As the indistinguishable Europop blared across the public address system, Juventus’ players meekly congratulated their spirited opponents after a thrilling 3-3 draw.
On Wednesday night Sassuolo became the latest team to bloody the nose of the league leaders as Juve won just their second point from the previous nine available. Yet, despite this run, the Old Lady boast a healthy lead at the table’s summit with five games to play.
Maurizio Sarri’s debut campaign at the helm of Italy’s most successful club has, overall, been rather underwhelming. The 61-year-old wasn’t exactly helped by being lumbered with the mammoth task of inspiring beautiful football along with sustained success but – in his own words – he is yet to ‘win and convince’.
So, which clubs have failed to fill the vacuum left by a Juventus in transition?
Inter’s quest for a first Serie A title in a decade began in the best way possible. By December they were top of the table, with a stingy five points dropped from their opening 14 games. The summer arrival Romelu Lukaku had seamlessly slotted into Italian football and was flourishing at the sharp end of a disciplined 3-5-2.
To compound matters for the trailing Juventus, Inter had poached two key figures from their recent history. Inter’s new CEO for sport Giuseppe Marotta and incoming manager Antonio Conte were both instrumental in guiding Juve from the relative doldrums of consecutive seventh-placed finishes to their current Scudetto run at the turn of the decade.
However, just as the panettone was being dished out, Inter slipped to the back of the leading peloton with five draws in seven games.
In the midst of this sequence Inter narrowly escaped from their match against Atalanta with a point. After the result, La Dea’s captain Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gómez highlighted a possible explanation for Inter’s drop in form.
The 32-year-old explained to El País: “Inter only had one move: playing out from the back, from the centre-back to one of the wingers, who crossed first time for the strikers, Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez. One looks to hold the ball up and the other gets in behind. And then the team moves up. We put our two centre-backs man-to-man with Lukaku and Lautaro. We won the ball back from them and we attacked.”
Injury to the creative midfielder Stefano Sensi was a sizeable blow which Christian Eriksen’s January arrival never really absorbed. The Nerazzurri then entered lockdown after back-to-back defeats to their nearest title challengers; first Lazio, then Juve, to provide metaphorical flat tyre to their title tilt.
While Inter started their decline at the turn of the year, Lazio’s championship charge has only been dampened by their post-pandemic drop off.
No club was more desperate to see the season concluded than Lazio – yearning for a first Scudetto since 2000. As Serie A’s sides brushed off the cobwebs for football’s return in June, the Eagles were just a point behind Juve. Lazio also boasted more goals scored and fewer conceded than their illustrious rivals.
Yet, after seven games of the season’s addendum played, the gap to the top is now seven points. Lazio have lost four matches since the resumption after suffering two defeats in the previous 26 league games.
Simone Inzaghi’s side had been over-performing their expected goals figures at both ends of the pitch pre-lockdown – thanks to the clinical finishing of leading scorer Ciro Immobile and the superb shot-stopping of goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha.
Immobile has netted twice in six games since the restart, while their Albanian number one has slipped below his early season high standards. The club’s lack of squad depth – only worsened by injuries and unfortunate suspensions – has also played a key role in their stuttering return.
The upcoming meeting with Juventus offers an opportunity to move within four points of the defending champions. Yet, even if they do prevail, their recent performances don’t exactly suggest that they will serenely navigate the supposedly straightforward fixtures after that.
Atalanta and their wonderful adaptation to post-pandemic proceedings perhaps can feel the most aggrieved of the faltering title challengers.
However, it would be unfair to simply cast Juventus as the footballing equivalent of Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury, gliding in to pinch top spot with their rivals splayed on the deck before them. Sarri’s side may have fallen below the almost unachievable bar set at the start of the season, but they have – one way or another – ground out the points when others have failed.
Both Inter and Lazio – teams who finished fourth and eighth last season – can take encouragement from the fact that they were even involved in a title race. The will just hope Juve’s malaise bleeds into next season.