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50-50: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Champions League 1 day ago
Read
Nov 5, 2007

Derby of Italy rolls back the years

Viewers tuned in on Sky Italia on Sunday might have been forgiven for thinking they'd pushed the wrong button and had ended up on ESPN Classic by mistake.

Juventus were taking on Inter in the so-called 'derby of Italy' and you could see fans in the stands in the background. Real, breathing (fire, in some cases), actual fans.

Just as those one can see in those classic matches from the Nineties which appeared anything but at the time but can extract a teardrop from anybody who now watches them: although the choice of programming obviously favours top of the table clashes from that decade, you could see grounds at near capacity everywhere, sometimes even in notorious Turin's Stadio delle Alpi, an atmosphere killer if there was one.

Last Wednesday, attendance at some of the midweek Serie A matches was so low all you could see from television highlights were empty sections. Only 670 fans bothered to buy a ticket for Siena's home match v Catania, which made for a cringeworthy 8,000 crowd once you add in season ticket holders in the small, town-centre ground, while Reggina-Livorno did not sound exotic enough to lure more than 857 souls away from their dinner tables.

Juventus-Inter, though, was not one of those reruns, but it quickly gained the status of classic, as one of the best matches, if not the best match, of the season so far. The media anticipation had been so massive for a while that you had the feeling that the round of midweek matches was almost seen as a nuisance because it would obviously require newspapers and TV shows to momentarily focus on them instead of carrying on with the hype.

It was, after all, a clash of cultures. It had always been so, hence the moniker as 'the derby of Italy' because Juventus and Inter have historically been the best-supported sides in the country, but events in the last couple of years had heightened the rivalry to unprecedented, and arguably dangerous, limits.

One of the effects of the 2006 Calciopoli scandal had, of course, been the removal of a couple of Italian titles from Juventus, one of which was awarded to Inter. Rubbing it in, the Milan club signed Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the summer of the same year, once it became clear Juve would be sent down to Serie B for their directors' overwhelming part in the scandal.

Ironically for a club that had always been suspected - and found guilty in this particular instance - of conspiring to gain an illegal advantage, the conspiracy theorists among Juve fans went to work, with an endless production of reasons why Inter should never have been awarded that 2006 scudetto and should never, ever, do the 'holier than thou' routine they appeared to be rehearsing week in week out.

First and foremost, in the conspiracy theories, was that Guido Rossi, a lawyer and the acting commissioner of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) under whom the sentences were meted out, had been an Inter board member.

Even more suspiciously, it took all of four months - and a World Cup win in the meantime, a personal victory as he'd successfully refused to sack Marcello Lippi for his marginal presence in the scandal - for him to leave the FIGC, complaining that 'the conditions for carrying on reforms are not there', and accept the chairmanship of Telecom, Italy's biggest telecommunications company, which was the involved in that time-honoured Italian tradition - a scandal, of course.

Telecom's chief executive had been Marco Tronchetti Provera, one of Inter's more high-profile board members, and the simple fact the 2006 scandal had been revealed through wire-tappings pushed many in the direction of believing Inter and some dark forces - insert your own version of that thing on pots and kettles here - had been at work to conspire in favour of the Nerazzurri.

All of this meant the meeting on Sunday evening could be potentially explosive. Vitriol was in abundance in the stands, irony having given way to insults, some of them racist - calling Ibrahimovic a gypsy, for example, especially after the controversial and tragic events of the past week in Italy. That the mountain of expectations and hype generated such a brilliant match, with no crowd trouble - and a real crowd, actually - was just short of a miracle under the current climate in the country.

Inter should probably have won after failing twice to add to their first half lead, but Juventus, who have now held all the other top three sides to a draw, gave a wonderful display of grit, passion and heart in fighting back.

The only nasty moments in an otherwise clean match were Pavel Nedved's kick at Figo's right leg - which resulted in a broken fibula for the Portuguese - and some rugged confrontation between Ibrahimovic and Juve's central defender Giorgio Chiellini, who at one point seemed to lash out at the Swedish striker with an outstretched arm while jumping for a 50-50 ball, with Ibrahimovic apparently getting retribution with a slap right after the final whistle.

Juve should have had a penalty in the first half when Ivan Cordoba wrestled Alessandro Del Piero to the turf a few yards from goal, but apart from that controversial moment there were no disputed calls by referee Gianluca Rocchi, who'd done a good job at the Roma-Lazio derby in midweek.

Both sides went with a 4-4-2, but Juventus kept their back four 'high', as tactical experts would say: they obviously did not want to leave any room for Inter's midfielders, and Ibrahimovic, to run with the ball into. The visitors fell into Juve's offside trap 14 times, but scored the only time Juventus defenders - namely, right back Zdenek Grygera - did not keep his concentration, allowing Julio Cruz to chest down and send past Gigi Buffon a wonderfully chipped pass by Cesar, who had strayed far from his regula position on the left after a corner kick.

Juve's goal owed more to a twist of fate, when Cristian Chivu slipped, allowing Vincenzo Iaquinta to head back to another substitute, German Camoranesi, whose low shot was deflected past Julio Cesar by Walter Samuel's heel.

Inter had better quality overall, in keeping with the depth and skill of their squad, but Juventus, short of invention in central midfield where summer acquisitions Almiron and Tiago have failed to perform with any consistency, showed some flashes of potential on the flanks, especially with Raffaele Palladino (it was his cross that set up Juve's equaliser), as indeed did Inter when they found the congestion in the middle of the park too hard to overcome.

Now that the fury, the hype and the vitriol have subsided, the only long-term conclusion we can come to is that the draw confirmed the status quo.

Inter are the best side in Italy, blessed with a physical presence and a reserve of talent that no one else in the Serie A possess, but Juventus, by all accounts a newly promoted side despite fielding four World Champions, may be closer to achieving a Champions League place for next season than most observers would have expected.

And let others toy with conspiracy theories next time.

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