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Inter consolidate title race as Juventus stall out

The league leaders were simply better, and it showed.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

The stakes of Sunday’s Derby d’Italia were spelled out quite simply. If Juventus won, they would lead the league by two points. Even though Inter could catch them with their game in hand, it would set up a sprint to the finish between the two teams with only one game separating them. If Inter won, they’d increase their lead to four points, with their game in hand giving them the potential for a seven-point lead when all was said and done.

It was easily the biggest Serie A game Juventus had played in years. Their task was certainly not easy — go to the San Siro and beat a team that has for most of the year throttled the rest of the league.

Ultimately, it was a task they weren’t up to.

Juventus simply couldn’t create any sort of danger in Inter’s half of the field. Any attempt to build something in the attacking third came to screeching halts, thanks to bad judgement, bad passing, or, in one crushing play that will be the standout moment from Juve’s standpoint, bad touches.

Inter, on the other hand, are only two seasons removed from their own title, as well as a run to the Champions League last year. Their experience showed. They are, as nauseating as it is to admit it, simply better, both in the context of this game and the league as a whole. Their 1-0 win has all but ended the race for the Scudetto, leaving Juve to focus on consolidating the season’s original goal: returning to the Champions League and building to another assault on the league title.

Massimiliano Allegri came into the game thin in the attack. Moise Kean was still injured, and Arkadiusz Milik was suspended after his foolish red card last weekend against Empoli. That left him with only a just-recovered Federico Chiesa as depth behind his starting pair of Dusan Vlahovic and Kenan Yildiz. The team was lined up in the usual 3-5-2. Wojciech Szczesny was at the base of the formation, with Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo protecting him. Andrea Cambiaso and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, with Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and a returning Adrien Rabiot in midfield.

Simone Inzaghi had an almost full squad at his disposal, missing only Juan Cuadrado and regaining Nicolo Barella and Hakan Calhanoglu from suspensions. Yann Sommer started in goal behind the defense of Alessandro Bastoni, Franceso Acerbi, and Benjamin Pavard. Matteo Darmian and Federico Dimarco started wide, bracketing Barella, Calhanoglu, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the middle. Marcus Thuram and Lauraro Martinez, Serie A’s leading goal scorer, started up front.

Inter immediately started the game on the front foot. Within seconds, Pavard sent a long ball down the right side for Thuram, whose square ball had a target in Mkhitaryan, but Gatti was able to slide in and get his foot around him to hook it away. The Armenian had the chance to let fly from 25 yards a few minutes later, and his shot took a deflection that might have carried it anywhere, though in this case that meant just wide of the top corner.

It wasn’t particularly surprising to see Juve drop back into the more defensive posture that had defined the first part of the season in an away game at the San Siro. What was a surprise was just how far they dropped. Much like earlier games this year, particularly the game against Fiorentina, the team dropped so far back that it became nearly impossible to get themselves out of their own half. Any attempt at a counterattack forced Juve to either pass or dribble the ball through multiple lines of Inter players or hoof the ball forward and hope Vlahovic could hold the ball up long enough for other players to get involved.

The problem with the former was that Juve simply couldn’t get past Inter’s press. They were hemmed in hard and early, giving them little time to think and often making them look like they were seeing ghosts as they tried to find a teammate. The latter play was also problematic. Vlahovic’s holdup play has improved this year, but it still isn’t the best part of his game. The fact of the matter, though, was that he was so isolated that even an elite hold-up striker would have gotten swarmed before any support could arrive.

All this led to a situation in the first 15 to 20 mintues of the match where Juve simply couldn’t get any sort of attack moving. In the first 10 minutes Inter’s possession stat was an astonishing 84.7 percent, and 10 minutes later they had still had three-quarters of the total possession. During that time, Inter came up with a couple of good chances. The best came in the 18th minute when Pavard hit Dimarco in the channel with a perfect diagonal ball, but the usually superb wing-back scuffed his shot, actually hitting the ball twice as he put it into the side netting. A couple of other shots from good positions were blocked, and on one of Juve’s rare forays forward a long ball by Calhanoglu allowed Dimarco to set up Thuram, who looked to have clear sailing before Bremer got a foot in and disrupted his control at the very last second.

It wasn’t until close to the half-hour mark that Juve started to level things out. In the 32nd minute, a glorious opportunity to turn the game on its head went begging when, after McKennie made a fantastic run through the middle of the defense, he set up Vlahovic with a perfect pass into the left channel. It was the kind of attack Vlahovic has been lethal on in the new year — but this time he fluffed it badly, taking a very heavy first touch and not being able to get a shot off at all, wasting a golden chance to score against the run of play.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/Getty Images

It was a mistake Inter punished just six minutes later.

