At the very least the Scudetto race didn’t end with a whimper. At half-time at the San Paolo it seemed that was exactly what would happen, Kevin Malcuit selling Alex Meret short in a sequence of play which saw the goalkeeper sent off and Miralem Pjanic scoring the resulting free-kick.
It was a moment of madness from the Frenchman, and while the contact on Cristiano Ronaldo was minimal, Gianluca Rocchi was left with no choice but to dismiss the Napoli ‘keeper. When Emre Can added the second, it looked like the rest of the match would be a procession, but the second half proved to be something of a classic.
Carlo Ancelotti boldly switched to a back three, withdrawing the hapless Malcuit and going hell for leather. His cause was helped when Pjanic saw red for a stupid handball, and thereafter the Partenopei dominated the game.
Juve were pinned into their own box for almost all of the second half, and it looked like only a matter of time until the equaliser came. It didn’t, and the title race is now over, if it was ever really alive, but oddly it will be Napoli who take more satisfaction from this match.
Everyone knows on which side Juventus fall when it comes to the old ‘beauty or results’ debate. Ideally you’d have both, but this is a club whose shirts have borne the words of club legend Giampiero Boniperti, who famously said that winning “is the only thing that matters”.
By that score tonight was a triumph for Massimiliano Allegri’s side. They inflicted on Napoli their first home defeat in a year, and moved 16 points clear at the top of Serie A in the process. The Old Lady will be crowned queen of Italy once again, the only question now is when the coronation ceremony will take place.
And tonight’s performance raised more questions than it answered. The Bianconeri were once again anaemic in midfield, with Emre Can particularly guilty of giving away possession in stupid positions. Allegri’s side no longer look capable of controlling a game, and on this form it’s hard to see how they can overcome a 2-0 deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
In previous seasons the Coach has found a magic formula after the winter break to spur Juve on at the business end of the season, but this still looks like a squad winning matches with individual brilliance rather than any cohesive plan. The results have been impeccable, domestically at least, but you’d have to cast your mind back a long time to identify the last match in which the Bianconeri actually played well.
And so to Napoli, who basically surrendered the Scudetto on their own patch and yet have plenty to be pleased with. Even with 10 men the Partenopei matched Juve for long spells, and when Pjanic evened things up, they dominated the match.
There will be regrets about Lorenzo Insigne’s missed penalty, though those of a Juve persuasion may argue justice was done.
Does anyone actually know what constitutes handball anymore? The rulebook will tell you only deliberate handball should be punished by a penalty, but there’s surely no way Alex Sandro’s handling offence could have been intentional. Yet Rocchi’s VAR assistants deemed it worthy of a review, and the man himself then pointed to the spot, just as happened with Fiorentina-Inter last week. If referees are being advised to give penalties for unintentional handball, then it’s surely something which should be shared with the rest of us.
In the end it didn’t matter, Insigne’s shot hit the post and Juve ensured the Scudetto will remain under lock and key for another season. Even then there’s a sense of ennui around the Bianconeri, one which will only deepen if and when Atletico complete the job in the Champions League.
Allegri, brilliant as he’s been, appears to be nearing the end of his era, and it seems even Cristiano Ronaldo won’t be enough to deliver the Champions League. There’s a certain melancholy behind the Old Lady’s smile, even on a night when she won the Scudetto.