Paddy Agnew with the latest from Serie A, where Juventus could stretch their lead to nine points this week.
The Juventus juggernaut marches on. By the end of this week, the Old Lady could be nine points clear at the top of Serie A. Currently six points clear of second placed Napoli, the champions could stretch their lead when they face second from bottom Crotone on Wednesday in a rescheduled, pre-Christmas game.
Sunday night’s 1-0 defeat of Inter, in a tough physical encounter against a team that went into the game on the back of seven consecutive league wins, was the umpteenth impressive Juve display of this season. Ever since coach Massimiliano Allegri two weeks ago opted to risk all his heavy attacking artillery from the start, the Old Lady has looked even stronger.
Not that she has looked weak at any point in a thus far dominant season. The new line-up features Bosnian schemer Miralem Pjanic alongside German Sami Khedira in front of the back four to provide solidity. In attack, Allegri relies on the “roaming” Argentine soloist Gonzalo Higuain, backed by the distinctly light looking trio of Colombian Juan Cuadrado, Argentine Paulo Dybala and Croat Mario Mandzukic.
If there is one thing that Juventus have done well in key matches this season, it is to start quickly, at times killing off matches in the first half hour. In form Inter seemed to take this quick-start Juventus threat seriously. They opted to get their retaliation in first.
Throughout an intense, fast moving first half, Inter gave as good as they got even though it was the Old Lady who came closest to scoring with two clear chances going to Argentine Dybala in the opening minutes. First he hit a surprise volley on the turn in the area which produced one of several excellent saves by Inter’s Slovene goalkeeper, Samir Handanovic, in just the 2nd minute.
Then he produced an even more exquisite moment when, just as the Inter defence were expecting him to lay off an edge of area pass, he spotted Handanovic off his line and tried to chip him. The resultant shot rose high over the defence and over the stranded Inter goalkeeper only to crash on top of the crossbar as it curled and swivelled its way down.
With Inter striker Mauro Icardi looking especially lively, putting himself about but missing a couple of good chances, it seemed that we would go into half-time on a 0-0 scoreline. With just over a minute still to play, however, Cuadrado struck. Picking up an incomplete defensive clearance following a corner, he unleashed a “mule kick” of a long range drive which gave the unsighted Handanovic little chance.
Even if Inter stuck manfully to their task in the second half, it was clear at the end of the night that Handanovic had been by far the busier of the two ‘keepers. Against one of the four sides to have beaten Juventus in Serie A this season (Milan, Genoa and Fiorentina are the others), the Old Lady had been ready for “problems”. Instead, she picked up her 28th consecutive home win with the possibility of extending her league lead by the end of the week.
Juve’s performance was an effective reply to current second-placed Napoli who, for some time now have been playing just about the most attractive football in Serie A. Like Juve, Napoli seem to be getting sharper as we get nearer to the resumption of the Champions League where a mouth-watering tie with Real Madrid awaits them. On Saturday night, it was the unfortunate Bologna who got it in the neck, beaten 1-7 at home to Napoli.
This game reinforced two strong suspicions. Firstly, that when he is on his game, Slovak Marek Hamsik is as good an attacking midfielder as there is in all of Serie A. Secondly, even without Higuain from last season and the injured Pole Milik from this one, Napoli continue to score more than any other side in Serie A – 55 goals from them as opposed to 45 from Juventus.
Two other results last weekend reflect current Serie A standings. Lazio’s 6-2 away win against Pescara would suggest that the Roman club remains good value for its fourth placed standing, just four points behind 3rd placed city rival Roma. That rival, incidentally still struggling to get their new stadium project up and running, have an obviously delicate game tonight, at home to in form Fiorentina.
The other game worth noting from last weekend was Milan’s Sunday lunchtime defeat at home to Sampdoria. Even if the Genoa side beat Roma ten days ago, they have shown indifferent form this season as reflected in their mid-table standing in 10th, on 30 points, 24 behind leaders Juventus.
Which makes Milan’s loss all the more painful. With just one point from their last four games, marked by defeats from Udinese, Napoli and now Sampdoria, Milan would appear to have played themselves well and truly out of the Champions League reckoning. Currently, they are in 8th place, fully 10 points adrift of the Champions League zone.
In the meantime, watch out and see if Juventus do not arrive at next Sunday night’s game away to Cagliari, fully nine points clear at the top.