Pavard was the fulcrum of the move, dishing the ball off to Darmian and then moving into the right channel. There, he took a floated ball from Barella and tried a scissor kick. He missed, but it bounced through into a place that Thuram could take a swipe at it. He didn’t get his header on it either, but it bounced into the chest of Gatti, who was marking the Frenchman, and into the goal. There hadn’t been anything Gatti could’ve done differently, and the main fault for the goal really lay with Locatelli, who watched Pavard walk past him into the box but didn’t move to address it at all, instead marking empty space and leaving him totally alone for the pass.

Things didn’t look all that great in the beginning of the second half either. Dimarco nearly doubled Inter’s lead 10 minutes into the period, drilling a pass from Barella past the far post. Barely sixty seconds later Calhanoglu gathered a defensive header right at the top of the box and hit a gorgeous half-volley that whacked off the outside of the post.

The game started loosening up a bit, but the threat level from Juve was never high, and their hosts were creating much more danger whenever they got the ball downfield. On the hour mark, a powerful shot by Kostic was blocked by Pavard and pinballed around the box for a few seconds, but no Juve player could get on it before it was cleared. A few minutes later, Bremer headed a corner down to the feet of Vlahovic, who tried a bicycle kick that went over, although given the degree of difficulty of the shot it wasn’t an egregious miss.

Perhaps the best chance for Juve to equalize came in the 67th minute. Gatti, looking to atone for his own goal, bore down on a layoff by substitute Timothy Weah and hit a laser beam of a shot that flew only just wide of the far post. But that was pretty much all the danger Juve could put together. Indeed, even with the close call by Gatti, Juventus still hadn’t found the target with a shot, and wouldn’t until a tame Vlahovic effort in the 72nd minute was easily handled by Sommer.

Inter, meanwhile, were incredibly unlucky not to add multiple goals to their tally. Szczesny had to make two remarkable saves in the last 20 minutes that kept the game from getting out of hand. The first came off a textbook Inter counter when Dimarco found a completely unmarked Barella at the back post, only to see Szczesny make himself big and divert his thunderous volley with a kick save. He made another incredible stop three minutes from time when Denzel Dumfries found Marko Arnautovic with a perfect ball behind the defense, but Szczesny got his trailing hand up just in time to deflect the striker’s attempt at a tap-in.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by Luca Rossini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

But those heroics were little more than window dressing. Juve failed to make any meaningful forays forward for the last 20 minutes or so of the game, and when Fabio Maresca blew the whistle for the final time, he was calling time not only on the game but also on the title race.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Those saves in the second half were simply remarkable. He kept this scoreline from being a good deal uglier than it was.

FEDERICO GATTI - 5.5. I’m certainly in the minority here, but I didn’t think Gatti had a horrible game. He made a couple of good defensive interventions throughout the game, and there was nothing he could’ve done differently on the own goal. That said, the own goal IS on his line, and he got burned for pace once or twice, so I can’t give him a passing grade.

BREMER - 8. Kept Lautaro Martinez remarkably quiet (two shots, none on target), which is always ingredient No. 1 in terms of having a chance against Inter. He also had some fantastic moments, including his first-half intervention against Thuram. Even without the highlight moves, his overall stat line — three tackles, an interception, a block, and nine clearances — would qualify for a high grade.

DANILO - 7. Got a completely undeserved booking midway through the first half, but that didn’t keep him from going in hard on Inter’s attackers. A game-high three interceptions and six clearances kept the team close.

ANDREA CAMBIASO - 5.5. Had a pair of key passes and completed 95.6 percent of his passes, but that number is deeply surprising considering just how many times the ball seemed to go back to Inter off his foot. This was a game Juve needed their up-and-comer to perform and he simply didn’t.

WESTON McKENNIE - 6.5. One of the only real attacking outlets all game, Wes led the team in key passes (3) and and was credited with four clearances on the back end. His run through Inter’s defense really should’ve been rewarded with an assist.

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. Completed 90.5 percent of his passes and did his best to break Juve out of their own half, but he was completely absent in the play that led up to the goal, letting Pavard walk right past him without so much as moving. Perhaps he thought someone was coming up behind him to mark him (no one was close enough) or that Danilo would shift back (he had to stay put so as not to give Dimarco a run into the box). Once that ball passes Pavard’s attempt at the scissor kick, Gatti was put into a no-win scenario. Locatelli had to be the man to mark him there.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Rust clearly showed in Rabiot’s first game back. He looked aimless at times and didn’t do any of the things in midfield that have made him such a threat the last season and a half. Completely outplayed by Barella and Mkhitaryan.

