There was not a lot of social-distancing at the full-time whistle, but we will forgive them for that. At the end of a unique Coppa Italia Final, the Napoli players were surely allowed to let their emotions get the better of them. And only the hardest heart could have begrudged Rino Gattuso this victory so soon after the tragic death of his sister. Some things - we have learned of late - are bigger than football.
It was not just sentiment, however, that suggested the Partenopei deserved to take the trophy. There was not a lot in the match, but they looked the side most likely to break a stubborn deadlock for more of the game against a Juventus team still in search of its true identity. The winning coach was to be admired not only for his professionalism in difficult circumstances, but also for the wider work he has done in stabilising a team which looked to have lost direction under Carlo Ancelotti.
This encounter, in truth, was far from a classic. Be careful what you wish for, some might say. After weeks without football, the Final was often about as thrilling as an evening out with one of the fake fans superimposed on the Stadio Olimpico stands. But - you know what? - most of us didn’t really care. We were just glad to pretend, for one night anyway, that life might be heading back to normal sometime soon.
Yes, it was a fiction thinner than Jose Callejon’s moustache but it was pleasing to delude ourselves nonetheless. How many nights during lockdown did we dream of any kind of game to watch - even one which, quite frankly, often induced a torpor deeper than Gigi Buffon’s booming voice picked up on the pitchside microphones? Nobody will be keeping this one too long on the hard drive of history.
And yet, and yet - this was a game as much about what it symbolised as its outcome. Italy was the European nation plunged deepest and earliest into the coronavirus crisis, so to see sport emerge was a small sign of hope. In some weird way, perhaps, we had longed for a spectacle just as boring as this one was at times.
The extenuating circumstances for both sides were plentiful, after all. A lack of atmosphere, less than full fitness and a mild uneasiness at playing football while people are still suffering will all have played their part. An eerie, edgy and slightly surreal clash was always the most likely outcome.
There were flashes, yes, of what we might see in weeks to come, but the fear of losing this first post-lockdown shot at silverware seemed to dominate. Lorenzo Insigne, Paulo Dybala and the likes promised us a lot more than they ultimately delivered. A glorious chance - and fine Buffon save - in injury time ensured the penalties which had felt increasingly inevitable. Napoli - on balance - deserved a bit more, but never quite threw caution far enough away to seize the victory in normal time. Juve remained the enigma they were before football went on hold - although this time a losing one. For some fans - who do not believe defeat is in the Bianconero DNA - it will be a bitter pill to swallow. Maurizio Sarri, no doubt, will find his fan mail bag empty on Thursday morning.
The penalty shoot-out was a dramatic epilogue that you can fast forward to if you have the game recorded somewhere. A fine Alex Meret save and a Danilo shot so far off target it might possibly have gifted a football as a memento to a passerby outside the ground were the decisive moments. When Arek Milik knocked home the winner, that slightly incongruous pile-up ensued.
We can’t read too much into the outcome, in truth, as it felt like such a one-off encounter - almost a pre-season friendly, but being held nearer the end of this campaign. That won’t stop a little niggling doubt that perhaps this Juventus squad is not quite the winning machine it looked - domestically in particular - before the enforced break. Nor should it diminish the kudos for Napoli and their coach in taking a trophy, no matter how bizarre the whole affair felt at times.
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