Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Juve Struggle To Get Past Sassuolo, Inter Go Top

This was a weekend when Serie A turned up another handful of talking points –  Inter back on top of the table, a 17th goal for leading goalscorer, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, or indeed Napoli’s home loss to Bologna just days after their heroic 1-1 Champions League draw with Liverpool at Anfield.

Perhaps, though, the best story of all came within the context of Juve’s 2-2 home draw with Sassuolo, a draw which saw the champions drop to second, one point behind Inter Milan, 2-1 home winners against Spal. One of the key aspects of that draw was the fairytale Serie A debut by Sassuolo’s 18-year-old goalkeeper, Stefano Turati, who ironically found himself facing his long time idol, 41-year-old Gigi Buffon, down at the other end of the pitch.

With first choice goalkeeper Andrea Consigli out injured and with number two ‘keeper Gianluca Pegolo currently recovering from an operation, Sassuolo coach Roberto De Zerbi had little option but to field his third choice, the current “primavera” (youth reserve) team goalkeeper, Turati. De Zerbi, however, obviously knew what he was doing.

On a foul, wet day Turati looked cool and confident as he made saves from first CR7 Ronaldo and then the Argentines Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, making it all look like another day at the office. For most observers, he was the obvious Sassuolo “Man Of The Match”.

For Turati himself, the best moment came at the end of the match when “old man” Buffon sportingly embraced him, congratulating him on a more than excellent debut. For Buffon, too, that must have been a special moment, one that took him back all of 24 years to November 1995 when as a 17-year-old he himself had made a brilliant Serie A debut in uncannily similar circumstances.

At the time, Buffon too was an unknown third choice reserve, then at Parma. Like Turati, his debut came against the then strongest force in Italian football, namely the mighty AC Milan side which just months earlier had crushed Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League final.

Buffon’s debut against AC Milan was the start of one of the all time great goalkeeping careers, one which he is currently wrapping up in the role of  No. 2 Juventus goalkeeper, occasionally stepping in for Pole, Wojciech Szczesny. On Sunday, however, he might just have asked himself if he had overstayed his welcome after a shocking collective defensive distraction which ended with his miserable failure to stop a hardly irresistible shot by Francesco Caputo for the second Sassuolo goal. The Gods give and the Gods take back.

It was as if the Gods were calling on Buffon to pass on the baton of infant prodigy to the young Turati. Doubtless,  Buffon will continue on – after all he needs just three more games to overtake Paolo Maldini (currently on 647) and become the player with the most all-time Serie A appearances. Last Sunday would not be a good way to bow out so we can expect to see more of the great man. Just as we can expect to see more of this new, young pretender, Turati, who when the season ends will hope to finish off his “liceo” schooling.

As for the other issues of the weekend, nothing was more emphatic than Inter’s signal to Juventus that, this year, the Old Lady is going to have to  fight all the way to lift the title for a ninth successive season. Inter have won 12 out of 14 league games so far (Juve have won 11), their best ever seasonal start and one which shows a consistency that goes back ten years to the days when first Roberto Mancini and then the Special One Mourinho were winning back to back titles with them. That new found, seeming solidity was further underlined by an impressive midweek Champions League 1-3 away win against Slavia Prague.

In what was, of course, a highly successful European week for Italian clubs, five out of the six sides in competition won their games. Ironically, it was the 6th side, Napoli, who arguably put up the best performance of the lot when drawing 1-1 with Liverpool.

We have documented Napoli’s recent problems in this column. Suffice to say here that the Anfield draw had appeared to turn over a new leaf in the club’s season thus far, bringing an end to their internal strife. Just one point behind Liverpool and two ahead of Salzburg in their group, Napoli have their own CL fate in their hands as they head into their last game, a home tie with Dutch side Genk.

Juventus have already won their Group whilst both Inter and Atlanta are not yet out of it, even though both face very uphill assignments to qualify. To be safe, Inter have to beat Barcelona, no less, in their last game whilst Atalanta have to beat Shaktar Donetsk away (no easy number) and then hope that already qualified Man City win their last game away to Dinamo Zagreb (perhaps an even tougher number). Bearing in mind, though, that both Roma and Lazio also won their Europa League games, against Turks Basaksehir and Romanians Cluj respectively, last week was a good week for Italian clubs.

Juventus excepted, no Italian club has yet booked a place in the second round but to be fair, both Napoli in the Champions League and Roma in the Europa League are looking good.   Which brings us back to Napoli’s 1-2 home defeat by Bologna on Sunday.

After the game, Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti suggested that his men might have lost their motivation when it comes to Serie A, given that a title challenge from them (currently 7th, 17 points behind leaders Inter) is clearly way off the radar. Ancelotti appeared to suggest that it requires the special adrenalin of the Champions in an equally special setting such as Anfield for them to perform to their best.

He could be right. In the meantime, though, whatever about Serie A shortcomings, he can concentrate on that Genk tie next week, secure in the knowledge that a continuing Champions League run could yet save his season.

[collection name=”small” accordion=”mobile” excerpt=8]

It is tempting to argue that the motivational factor also explains the below par display from Juventus in that 2-2 draw with Sassuolo. Like Napoli, they came into the Sunday game after an impressive midweek performance that 1-0 CL win against Atletico Madrid. Like Napoli, they performed way below their best. Both clubs, however, still have plenty to play for…

Our final thought concerns Lazio striker, Ciro Immobile. With 17 goals scored, he is currently seven clear of Inter’s Belgian Romelu Lukaku and eight clear of joint thirds, Atalanta’s Colombian Luis Muriel and Argentine Lautaro Martinez in the goalscorers’  table. He is currently travelling at a rhythm similar to that of Argentine Gonzalo Higuain in that remarkable 2015-2016 season when he scored 36 goals for Napoli, the all time seasonal record.

Are we looking at the same thing? One thing for sure is that Immobile’s form is good news for third placed Lazio with a view to the Champions League next season whilst…it will also be sweet music in the ears of Italian coach Roberto Mancini on the eve of a EURO2020 finals tournament next summer where Italy have just drawn Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in their first round group.

Italian critical opinion suggests that since you have avoided a draw like that which sees Germany, France and Portugal all together in a very hot Group F, then it has gone OK for you.    They could be right.

Don’t forget to follow World Soccer on Facebook and Twitter.