FILIP KOSTIC - 4.5. I’m getting really tired of seeing Kostic’s name on the team sheet. He, again, completed less than 80 percent of his passes overall (and only attempted 24) and misfired on all six of his cross attempts. His set piece deliveries were also really poor, exemplified by putting a ball right into Sommer’s hands, only to get a second bite at it when the ref deemed it was taken before he was ready and fly the ball over everyone. He simply hasn’t earned the right to this much playing time.

KENAN YILDIZ - 5. Looked very much like an 18-year-old in this game. Part of that was how isolated the forwards were, forcing him to fight through some unwinnable scenarios, but he also found out just how physical a really meaningful Derby d’Italia can be. Hopefully he takes that experience and learns from it.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by Alessio Morgese/NurPhoto via Getty Images

DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. I’ve seen people be pretty harsh on Vlahovic, and his flub of McKennie’s pass in the first half was really bad, but he was also as isolated as we’ve seen him be in quite some time. Often he was so badly outnumbered that he really had no chance to do anything — a moment comes to mind in the first half where McKennie managed to break out only for his only option to be a cross to a Vlahovic that was being defended by no less than four men. He put in work, though, and even popped up tracking back in defense for a few good plays. The flow of today’s game was simply against him.

SUBS

FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. Didn’t get a lot going against an Inter defense that was well settled in by the time he was brought on. I’d have brought him on earlier, unless the physios had given Allegri a strict number for his minutes.

TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Made two key passes and completed every pass he made. Probably the liveliest of the subs.

FABIO MIRETTI - NR. Put on with no time to really do anything after Allegri seemed to lose the thread when it came to subs.

ALEX SANDRO - NR. Why was he on the field when the team was trailing?

CARLOS ALCARAZ - NR. Probably the most surprising move of the night. He tried his best under the circumstances but didn’t have the time to show much of anything.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

As I said before, I think we all expected a more defensive posture from Max Allegri in this match, but the degree to which he sank was a bad mistake and set the tone for the entire match.

To go corto muso against Inter in the San Siro was not an invalid strategy — frankly, it was the best way to go — but I think Allegri overdid it a little bit, and like a few games early in the season put the team so far back that it was impossible to break out. When you play this way, especially against a team like Inter, you need to give yourself enough room to bust through your opponent a few times to keep them honest. Instead, Juve were quickly sealed into their half of the field for almost half an hour and were never able to get a rhythm going, which affected the team’s attack for the rest of the match. It also forced a couple of the players — Vlahovic in particular — to play in ways that don’t suit their talents best.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A TIM Photo by Simone Arveda/Getty Images

Allegri’s game management was also ... strange. He waited a good long while to introduce Chiesa, although as mentioned before that might’ve been due to medical advice. The fact that he then waited until there were three minutes left to introduce his next set of changes was baffling. Even more so was the fact that Samuel Iling-Junior — the perfect sub for this kind of situation — was stripped off and ready to go at the touch line before being inexplicably sent back to the bench for Alex Sandro, of all people. Then, two minutes later, he sent in Alcaraz, who for all his promise has had all of one, maybe two training sessions with his new team, not to mention no time to do anything at all.

Allegri’s sub patterns have greatly improved from his first two seasons back in charge, but this game was a throwback to those old days, and it wasn’t a good look.

One last note: This result makes Allegri’s decision to punt and settle for a draw in the first game between these two teams at the Allianz look even worse to me than it did at the time. I never bought the “there’s a whole lot of season left” argument for that decision, because when you’re competing at the top of the table head-to-head matchups are often the difference makers. Had Allegri attempted to win the home game, even with this loss they’d still be within touching distance of Inter. Taking the draw and hoping that Inter would drop off later in the season was passive, bordering on scared, and isn’t the attitude a true championship team needs to have in order to compete at the top of the table.

As we’ve seen, Allegri has very much lost that bet, and the consequence was stark: the end, for all intents and purposes, of the title race.

LOOKING AHEAD

My sincere gratitude to the Lega Serie A for scheduling Juve’s next match, at home to Udinese, on Monday, leaving Super Bowl weekend free for those of us who love throwing parties for the big game or, as is the case of our Fearless Leader, Danny, has a rooting interest in it. The following Saturday the Bianconeri travel to the Bentegodi to face off against Hellas Verona.