Whatever else, no one can accuse this season’s Serie A championship of having got off to a dull start. For those of us watching Roma’s 2-1 destruction of reigning champions Juventus at the Olimpico in Rome last night, this was one of those “pinch-me-is-this-really-happening” moments.
It was not just that the side which three months ago gave Barcelona a fright in the Champions League final were beaten by rivals Roma, it was more the overwhelming, most non-Juventus look to the defeat. By the standards set by the Old Lady herself during the last four seasons of Serie A dominance (and title wins), this was a shocking defeat.
Those of us who have been around for a while have to think long and hard before we can recall a more unimpressive Juventus. Perhaps, the last time the Old Lady looked so out of sorts was during the 1990-91 season when coached by Gigi Maifredi in a year when Juve finished seventh in the league, out of European competition for the first time in 28 years.
History, too, underlines the dramatic nature of events since you have to go back to pre-World War 1 days, namely 1912, to find the last time that a Juventus team lost its first two league games of the season. Remember, Juventus opened the season ten days ago with an unexpected 1-0 home defeat by Udinese, admittedly in a game where the Udinese winner came late in the day and very much against the overall run of play.
Match statistics do not always paint a clear picture but this was one of those games where the stats told a story. Possession, for example, was 62.7% Roma and only 37.3% Juventus. Put simply, Juventus were played off the park by Rudi Garcia’s Roma in a match which left you wondering whether (a) Juventus have really deteriorated so much or (b) Roma have made gigantic steps back to something like the champagne sparkling side of two seasons back. Perhaps, the answer is a bit of both.
As always, these are early, early days and Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri is more than entitled to keep his calm, assuring us that after the break for the European Championship qualifiers, his side will get their season back on track. Allegri is right, too, when he points out that the side was missing key players like Italian international Claudio Marchisio and German-Tunisian Sami Khedira.
Clearly, though, Juve have huge problems in midfield. How could it be otherwise in a season when you have lost three class players in the shape of Andrea Pirlo, Chilean Arturo Vidal and Argentine Carlos Tevez? It is not just that these three were/are players of such technical prowess that they can pull a matchwinner out of the hat at any moment. More than their wonderful technique, what counted with all three was their battle-hardened temperament and on pitch “presence”.
Gianni Mura of La Repubblica is right when he points out that the main problem of this current Juventus is not so much the departure of Pirlo, Vidal and Tevez as the quality of those who have replaced them. On Sunday night, for example, the Juventus “midfield” comprised two full backs in Lichtsteiner and Evra, two ball winners in Sturaro and Padoin, with only Frenchman Paul Pogba having any pretensions to a creative role. Given, too, that Pogba was not at his most creative on the night, then the Juventus midfield looked distinctly under-whelming.
Two considerations, however, suggest that perhaps not all is lost for the Old Lady. Firstly, Juve’s new Argentine striker Paulo Dybala, looked like the most lively Juventus man on the pitch and not just because he scored a late consolation goal at a time when Juventus were down to ten men following the sending off of Patrice Evra. Secondly, that Dybala goal was the result of a concerted fightback by Juventus, a fightback that made light of the numerical disadvantage.
As for Roma, coach Garcia amitted afterwards that he would have been happy to win 1-0, notwithstanding the fact that the final scoreline does little justice to the overall rampant Roma run of the match. On the plus side for Roma, it would appear that they have done well on the transfer market with four new players Salah, Dzeko, Falque and Digne impacting very favourably on the game.
Salah and Falque looked lively whilst Dzeko scored his all important first goal for Roma (the opening Roma goal came via an imperiously struck free kick from fellow Bosnian, Pjanic). Yet, arguably, the most interesting new boy at Roma is French left back, the ex-PSG player Lucas Digne. One suspects that Roma fans are going to learn to love his sweetly struck crosses from the left wing.
Perhaps, in the end, the most interesting conclusions to be drawn from this first real shock of the season concerns the modern “mind game” that is professional football. Roma, with new personnel on board, seem to have laid the ghost of that 7-1 drubbing by Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League. They looked much more like the Garcia Roma of two seasons back, sharp, hungry and thinking fast on their feet. In contrast, Juventus looked like a side that had spent the summer reading too many good reports about themselves.
Whatever else, it is already clear that this year’s title contest will not be the one horse race of last season. In the meantime, for Italy’s current top two, intriguing Champions League clashes await – Roma at home to European Champions Barcelona and Juve away to English Premiership leaders, Manchester City.
As for the rest of this second Serie A weekend, note that for the second consecutive day, Inter won thanks to a late goal from newly signed Montenegrin, Stevan Jovetic. The old maxim about a side that plays badly but keeps winning comes to mind. In the meantime, Inter stay top with three clubs for whom life in the thin oxygen zone is a once in a liftetime experience – namely Chievo, Palermo and Sassuolo. They should make the most of it because they will not be there for long.
Also out on top are the other half of Turin, namely Torino but, for them of course, this is no new experience even if the last time they actually won the Serie A title was back in the 1975-76 season. Still, if you are a modern day Torino fan, there is no denying the satisfaction of reading a Serie A table where Torino are on top and Juventus are on the bottom with no points. As we said, the new Serie A season has got off to anything other than a dull start.