It’s been a while since we have witnessed such a situation. The last couple of seasons have seen Antonio Conte’s all-conquering Juventus set such a testing tempo that nobody has been able to keep up with them for long. One by one, like cyclists facing a first category climb, we have watched their rivals crack. But, for now at least, we are finally watching for signs of the Bianconeri starting to suffer.
The reason for such pressure on La Vecchia Signora has been a pincer movement coming up from the south. Napoli have become a familiar foe in recent times, but a more surprising challenge has emerged from Rudi Garcia’s Roma. It is asking the Turin giants to dip into previously untapped reserves of energy and determination.
Those are characteristics, of course, which have become synonymous with Conte’s men over the past couple of years. They will feel understandably confident that they can swat away their pesky opponents once again. However, for the time being at least, they have been forced into the relatively unfamiliar position of being the pursuer rather than the pursued.
It is hard to escape a feeling this upturn in the competitiveness of Serie A as a Division might be coupled with a downturn in its reputation in Europe. A miserable midweek round of games seemed to confirm the sensation that the Italian League’s co-efficient is likely to continue to tumble quicker than Marco Borriello in the penalty box. But that did not stop the weekend from being anything other than gripping.
On Saturday night it was the Giallorossi’s resident genius Francesco Totti who took centre stage to help dismantle the Inter revival. One might well wonder what it says about the Division in wider terms when one of its star performers has ticked off 37 birthdays by now. But that should not undermine the credit he deserves as one of the finest footballers to have graced the pitch in recent years. A 300-goal career and counting is not to be sniffed at.
“To win our seventh game in a row was not easy,” said the man of the moment. “We know there is a long way to go but with this side anything is possible. Nobody expected a start to the season like this. The team is well organised with international-class players. And, with a clear head, anything is possible.” He was not ready to admit any thoughts of the Scudetto, but he did at least reckon the team could aim for a top three finish.
In Naples, it took Goran Pandev a matter of moments to break down Livorno’s resolve and smooth the way to a 4-0 stroll. Having watched him struggle to see the ball against Arsenal in the Champions League, there was a definite sense that he had found his level. A bad day at the office for up-and-coming goalkeeper Francesco Bardi clinched the deal for Rafa Benitez’s men.
That left Sunday night’s Juve-Milan clash as a key showdown for both sides. For the Rossoneri, it was a last chance to hang on to the top of the table teams while for the Bianconeri it was a key step in maintaining their goal of domestic dominance. It was Conte’s men who won a pulsating tie under often driving rain.
They slipped behind to Sulley Muntari in a matter of seconds but hauled their way back through an Andrea Pirlo free-kick and a neat finish from Sebastian Giovinco. When Phillipe Mexes saw red and Giorgio Chiellini made it three, it looked like game over but Muntari struck again to make the home side sweat a little in the closing stages. In the end, though, it was job done for the reigning champions.
“Everybody said this was a hard start for us, so I would have accepted six wins out of seven games and a draw,” said Conte. “We did well to come back and played a good game against a good Milan.”
He added that the target of three-in-a-row was a testing one. “For two years we have dominated in Italy and this year it will be very difficult,” he said. “History tells us nobody has managed this for Juve since the 1930s. We need to understand from the outset that this year will be tough.”
His opposite number tried to avoid making snap judgements after just eight points in seven matches. He has managed great comebacks before. “I would say the team played alright,” said Max Allegri. “We can’t let our heads go down. There are plenty of games to go.”
A note of honour should also go to Verona the football team, if not its supporters. A convincing thumping of troubled Bologna put Andrea Mandorlini’s men right in the mix at the top end of the table. It was 35 years since they had won in the Dall’Ara in Serie A. They have been a pleasant surprise in the upper reaches of the Division and have adapted better than any other of the newly-promoted sides. It was a shame then, that some idiotic fans decided to spoil a minute’s silence for the victims of the tragic boat sinking near Lampedusa. Every week, it seems, some side in Italy’s top flight manages to show the less savoury side of its supporters.
Elsewhere, Lazio and Fiorentina looked tired in their goalless draw in the Olimpico, there was a disallowed goal and penalty controversy in a spicy 2-2 draw between Sampdoria and Torino which satisfied neither side and Catania and Genoa also took a point each from their clash in Sicily. Meanwhile, wins for Atalanta, Udinese and Parma all saw them make welcome steps away from the drop zone. That is currently the preserve of Sampdoria, Bologna and Sassuolo. But, with six or seven sides covered by a handful of points, it looks like that fight could be just as epic as the one currently unfolding to decide the Scudetto honours.