As preparation for the most important game of your season (so far), last Saturday night’s torrid, battling Turin derby was not exactly what the doctor ordered for Old Lady Juventus. On the eve of their Champions League semi-final return leg with Monaco at the Juventus Stadium on Tuesday night, Juventus had to sweat blood and tears to grasp a last gasp 92nd minute equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
Of course, we all know that city derbies are a law unto themselves. To some extent, for league leaders Juventus, this game was just another obstacle on the road to their Treble winning (Champions League, Italian Cup and Serie A title) ambitions. For opponents, 9th placed Torino, this game was everything, given that they are neither challenging for a Europa League spot nor have they any relegation worries.
Even the initial line-ups reflected the very different mental approaches of the two teams. While Torino obviously fielded their strongest possible side, led up front by boy wonder, Andrea Belotti, Juventus made no less than eight changes from the side which had been so brilliant in that midweek 2-0 away win against Monaco, with talisman Argentinian Gonzalo Higuain on the bench.
Given the circumstances, then, little wonder that Juventus struggled to contain a fiercely competitive Torino. Despite their aggression, though, for most of the first half Torino appeared to be facing an uphill struggle. The best initial chances went to Juve with Moroccan Medhi Benatia heading onto the bar and with defender Leonardo Bonucci blasting over from six yards out. On top of that Torino’s English goalkeeper, Joe Hart, confirmed his current outstanding form with a brilliant point-blank save from Argentinian ace, Paulo Dybala.
Three key second-half moments, however, changed the game. Firstly, Serb Adem Ljajic struck a 52nd minute peach of a free kick to put Torino in front. Secondly, five minutes later, Torino’s Ghanaian midfielder Afriyie Acquah was controversially sent off after what looked like a “robust” but fair tackle on Juve’s Croat, Mario Mandzukic.
Thirdly and most importantly of all, Higuain, brought on for the last half hour, turned the game on its head to deny Torino with a 92nd minute equaliser that owed everything to his attacking quality. Three days after scoring both goals against Monaco, Higuain once again showed that when it comes to scoring “heavy” goals in the games that matter, there is simply no one better.
Torino fans will forever claim that if Acquah had not been wrongly sent off, Torino would have won. Juventus fans will reply that the Old Lady was the team to have had most chances. In the end, Juventus breathed a huge sigh of relief whilst a disappointed Torino could at least console themselves with the thought that they had just ended a 33 match winning run in Serie A games at the Juventus stadium. The last time that any team picked up a point in Turin was when Frosinone drew 1-1 there in September 2015.
Juventus now head into a dramatic week which concludes with a potential title winning clash away to second placed Roma on Sunday night. Juventus go into this third last game of the season with a seven point lead which, clearly, means that a draw at the Olimpico will wind up the title for them.
In the meantime, however, they have to concentrate hard on their Monaco tie on Tuesday night. Coach Massimiliano Allegri is likely to field the same side as that which started in Monaco, with the only change being the return of German midfielder Sami Khedira who was serving a one-match ban in the first semi-final.
Brazilian Dani Alves, goalkeeper captain Buffon, midfield schemer Pjanic and, above all, the wizard Higuain will all be on duty to ensure a Champions League Final place which, right from the start of this season, has clearly been at the top of the Juventus wish-list.
After that, the Old Lady can begin thinking about Roma. However, the Serie A title at this point looks to be merely a question of “when” and not “if”. Even if Juventus were to lose to Roma on Sunday night, they would still have a four-point lead with two games to play, at home to relegation battlers Crotone and away to Bologna. Hardly insurmountable hurdles.
What is true is that Sunday night’s game will be no picnic for Juventus. If the Rome derby of ten days ago, won emphatically 3-1 by Lazio, was a horse race, you would have to conclude that the “form” of the race is holding up well. In a 7-3 trouncing of Sampdoria on Sunday, Lazio confirmed their good moment.
Likewise, even if clearly defeated in the derby, Roma refound winning ways with a sparkling 4-1 win at the San Siro, against Milan on Sunday night. Arguably the biggest question facing Roma coach Luciano Spalletti between now and the end of the season – Juventus aside – concerns that man Totti.
With Roma having confirmed this week that they will not be extending 40-year-old Francesco Totti’s playing contract at the end of this season, it remains to be seen how much playing time will be granted to him, either in the Juventus game or in the other two games, namely away to Chievo and at home to Genoa. Intriguingly, Totti himself has thus far said nothing definitive, with his “retirement” having been announced by Roma’s new Spanish sports director Ramon Rodriquez Verdejo, known as “Monchi”.
With a six-year contract as a club director already signed, Totti’s playing career would seem destined to end at home to Genoa on May 28th. In the meantime, will coach Luciano Spalletti give him any playing time? Even with the score at 3-1 in Roma’s favour at the San Siro on Sunday night, Spalletti did not bring him on for a “guest appearance” (much to the annoyance of fans and observers alike).
Spalletti felt he could not risk it, arguing that he has seen two quick goals scored late in a game too often to feel safe about such a susbstitution. Even a banner displayed by the Milan fans, “Homage To The Rival Francesco Totti”, did not change his viewpoint.
Given that Roma are likely to be involved in a do or die battle for second place with Napoli, currently one point behind them, Totti may have difficulty getting a chance to play in these last three games. Has he already made his last Serie A appearance (a relatively annoymous, final quarter hour as a sub in last week’s derby loss) or will he get a final run out against Genoa?
Watch this space.