There are football matches, and then there are football matches.
There’re the kind that simply dot the road, like unnoticed milestones on a 38-furlong highway; then there are fixtures that leap out at you from the calendar like giant neon-ridden billboards that you cannot ignore.
The Derby d’Italia – the eponymous contest between Juventus and Inter Milan, the two most successful clubs in Italian football – definitely falls in the latter category, for reasons of history, competitive fandom and footballing pedigree.
Inter Milan and Juventus share a fierce rivalry despite not being from the same city, or perhaps because of it. Turin and Milan are industrial and cultural rivals from the same region (a bit like Liverpool and Manchester), and the casual antipathy between the citizens often translates into violent feuding between the fans.
The clubs have contrasting identities as well. Juventus have traditionally had a backbone of Italian players, and are an established feeder line for the national team: 6 Bianconeri started in the side that reached the Confederations Cup semi-final this summer.
Inter Milan was founded as a club of expatriates; over the years, their sides usually featured foreign stars. When the Nerazzurri won the Champions League final in 2010, the only Italian on the pitch was Marco Materazzi – who came on after 90+2 minutes.
The Calciopoli scandal gave the rivalry an added wind of ill-feeling. Till 2006, these two were the only teams that had never suffered relegation from Serie A. When the scandal broke, Juventus were stripped of two titles and demoted to Serie B, even as Inter mysteriously escaped punishment (the only major Italian club to be spared).
As the pre-eminent club in Italy, Inter promptly welcomed Juventus’s fleeing players with open arms. So Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic crossed the Rubicon to join Inter, embarking on a title-winning spree. The defections to the sworn enemy – combined with Juventus’s precarious state – inspired much brotherly love.
These factors usually contribute to a spicy contest, and it’s worth noting that the clashes last season were open-ended affairs, with both sides going for a win rather than playing to ‘not lose’.
Tonight, Inter host the defending champions. With Juventus unbeaten over their last three visits to the San Siro, they will fancy their chances. Yet traditionally this has been a match where you can predict nothing. Irrespective of recent form, both teams have started the season well (2 wins from as many matches) and will want to keep it going.
What is this going to be like? Both managers prefer a 3-5-2 formation – three men in the centre of defence and in central midfield, with plenty of work for the wingbacks. Their strategies vary, though.
Where Inter manager Walter Mazzarri emphasizes strong defending and counter-attacking with speed and ruthlessness, Juve boss Antonio Conte favours midfield domination and high pressing from the start to finish. This might well lend itself to a natural pattern: Juve pushing up the field, with Inter soaking up the pressure and attacking vertically down the field when they get the chance.
Conte doesn’t need to make any major changes. Mirko Vucinic is a doubt due to injury, so Fabio Quagliarella may start alongside Carlos Tevez upfront. Mazzarri’s lineup is unlikely to be radical. Captain Javier Zanetti is yet to make a full recovery, so Mazzarri will probably persist with a 3-man defence of Campagnaro, Jesus and Ranocchia.
Closing down Andrea Pirlo has been key to stopping Juve over the least two seasons, so it will be interesting to see Mazzarri’s strategy for dealing with l’architetto. As the centre-forward, Rodrigo Palacio will probably be assigned the task of dropping back to mark Pirlo. That is easier said than done : Pirlo – a former Interisti himself – is capable of fashioning through balls from half-chances and quarter-chances.
Recent history suggests Juventus are clear-cut favourites: double league champions, with probably the most balanced squad in Europe, up against a side that was being branded decrepit two months ago.
Yet, in the sample size available, Inter have definitely made progress under Mazzarri. The leaky defence that was repeatedly torn apart last season (2nd worst in Serie A) has kept 2 clean sheets thus far, with the attack registering an impressive 5 goals.
This may be nothing more than beginner’s luck, and a like-for-like formation will probably suit Juventus, with their superior quality. An open game is harder to predict.
It is a safe call, however, that this will not be a borefest. Both managers are ambitious men with strong personalities and some history, who will not want to lose to each other. That in itself should be enough to ensure they go for the jugular.
In the reverse fixture last season, Inter came from behind to break Juventus’s 49-match unbeaten streak in the league – giving Antonio Conte his first Serie A defeat as Juventus manager, and the first defeat at the new Juventus Stadium. Till then, Juve were unbeaten at home and Inter were unbeaten away.
Today, both have a perfect record going into this match. Juve have arguably the best strikeforce in the league; Inter its best defence. Little remains but to blow the whistle.