The Derby d’Italia was only 34 minutes old, but already we had seen blood, sweat and tears – and that was just Manuel Locatelli. The game had barely begun when Lautaro Martínez’s high boot caught the Juventus midfielder in his face, opening a gash above his left eye from him. Locatelli soldiered on, only to insult his knee while raising his own studs into a challenge on Danilo D’Ambrosio.
Some journalists speculated that he might have ruptured his cruciate ligament as they saw him hobble to the sideline weeping. Perhaps Locatelli is just a man willing to share his emotions with him. He cried on the pitch after scoring his first goal for Milan at 18 years old, too, as well as after winning Euro 2020 with Italy.
Massimiliano Allegri suggested later that the injury was not too serious, and that Locatelli should be back in “20 days or so”. The player’s anguish likely had less to do with physical pain than frustration at being forced out of a game that had the potential to change the course of this Serie A season.
Both teams’ title ambitions hung in the balance. Juventus had battled back into the Scudetto conversation with a run of 16 league games undefeated. Internazionale were at risk of slipping out of it after winning only eleven in six earlier in the year. A 12-point gap between the two sides at the start of this year had been whittled down to just one, with Milan and Napoli becoming frontrunners in the meantime.
Allegri insisted at his pre-game press conference that Juventus’s focus was only on consolidating their place in the top four, but a loss for fifth-placed Atalanta earlier on Sunday afternoon eased the pressure. For an evening, at least, his team could afford to raise their sights instead of looking over their shoulders.
Perhaps that knowledge informed his players’ approach in a fiery first portion of the match, in which they pressed and attacked with a tempo we have not seen often from them. Allegri opted for an attacking 4-2-3-1, with Paulo Dybala, Álvaro Morata and Juan Cuadrado supporting Dusan Vlahovic. Locatelli was not the only one throwing himself into challenges.
Vlahovic drew a save inside the first minute. Giorgio Chiellini hit the bar in the ninth. Any clean connection would have been enough to force the ball over the line after the Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic punched Cuadrado’s cross straight up into the air but the Juventus defender – who should have been penalized for pushing to gain position as it came back down – could only graze it.
Further chances came and went, for Dybala, Morata and Dybala again. Handanovic was rescued from another potentially catastrophic mistake when he pushed a shot from Cuadrado out toward the penalty spot before a heavy deflection off Milan Skriniar took the ball away from danger.
Inter had barely crossed halfway but in the 45th minute they won a penalty. Denzel Dumfries was moving away from goal on the right side of the area when he went down between Morata and Alex Sandro, but replays showed Sandro had trod on his boot from him. The VAR booth intervened after the referee, Massimiliano Irrati, had initially waved to play on.
Hakan Calhanoglu’s spot-kick, fired low to the keeper’s right, was saved by Wojciech Szczesny. The drama was just getting started. Calhanoglu chased the rebound, and seconds later the ball wound up in the net. But Irrati signaled a free-kick against the Inter player. Replay analysis would later suggest Calhanoglu had kicked the heel of Danilo.
Once again, VAR came to Inter’s rescue. Matthijs De Ligt had croached into the area before the penalty was taken. Calhanoglu, with impressive steel, took this as an opportunity to repeat his original penalty but better – shooting in the exact same direction but this time with more power and conviction. Szczesny went the right way but could not get there.
Amid it all, fury and frustration boiled over, players and Allegri launching his jacket into orbit. By the time Irrati finally blew his whistle for half-time, the game had been going for almost 55 minutes.
A further 45 still were not enough for Juventus. They dominated possession and the pitch even more effectively in the second half, yet had fewer scoring opportunities. Vlahovic, marshalled superbly by Skriniar for most of the evening, wriggled free with one sharp turn on the edge of the box but shot wide. Locatelli’s replacement, Denis Zakaria, created the only real moment of jeopardy when he hit the post at the end of a weaving run.
Juventus were unfortunate not to win a penalty when Alessandro Bastoni fouled Zakaria on the edge of the area – Irrati ruled that the challenge had taken place outside the box but frame-by-frame analysis suggested contact took place on the line. This time there was no VAR intervention. Juventus’s Adrien Rabiot showed his frustration when he posted on Instagram later that “it’s difficult to play on 11 against 12”.
In truth, with another referee, this game might easily have been 10 against 10. Rabiot put in one of his better performances in a Juventus shirt overall but trod a fine line with one or two challenges after a 15th-minute yellow card. Martínez could easily have received two bookings in the first half. Irrati was erratic, and VAR inscrutable as ever.
Would it even be a Derby d’Italia without refereeing controversy? Piero Ceccarini’s failure to whistle a foul against Mark Iuliano on Ronaldo in 1998 remains one of the most bitter memories in Inter’s history, but this is a fixture that even put the lauded Pierluigi Collina in a spin the year before, when he awarded Maurizio Ganz a goal for Inter and then took it away for an unflagged offside more than a minute later.
Allegri preferred to focus on the positives for his team on Sunday, expressing pleasure at their performance and saying he believed the foundations were in place to challenge for the title next year. the bianconeri have been running just to keep up ever since they opened this campaign with two losses and two draws.
Yet the greatest satisfaction could only belong to Simone Inzaghi, leading Inter to a first away win against Juventus since 2012. This after drawing the league meeting at San Siro and defeating them in extra time to lift the Supercoppa in January.
“We are further ahead than I expected to be when it comes to results and trophies,” Inzaghi insisted, quietly reminding us that pre-season expectations were not sky-high for a team who sold two of their most influential players – Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi – as well as changing manager after winning the title last spring.
Inzaghi said Inter had already asked him to extend his two-year contract but that he had been the one to push on the brakes, wanting to wait and see where results took them. The win on Sunday took them back to within three points of Milan and Napoli – holding a game in hand on the latter team but not the former, who host Bologna on Monday night.
With seven rounds left to go, there is time yet for plenty more blood, sweat and tears. And no doubt for more frustration at VAR’s inconsistent interventions.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism