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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Inter Milan’s triumph over Juventus leaves Serie A almost within their grasp

The symbol of Milan, golden and resplendent, is the little Madonna that casts an eye over the city from a pedestal atop the ivory-coloured gothic cathedral in Piazza del Duomo. On Sunday night, she underwent a terrifying makeover.

The choreography laid out by Inter’s ultras in the Curva Nord depicted her as the Medusa from Greek mythology. A banner strewn over one of San Siro’s tiers warned that the “sad reality” for the poor men who met her gaze would be their petrification.

Time for Juventus to look away or don the ‘paraocchi’  (blinkers) their hippophile coach Max Allegri joked about a few weeks ago when he, once again, found parallels between a title race and a horse race. Allegri, like Carlo Ancelotti, has shares in a few racehorses. The jockey, Dario Di Tocco, led one of them, Lyricus, to victory at the Capannelle meet in November.

If Allegri were to invest in another, Perseus would be a good name, evoking as it would the warrior who left the island of Seriphos with Medusa’s head, a moment in mythology immortalised on the shield Caravaggio painted for one of the Medicis in the 1590s.

The ultras’ version of the gorgon was not a masterpiece. At least not from the lateral stands at the Giuseppe Meazza where her visage was not clear from a side-on perspective.  “What the f**k, is it?” a colleague asked animatedly in the press box. If the intention was to turn Juventus into stone, the move worked but not as the Inter ultras hoped.

The league leaders, one point ahead of their mortal enemies going into this top-of-the-table clash, spent nearly 40 minutes hitting an impregnable wall. Inter’s possession at times approximated 80 per cent but they crashed against Juventus’ concrete and Corcovador-like protectors, the Brazilians Danilo and Gleison Bremer. Even when Hakan Calhanoglu drilled a pass straight through their defence from inside his own half, Bremer was on hand to block Marcus Thuram from reaching Federico Dimarco’s cut-back.

(Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

Serie A’s top scorer Lautaro Martinez — 19 goals in 19 games — had a quiet game by his standards. His opposite number, on the other hand, the in-form Dusan Vlahovic, had his Perseus moment only for his sword to drop and clatter to the ground just as Medusa exposed her neck. The Serb’s clumsy first touch ruined an acute 1v1 created by renaissance man Weston McKennie, who, this season, has revealed himself to be so much more than an American sent to Italy as a kind of gastro-anarchist with a penchant for such no-nos as pasta with chicken, pesto and tomatoes.

The only goal of the game wasn’t in bad taste, nor did it come against the run of play.

Inter had tried everything to break down the five-man Juventus backline. Dimarco, an ultra in boots, was given license to play as a shadow striker running across and in behind the Juventus defence from the left. The outstanding Benjamin Pavard played box-to-box. He was the one attempting a bicycle kick and causing a rare moment of confusion in the Juventus penalty area when Nicolo Barella’s cross found its way through to Marcus Thuram. Thuram forced the former bricklayer Federico Gatti to score his second own-goal of the season. It was Juventus’ first defeat (and only their second all season) since Gatti’s last away to Sassuolo, 17 games ago, in September. Before falling behind, Juventus had replied to the Nord’s Medusa with some Ancient Greek of their own, defending like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, tactics that, for some, are anything but modern.

Inter’s lead forced Juventus to come out. But Allegri was limited in what he could do. Kenan Yildiz, the wonderkid who had yet to emerge when these two sides played in Turin last November, returned to the starting line-up following the criticism Allegri copped for leaving him out in the 1-1 draw with Empoli last weekend. Chasing a goal Allegri then decided to replace him with Federico Chiesa, who wasn’t fit enough to start after completing only two training sessions in two weeks. Could Allegri not have taken off a midfielder instead and gone with both of them behind Vlahovic?

Could he have brought on another striker?

Arkadiusz Milik was suspended after his red card a week ago and Moise Kean wasn’t in the right frame of mind after Atletico Madrid flew him over to Spain for a medical and then chose not to loan him after all. Still, Juventus were able to have a good spell around the hour mark but only mustered one shot on target all game. “We allowed one counter-attack,” Inzaghi proudly observed. “(Yann) Sommer stayed on his toes but he had a nice rest tonight.”

Inter, meanwhile, went through the gears. “They transition with great precision,” Allegri complimented them. In the end this Derby d’Italia could have ended two or three-nil. “The game remained open because (Wojciech) Szczesny had an unbelievable game,” Inzaghi remarked.

(Isabella Bonotto/AFP via Getty Images)

On the occasion Barella found himself all alone at the far post, smashing home a shot in front of the Nord, the Pole somehow got in the way just as he did when Marko Arnautovic had an opportunity to put the game beyond all doubt a few minutes from the end. It was a reminder — and one does feel necessary outside of Italy — that Szczesny is one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Allegri said his players were “angry” afterwards “because we lost a game we could have turned around.” Greater regret has to derive from last week’s unexpected slip-up against Empoli. Had Juventus won against the relegation battlers they would have gone into Sunday’s game in front of Inter.

Now they find themselves four points behind and at a disadvantage in the head-to-head tie-breaker. Inter also have a game in hand and, as tough as Atalanta look, Inzaghi’s team have been perfect in 2024, winning six games from six and a trophy (the Super Cup in Riyadh).

As the players joined hands and ran under the Nord at full-time, it was hard to see this team not celebrating a 20th league title in May and stitching the coveted and commemorative second star on their shirts. But Inzaghi refused to get carried away. “In other leagues with this number of wins, we’d be at least 10 points clear.” Instead, 16 games are left and Inter could tire. “They’ve played 24 times, we’ve played 30,” Inzaghi said on the eve of Sunday’s match.

What remains of this month is a case in point. Juventus play Udinese, Verona and Frosinone. And that’s it. Take maximum points and they might thrust themselves back into this title race. Inter by contrast go to a revived Roma, face a couple of relegation battlers either side of Atletico Madrid’s visit to San Siro — games for which the rotations are difficult to judge — then play their game in hand against Atalanta. Nevertheless, this squad is deep and talented enough to cope.

The only quibble reporters had with Inzaghi on Sunday was his penultimate substitution — an incoming hair regrowth specialist Davy Klaassen for the outgoing Barella. Why not Italy international Davide Frattesi? “Davy deserves more space,” Inzaghi said. “He’s scored more than 100 goals in his career.” It’s like splitting Medusa’s hairs. Questioning Inzaghi at the peak of his powers is a dangerous business.

This game was billed as his and Inter’s biggest since the Champions League final in Istanbul and the lightshow beforehand made it feel that way. Not only did Inter prevail in the Derby d’Italia — but Medusa saw off Perseus and can now see what she always wanted.

A prestigious second star is almost within grasp, another page in Inter mythology waits to be written.

(Top photo: ISABELLA BONOTTO/AFP via Getty Images)

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