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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Juventus and Inter jostle for position as Serie A revels in a classic title race

The race track was never Simone Inzaghi’s thing.

“I’ve never been into horses,” the Inter coach shrugged. “I know football. That’s all I ever played as a kid.” His grandfather didn’t take him and his brother Pippo to the local hippodrome like Max Allegri’s did in Livorno back in the day.

Allegri learned a lot about life at the Caprilli track. The Juventus coach has, in many ways, been defined by his reaction to a defeat in Ferrara three and a half years ago which compromised the team’s chances of beating the Serie A record points total (102) set by his predecessor, Antonio Conte.

The record didn’t matter to Allegri. Only winning did. For him, it was enough to win by ‘Corto Muso’: a nose. Mischaracterised since then as someone who fetishises 1-0 victories, Allegri has resisted making any more equestrian analogies.

But last weekend, he was led into temptation by Filippo Tortu, the Juventus-supporting sprinter who became the first Italian to run the 100m in under 10 seconds. Tortu competes in the relay, too, and when asked what he made of the title race in Serie A, he passed on the advice he received from one of his coaches. Run your own race. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the guy in the other lane. Put a pair of paraocchi on like a horse coming out of the gate; blinkers.

Allegri smiled, grateful for the chance to explain why some horses race with blinkers and others don’t. “Some horses are put off by the horse next to them,” he said. “They rear up a little.”

Do Juventus need blinkers in this title race with Inter?

“We don’t know yet,” Allegri insisted, but the glint in his eye betrayed his enjoyment at the line of questioning.

Weston McKennie holds off Inter’s Federico Dimarco during November’s 1-1 draw (Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

Juventus, as with Inter, have lost just once in Serie A this season. They are 18 games unbeaten in all competitions and have started to win at a gallop rather than by a nose. A team that won 12 games 1-0 in 2023 is averaging 3.6 goals per game in 2024. The start to the new year has, it’s true, been soft (Salernitana, Frosinone, Sassuolo and Lecce), but these are games even prime Juventus tended to edge in the past.

The blowouts are indicative of a re-emerging verve and confidence.

Two years after joining the club for €83.5million (£71.4m; $91m), centre-forward Dusan Vlahovic has suddenly started scoring regularly and spectacularly; his free-kick against Sassuolo the pick of his five goals in January alone. His brace in Lecce at the weekend wasn’t the cleanest and included a tap-in Weston McKennie thought he should have left because it denied the American his first goal of the season.

“It would have been better had (Dusan) left it,” Allegri joked, “because McKennie is afraid of flying and now he wants to take the train back (to Turin).” A nine-hour journey from Italy’s heel to the Alps. Had McKennie scored, he would have faced his fear.

The anecdote serves to underline that spirits are mile-high at Juventus. They are on their lonesome at the top of the table for the first time since August 2020 and the players are openly talking about the title, even if the club continues to insist Juventus’ principal objective this season is to return to the Champions League.

Vlahovic has been prolific this season at Juventus (Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images)

“For us, it’s important we go into the top-of-the-table clash (with Inter on February 4) in the best state possible,” Allegri said. “But it’s just as important to have opened up a big gap to the team in fifth. I think it’s 18 or 19 points now — a nice gap.”

Inter, only a point behind, have a game in hand and are in a state of grace. They are the most authoritative Italian team since Allegri’s 2015 and 2017 Juventus vintages. Inzaghi’s side returned from last year’s Champions League final in Istanbul without the trophy but with the aura of a team that felt it was good enough to beat an opponent as elevated as Manchester City.

Everything else, at least in Italy, has looked easy since then.

They have outclassed opponents such as AC Milan 5-1. They have won ‘close’ games 3-0, as they did on their visit to defending champions Napoli. They have touched perfection, as was the case in last week’s Super Cup semi-final when 3-0 flattered a punch-drunk Lazio in Riyadh.

No one expected an ulterior improvement in Inter after the departures of Andre Onana, Marcelo Brozovic, Edin Dzeko and Romelu Lukaku in the summer, and yet they have only become better and better.

The Nerazzurri have played fewer games than everyone apart from the other participants in the expanded Super Cup but still have the league’s best defence and attack.

