern region of Lombardy – which affects the teams of Milan, Inter, Atalanta and Brescia – bar the exceptions of essential work or a medical emergency. This epidemic has even led some people, most notably Damiano Tommassi, the president of the Italian Players’ Union, to call for all football in the Belpaese to be suspended.
For the time being, the Italian League Federation has taken the measure of playing the remaining fixtures of Serie A without fans – at least until April 3. And that was how Juventus-Inter, one of Italy’s biggest clashes of the campionato, was played out last night.
To describe the game as “abnormal” would be an understatement. From a spectator’s perspective, the game was everything but normal. Seeing the match being played without fans was not something new. After all, four other postponed matches had been already played that way earlier that day. But this was not just another match. This was Juve-Inter. Il Derby d’Italia. Even my uncle living in Turkey, who is not the football fanatic but makes sure to catch the big games every now and then, rang me and said: “Abdallah, what the hell is going on? Why is the stadium empty?”
The game, eventually, started. Football lovers were just as eager to see the big game as they were wondering how both teams would react to this new reality. The only fans present in the stands were the high rollers and directors from both clubs. Beppe Marotta and Javier Zanetti from the Inter camp; Andrea Agnelli and Pavel Nedved from the Juventus one.
It just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right hearing every touch on the ball, every pass, save, or kick. There was no crowd cheering on the players, reacting when a huge chance is missed. You had to concentrate really well to eventually realize that: “Oh, that was a good chance!” It felt particularly odd hearing the constant shouting and screaming by both sets of coaches, and Antonio Conte of Inter is not someone who normally holds back. If he wants something done, he’ll keep on shouting until your eardrums explode.
From a footballing perspective, the Derby d’Italia was extremely tactical, which is understandable given the significance of this game on both teams, and how its result would affect the race for the Scudetto. Both managers Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte were looking for the three points. But after 90 minutes, it was Sarri who eventually got his wish.
An important victory, even if there are still many matches to play, in theory. The path is still long, but good quality was seen tonight. In our last game there was a lack of nervous energy: those who were better (physically) took to the field.
— Bianconeri Zone (@BianconeriZone) March 9, 2020
“This is an important victory, but there are still 12 games to go so it’s a long road ahead,” Sarri told Sky Sport Italia. “This was far more what I wanted to see from my Juventus.”
Juventus dominated the game. Apart from a couple of chances for Inter, Juventus never really looked threatened by the Nerazzurri. The first half ended goalless, but it was the second half that would later turn out to be the deadlock-breaker.
One of the unknown soldiers of the match, French World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi, was key towards unlocking that solid Inter defense-line. After passing the ball to teammate Alex Sandro, the Frenchman ran into the box and received the ball back from the Brazilian. Matuidi blasted a low, powerful shot into the danger zone, which was toe-poked by Cristiano Ronaldo, only for the ball to find its way to Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman’s shot was deflected by Stefan de Vrij, and the ball found its way past Samir Handanovic to announce the game’s first goal and give the lead to La Vecchia Signora.
One of the great things about this Juventus squad is its depth in the human resources department. Manager Maurizio Sarri could easily turn to one of his options on the bench and call them on to change the game, or in this case, to do something magical. That was the case with the introduction of Paulo Dybala.
La Joya, or as he was called during his time at Palermo “u picciriddu” (The Baby), was eventually voted as Sky Italia’s Man of the Match, even though he only played the last 30 minutes of it. But the skill and composure Dybala showed in the second goal were too mesmerizing not to appreciate. Especially in a game of this magnitude and under depressing circumstances, the Derby d’Italia needed this moment of pure joy to make it live up to its reputation. And it was a beauty.
— JuventusFC (@juventusfcen) March 8, 2020
After controlling a long ball from Rodrigo Bentancur like silk rubbing on skin, Dybala made his way through the middle of the field to get closer to the Inter penalty box. He exchanged a pass with Ramsey, who in turn gave it back to the Argentinian. Then, having arrived inside the danger zone with the ball at his feet, Dybala faked a shot to send defender Ashley Young into no man’s land. Suddenly, “The Baby” had to improvise. Upon seeing goalkeeper Handanovic stationed in the middle of the goal, Dybala decided to give the ball a powerful nudge with the outside of his left boot and gave no chance for the Slovenian to react in time.
The ball was in the net. Juventus never looked like surrendering that crucial two-goal cushion. And they never did.
— SempreInter.com (@SempreIntercom) March 8, 2020
“We tried to stay in their slipstream, but must learn from defeat and take the lessons of comparison to grow in terms of character, quality, and strength,” Inter manager Antonio Conte said after the match.
“It’s a loss that must help us to grow and understand how far away we are.”
Conte and his team followed the instructions of the Italian government by the book by not leaving the Lombardy region because there was only one team playing last night at the Allianz Stadium in the region of Piedmont, and that wasn’t Inter.