‘Inter Italy’s best but dull Juve title contenders’

The Derby d’Italia, once the most anticipated fixture in the calendar between two of Italy’s best teams, ended in a dull 1-1 draw on Sunday night.

Juventus hosting Inter was supposed to be a delight for the senses, but boredom reigned supreme. At the end of the day, the fear of losing such a fixture shackled both sides from expressing their strengths. Instead, we bore witness to their mediocrity.

Roma manager Jose Mourinho has said “Inter should win the league by 20 points”, and he’s not wrong. The Nerazzurri are Italy’s best team by a country mile. They boast squad depth, a good management team, the best midfield in Italy and in Lautaro Martinez one of the very best strikers in the world. They may be in debt but they are connoisseurs of building on a budget.

Italy’s ‘Old Lady’ Juventus has lost much of her lustre in recent years, culminating in a season devoid of European football for the first time in more than a decade. Poor management, wretched choices in the transfer market and of course, last season’s point deductions has seen the Turin giants look more like David than Goliath.

“If we look at their team, they don’t have many quality players. [Massimiliano] Allegri knows he can rely on solid defenders, strong with headers, so he has adapted, getting the best out of everyone,” said former Juventus forward Paolo di Canio. It is remarkable this side found itself second in the table prior to kick-off.

This is perhaps the worst Juventus squad in years. They have the magnificent Federico Chiesa, who shone incredibly for the national team and Gleison Bremer, one of the best defenders in Serie A, but the rest of the squad are arguably not of the level we expect worthy of the black-and-white stripes.

Absences have also exacerbated their problems. Paul Pogba is suspended for failing a doping test and chose to watch Formula 1’s last race of the season in Abu Dhabi than cheer on his team-mates, while Nicolo Fagioli, one of the better midfielders on the ball, is serving a ban for his role in the betting scandal.

As such, Juve fielded a midfield comprised of a 23-year-old ‘youth-team player’ Nicolussi Caviglia who has only played two minutes of football this season, Weston McKennie who was relegated with Leeds last season and Adrien Rabiot who polarises opinion.

Dusan Vlahovic has been another on the receiving end of a mountain of criticism. Labelled an 80m-euro flop who can’t play with his back to goal or enhance the level of play in the final third, pundits and fans alike can’t decide whether to blame the team’s style of play for his ordinariness or his inability to adapt.

Allegri, the most divisive of coaches in Italy, is the doyen of pragmatic football. Aware of his team’s lack of ability on the ball, he has created a side that collects as many small wins on the pitch as possible to secure a result. His side won’t dazzle – a third of their chances are from set-pieces.

Juventus rarely take the game by the scruff of the neck or show any intensity in forging their way ahead. They simply wait, biding their time, lulling the opponent into a snooze before they find the right time to bite. Goal.

As Opta noted, since Allegri’s return for his second stint at Juve, no other side has managed as many 1-0 wins as the Bianconeri – seventeen in total, three times more than any other team. In Italy, he has been described as the anomaly, a man who prefers the team to play backwards if they must, to safeguard the defence rather than express their attacking potential. Narrow wins are their bread and butter. Hasn’t this always been typical of them?

When Juventus contested the Champions League final in 1998 against Real Madrid, Angelo di Livio, their famed aggressive all-rounder, wrote ‘1-0’ in black marker pen on his hand and showed it to his opponents, taunting them. This was Juve, that was their favourite scoreline, under Marcello Lippi then and under Allegri now.

Massimiliano Allegri on the touchline

The Old Lady was always pragmatic but never this dull, certainly not even under Allegri when they reached two Champions League finals. That was a side that earned the admiration of Cristiano Ronaldo who chose to join the club eventually.

This current side is a light years from reaching the pinnacle of European football. In truth, Inter should have thrashed them and are favourites for the title. “We are not the richest club in Italy,” shrugged coach Simone Inzaghi, desperate to rid his team of the label. Juventus are the richest, and have the most expensive wage bill.

Despite Inter’s revenues growing by 137% in the past 10 years, compared with 61% for the Bianconeri, they have had to be financially reserved, selling their best players to balance the books. Yet they continue to build winning teams.

They should win Serie A, but who is brave enough to bet against the Old Lady? On Sunday Vlahovic played his best game in a Juve shirt according to Allegri, scoring a sensational goal to give his team the lead. The usually secure defence conceded soon after, but Juve refused to be beaten.

Last season they collected several clean sheets and played in dogged fashion, yet the statistics taught us they were overachieving. Against the better sides they withered, losing 5-1 to Napoli and failing in most of their games in Europe, including a 2-0 loss to Maccabi Haifa.

This season’s Bianconeri boast more confidence, look assured defensively, adapt well tactically and have enough to manage consistent narrow wins. The ability to concentrate almost exclusively on Serie A has helped the team to fight regardless of their lack of beauty.

Allegri says he is not targeting the title. Rabiot says the dressing room disagrees. Can Juve claim glory once again?

Mina Rzouki is a European football journalist and broadcaster who is writing for BBC Sport this season. If you have a question on European football that you’d like to ask her, fill out the form below and she will answer a selection of them in subsequent columns.

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