Only the Grande Torino in 1947-48 and Fiorentina’s Beatlemania Yeah Yeah Yeah team in 1968-69 had a better goal difference at this stage of the season. In Inter’s history, only Roberto Mancini’s team of 2006-07, the first season after the Calciopoli scandal — one in which their rivals were either relegated, deducted points and, in Milan’s case, focused on the Champions League — recorded more points after 20 games.

Frankly, it is a wonder anyone can hang with them.

Inzaghi holds the Italian Super Cup aloft after victory over Napoli in Riyadh (AFP via Getty Images)

This time last year, Napoli, for instance, only had three points more than Inter do today, but they were 13 points clear of the rest, not two (as Inter were before the Super Cup necessitated their in-season trip to Saudi Arabia). Juventus have benefited from not playing in Europe in an echo of 2011-12. The team can rest, recuperate and game plan in ways the fixture list doesn’t allow Inter, which is why Inzaghi, more confident in himself and his squad, rotated so heavily in the Champions League.

A lighter load has enabled Allegri to overcome the long-term suspensions of Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli, handle injuries, and work on developing players and the team.

If he were to win the league this season, it would arguably be his most impressive Scudetto since his first with Milan in 2011, or in 2018 when Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli pushed Juventus all the way. Allegri did not inherit a winning team in his second spell at the club and he has admitted that his two years out of the game left him rusty.

“When I came back there was definitely a bit of… how shall I put this… not insecurity… but a bit of presumption on everyone’s part,” he said. “People thought we were back and would win straight away, but that wasn’t the case at all. I needed to get used to being in the dugout again; to watching games, making subs, getting to know the team. Little by little, we have grown together.”

Last season, Juventus already showed signs of title-winning potential by going on an eight-game winning streak from October into the New Year, then another run of seven wins from eight from February to April. But points deductions for off-the-pitch matters — handed out, then suspended, then handed out again — wrought havoc. Mentally, it prepared this group of players for anything.

This season feels, by contrast, like a walk in the park.

Juventus only signed one player in the summer (Timothy Weah). They, like Inter, have bought only one player this winter, too: Tiago Djalo, who is more a buy for next season than this one. They have ridden out shortages in defence, midfield and attack.

Bremer held the back three together while fellow Brazilians Danilo and Alex Sandro were on the sidelines. McKennie has re-established himself in Pogba and Fagioli’s absence. The kids from the Next Gen team — a pioneering youth development scheme — have done the rest. Federico Chiesa’s physical frailties have been covered by the emergence of Kenan Yildiz, who seems to balance the team better and dovetails nicely with Vlahovic.

Yildiz in action for Juventus at Lecce over the weekend (Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It remains to be seen whether Juventus can stay the course and whether Allegri’s experience — six league titles to Inzaghi’s zero — pays off.

Suspensions from the Super Cup carry over into the league, which means Inter will be without Nicolo Barella and Hakan Calhanoglu, two-thirds of their majestic midfield, against Fiorentina this weekend. Then come games against Juventus and Roma ahead of the return of the Champions League.

Inter’s game in hand has been rescheduled for the end of February and it isn’t a gimme, either, against Atalanta. As gauntlets go — bear in mind Inter just played Lazio and Napoli in Saudi Arabia — this is quite a stress test, but one they can handle with Yann Sommer, who has been impeccable in goal, a back three that has coped when needed without Benjamin Pavard, Alessandro Bastoni and Francesco Acerbi, a top three midfield in Europe, captain Lautaro Martinez playing at his peak, and the best free transfer of the summer, Marcus Thuram.

Nothing has knocked Inter off course yet. Not the controversy around their stoppage-time winner against Verona, nor the uncertainty around the club’s ownership.

“We’re like a hare,” Inter’s chief executive, Giuseppe Marotta, said. “And like a hare, we have to dodge being shot at by hunters.”

Allegri instead compared the Scudetto back and forth with a game of “cops and robbers”.

“The robbers get away and the cops run after them,” he laughed at a time when Inter were still league leaders. The comment, meant in quintessential Allegri jest, still caused quite a stir considering how Juventus and Inter’s fanbases, poisoned by Calciopoli, view one another. Perhaps Allegri will revert next time to the horse racing parallels.

After all, the final furlongs of this title race promise to be a classic.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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