A week after putting on a tactical masterclass in Naples, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri has gone back to the drawing board. Ahead of Saturday’s Derby d’Italia, another mouthwatering top of the table clash in Serie A, he made a simple but significant observation: “Inter are a different team. It’ll be a different game.”
Allegri was clever to pack the middle and leave the flanks to Napoli in the 1-0 win last week. By congesting the centre, Napoli’s front three got bogged down and couldn’t play any of their quick combinations. With no space in between the lines, Napoli sent in cross after cross from wide, playing to the aerial strengths of centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Mehdi Benatia. Poor Dries Mertens barely had a sniff.
The same gameplan will not work against Inter, though, at the Allianz Stadium. Inter cross more than any other team in Serie A and they’re very good at it: 10 of their goals have come from crosses this season. You only have to look at the relationship Inter’s wingers have with striker Mauro Icardi. Of the 20 assists Ivan Perisic has made in his time in Italy, 13 have been for Inter’s captain; Antonio Candreva has also set up seven goals this season.
Stopping them and isolating Icardi will feature high on Allegri’s list of priorities. As for Perisic, see what Luciano Spalletti did for Mohamed Salah’s career at Roma. The Croatian scored a hat trick in Sunday’s 5-0 win against Chievo and was on the scoresheet when Inter beat Juventus at San Siro last season. Icardi netted in that game too: his seventh goal in nine appearances against Juventus. He memorably made his name by doing the double over them as a kid with Sampdoria and tends to raise his game against the old enemy. It’s one of the reasons Inter signed him.
Spalletti has a knack of making a team’s best players better and that’s what’s happening with Icardi this season. Capocannoniere with 16 goals in 15 games, he isn’t the only one. Players you thought no longer had a future at Inter are all of a sudden playing the best football of their careers.
Many did a double take upon seeing the Inter side that went top at the weekend: at the back were Davide Santon, Andrea Ranocchia and Danilo D’Ambrosio. Just think about that for a moment. Inter couldn’t give Santon away in the summer — three clubs turned him down — and in the end they only kept Ranocchia because a deal couldn’t be done for either Eliaquim Mangala or Shkodran Mustafi; D’Ambrosio was signed by Walter Mazzarri and there was always a sense Inter could do better than him.
Yet Spalletti has surprisingly regenerated all of them. The same can be said of Yuto Nagatomo. Players that were once whistled are now being applauded at San Siro. Spalletti has made a small squad look big, underlining why the miracle worker from Certaldo must be considered Inter’s best signing of the summer transfer window.
But he is closely followed by Milan Skriniar, who cost half what Inter’s rivals paid for Leonardo Bonucci and looks the best defender in the league at the moment. The Slovakia international is so good with his feet he played in midfield against England at Wembley but he can defend, too. Inter now have Serie A’s joint best defence and a big part is down to Skriniar, who has already established himself a firm fan favourite and the heir to Lucio.
Milan stole all the headlines for their €170 million recruitment of 10 players, but it’s now evident that the low key business Inter did was a lot better. And we’re still to see Dalbert, Cancelo and Yann Karamoh make a sustained impact too. Inter have plenty of as yet unexplored upside.
Juventus, meanwhile, are really starting to tap into their own potential. Off-season acquisitions are coming good at just the right time. Wojciech Szczesny made two big saves in Athens on Tuesday night as Juventus booked their place in the Champions League round of 16 with a 2-0 win against Olympiakos; Federico Bernardeschi, their €40m signing from Fiorentina, also scored.
Mattia de Sciglio, Blaise Matuidi and Douglas Costa, in particular, stood out in Friday’s seismic 1-0 win in Naples. That performance was quintessentially Juventus. They locked in from start to finish and the lapses in concentration that have cost them at times this year were conspicuous by their absence.
Ominously the defence is looking steely again. Benatia is playing his best football since joining Juventus and it helps that everyone else is chipping in. Juventus are defending as a team again, playing with the same sacrifice we’ve come to expect from them. They have now kept four consecutive clean sheets and if they keep scoring at this rate, we could be talking about this being the most exciting Juventus side in recent memory.
Unusually, the Old Lady finds herself Serie A’s top scorer with 41 goals. To put that into perspective only PSG and Manchester City have scored more in Europe’s top five leagues this season.
Gonzalo Higuain is in fine form — he came back to haunt Napoli last week and now has seven goals in his last seven games. Much of the focus, however, is on Paulo Dybala. After starting the season in sensational fashion with 12 goals in his first eight appearances, he has found the net only twice in two months.
That’s not to say Dybala is no longer decisive — seven of his last 10 assists have been for Higuain — but goals of his own have dried up and Allegri feels the Argentine needs to go back to basics if he is to be as devastating as at the beginning of the campaign.
So, Saturday’s game has the potential to be a classic.
Juventus can strike a psychological blow if they are triumphant and can gain a major boost for their own self belief a little over a week after they ended Napoli’s 26-game unbeaten streak in the league. It would reassert their own supremacy and take them top for at least 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Inter are not in Europe and go into this game with everyone fit and rested; unbeaten in the league and with confidence sky high. They underperformed last year and the talent in the squad was not reflected in their 10th place finish, but to now be 18 points better off than at this stage last year is beyond any Inter fan’s wildest dreams. Spalletti has brought the fans back to San Siro in waves, generating a level of enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen in a long time.
So far Inter have delivered in all the big games, dropping just two points out of 15 against Napoli, Roma, Milan, Sampdoria and Fiorentina. As the first visiting side ever to win at the Allianz Stadium, this ground holds no fear for them.
Do so again on Saturday and people will start to take their title challenge more seriously than they already do.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.