Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Juventus Stuck In Champions League Moment

Normally, Juve’s first defeat in 28 Serie A games this season would be big news. Yet, in the week that was in it, coming just five days after that titanic 3-2 Champions League elimination of Atletico Madrid, it really did not matter.

The point is, of course, that even though league leaders Juventus lost 2-0 away to Genoa whilst closest rivals Napoli beat Udinese 4-2, the gap at the top is still a staggering 15 points, with just 10 games to play. That means Juve need to lose one in every two games between now and May 26th next to give Napoli any hope.

As we have suggested often enough, it is only a matter of when Juventus wrap up their 8th consecutive title, not if. Thus Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri presented a smiling face to the world after Sunday’s  game, admitting candidly that his side were still stuck in their magical Champions League moment, saying:

“Last Tuesday (against Atletico), we used up a lot of energy and we had gone into that game after three really difficult weeks (between the away and home legs of the tie)…We have lost our unbeaten record this season but if there was a good day to lose that, it was today…Now (with the international break coming up) we can recharge our batteries…”

Of course, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of that Roy of Rovers style hatrick against Atletico, was given the day off on Sunday. Asked if the absence of CR7 had cost his side their first league defeat since Napoli beat them 1-0 in Turin last April, Allegri dismissed the idea:

“No, no, even if the Lord Almighty himself had come down to play for us, we still wouldn’t have won…”

The good teams – and the suspicion is that this is one of the best-ever Juventus teams – win the games that matter. Frankly, Sunday’s match was not such a game.

One Serie A game that did matter last weekend, however, was the second Milan derby of the season. Inter, who came into this game in fourth place, one point behind the revitalised AC Milan, could hardly have had a worse preparation.

Their topsey-turvey season struck a new low last Thursday night when they were eliminated from the Europa League, beaten 1-0 at the San Siro by Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt. Having drawn the first leg 0-0 away, Inter appeared to have every chance of getting through to the quarter finals.

However, their hopes lasted less than six minutes with Eintracht’s Serb striker Luka Jovic making the most of an uncharacteristic mistake by Inter’s Dutch defender, Stefan de Vrij, to put his side immediately in front. Jovic had already hit the post in the second minute, signalling that perhaps this was not going to be Inter’s night.

So it proved as Inter basically failed to recover from the shock of such a poor start. It says all you need to know that Slovene goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic, was Inter’s best player on the night, making at least one miracle second half save as Eintracht ran counter attacking riot against an ever more desperate Inter.

As derby preparations went, that was bad enough. Yet, the Eintracht defeat was exacerbated by the club’s ongoing battle of wills with their star striker Argentine Mauro Icardi, often the hero of the hour in the city derby.

In October 2017, Icardi scored all three goals in a 3-2 win, whilst in the first derby of this season, last October, Icardi won the game 1-0 with a brilliantly taken 92nd minute headed winner. Against Eintracht and in Sunday night’s derby, of course, Icardi was not available, in theory because he is recovering from a knee strain but in reality because he and the club have not yet agreed terms on a new contract.

Icardi’s compatriot, Lautaro Martinez, has done well as his replacement over the last six weeks. However, Martinez was suspended for the Frankfurt game and without either him or Icardi, Inter suffered.

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Fortunately for Inter, though, Martinez was available for Sunday’s game.  In the end, he was arguably the man of the match setting up Inter’s shock third minute opening goal for Uruguyan Matias Vecino and then appearing to wrap up the result with a well-taken, 68th minute penalty. Even though Milan defender, Argentine Mateo Musacchio, got one back four minutes later, Martinez’s penalty was enough to see Inter home for a 3-2 win.

Significantly, Inter coach Luciano Spalletti had warm words of praise afterwards for his “substitute” striker, saying:

“He (Martinez) can do everything. We’ve found the striker who can sort us out…”.

Which translated probably means: “we’ve found the guy to take over from Icardi”. After the game, Spalletti taunted the Milanese media pointing out that many of them had speculated that this derby might be his “Last Supper”, a reference to the Da Vinci masterpiece that hangs in the nearby convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, adding:

“Well, it seems that I might be eating another supper or two around here for a while yet…”

With this win, Inter leapfrogged back over AC Milan into third place, two points clear of the city cousins. In the week that was in it, this win had a triple value – firstly, it was a derby win; secondly, it further strengthened Inter’s hold on a Champions League berth for next season; thirdly, it at least partly wiped out the disappointment of that Europa League loss to Eintracht.

Those, then, are three good reasons not to go sacking Luciano Spalletti. At this stage, you would have to predict that he can look forward to a continued stay at Inter. And that, frankly, is a lot more than you can say of Mauro Icardi.

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