If that was the weekend of truth, it delivered some mixed verdicts. The sentence was pleasing for Juventini, painful for Napoletani and downright excruciating for Milanisti. And, while there might still be time to earn a reprieve, it looks like the chances of overturning some early impressions are running out.
The top of the table clash on Saturday evening was like a lovely antipasto for Bianconero fans before what they hope will be a main course of yet another Scudetto. In a tense but largely fairly fought affair, Napoli’s title dreams were not destroyed but they did take a bit of a blow. With only Fiorentina having held Juve to a draw so far, it is fair to ask who can halt Antonio Conte’s men?
The Gazzetta dello Sport highlighted how the Turin giants’ victory was typical of their campaign so far. It took a corner to snap a seemingly unbreakable deadlock through a Martin Caceres header. Nearly half of La Vecchia Signora’s Serie A goals this season so far – nine out of 19 – have come from set pieces. But then, if you’ve got Andrea Pirlo in your side, why not flaunt it?
“Seven wins in eight games, the best attack and the best defence,” said assistant boss Angelo Alessio, back on the bench after getting his betting scandal ban reduced. “The figures are pretty clear – we are a great side and brilliantly organised. When we got our second goal I pointed up to the box where Conte was sitting – he is our Coach and I wanted him to know we are all with him.”
He also had warm words for second goalscorer – Manchester United fans look away now – Paul Pogba. “He is a player with a great future,” beamed Alessio. “He can play in a number of positions.” The youngster has had an impressive impact, but suggestions that he might be the top player Juventus lack felt like getting a grappa before your starter arrives – a little premature, perhaps.
For his part, Walter Mazzarri was in typical contrary Tuscan form. He seems intent on saying exactly the opposite of what is expected after every Napoli match this season. When they win, he is critical and when they lose, he is delighted. His Press conferences have become an extended exercise in oxymoron.
“We were on top and I thought Juve had run out of steam,” he said. “They are outstanding at set-pieces, Pirlo puts them where he likes. At that stage the only way for them to get a goal was from a corner. Other than that I don’t remember any great shots for Morgan De Sanctis to save and we hit the woodwork with Edinson Cavani.”
Behind the bold facade, however, he will know there is still work to be done. The moment of “distraction” which allowed the Bianconeri to take the lead is the kind the Partenopei have to cut out if they want to win a third championship. Juventus have made a hallmark of their attention to detail and it is up to their rivals to follow suit.
Napoli’s slip-up allowed an impressive Lazio side to narrow the gap thanks to the latest humiliation for Milan. The capital club were three goals to the good – one of them an absolute gem from Antonio Candreva – before the Rossoneri reacted. The single bright spot was the continued sparkling form of Stephan El Shaarawy, among the goals again.
Adriano Galliani ordered the squad to its pre-match training camp early for the key Champions League clash with Malaga and that will continue in the build-up to the League game with Genoa. The theory behind such actions is that they help the players focus on important matches. However, it is hard to avoid the feeling of an element of punishment in the decision.
“It is only natural that if a team isn’t getting results the Coach is called into question,” admitted Max Allegri. “We have seven points after eight games, we need to move back up the League table, we need to start getting some points. But I do think that recently we have played better than our results suggest.”
The cruellest in Milan have hinted that the only reason he remains in his job is financial. With the Rossoneri now a club more parsimonious than profligate, they say they simply cannot afford to show him the door. The days of paying two Coaches are a more distant memory than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s trademark scowl when a teammate failed to pass him the ball.
There are no such glum looks at Lazio. The Eagles are flying high and if it was not such a curse, you might well dub them the next anti-Juve. Certainly, they are looking down on most of the rest of the League from the same sort of angle as sporting director Igli Tare looks at President Claudio Lotito in the VIP box. They are as slick as Vlad Petkovic’s impeccable Italian.
One side which won’t be fazed by any talk of being a title rival to the Bianconeri are Inter. Andrea Stramaccioni said their weekend win over Catania was their best performance so far. Even if, and their Coach admitted as much, their visitors were unlucky not to get a penalty which could have brought them back into the game. “It wouldn’t be clever to look at the League table now,” insisted Strama. “We are an improving side, but compared with the three teams above us we are the team which has changed the most.”
Something which has not altered is the entertainment value of a Zdenek Zeman side. Trailing 2-0 early in Genoa, his Giallorossi stormed back to record a thrilling win which threw them up the table. If their Coach wanted an answer from excluded stars Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo, he got it in style. Dull moments with this Roma side are as rare as defeats are for Juventus these days.