It has been a testing year for Italian football. Save for the 90-minute miracle of Roma against Barcelona, 2017-18 has been another annus horribilis.
The national team failed to make the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Only Roma made it to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League (and will almost certainly bow out). The under-21’s were ripped 3-1 by Spain at the Euros; the under-20 side beaten by the same score line by England at that age group’s World Cup.
It seemed that 2018-19 couldn’t come quickly enough. Until a very strange thing began to happen in Serie A a few weeks ago. But first, some context.
After some early season hiccups, Juventus went ballistic, winning 15 of 16 matches between December 17 and April 15, drawing only against SPAL. The title race was seemingly over and the Bianconeri were on track for their seventh-straight Scudetto. Credit to them, but tiring for the neutrals (and maybe even some success-weary Juve fans).
Courtesy of an incredible early season run, and victory in every game from mid-December to the end of February, Napoli were still on top of the league until March. But they were soon hauled in by – to steal a phrase from the Dallas Cowboys – Italy’s Team.
And when Massimiliano Allegri’s men got there, they quickly put distance between themselves and the southerners, building a nine-point lead barely a few weekends ago.
But then Juventus drew with lowly Crotone and then, in one of the great Serie A tussles of the 21st century, giant defender Kalidou Koulibaly scored a last minute winner for Napoli in Turin.
Fans of Napoli flocked to the airport to welcome them home. They’ve been going to training all this week. And Juventus fans have been doing the same. The Ultras have been demanding answers from players; more supportive fans hung up encouraging banners.
Either way, Ladies and Gentlemen: this is the title race you’ve been waiting for.
Not only is it the most thrilling we’ve seen in Italy for years but it is this season’s most exciting title race in all Europe (apologies to Primeira Liga fans in Portugal).
Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain have been champions-in-waiting since Christmas or earlier, denying fans of the big leagues any domestic tension.
Perhaps this is why the Champions League seems to have taken on an extra dimension this year; of the above mentioned title-winners, only Bayern are still alive. In fact, none of the other semi-finalists are even second domestically.
But back to Serie A. And what a final month awaits.
On Saturday, Juventus will travel to face Inter Milan (5th in the table, one point behind Lazio) in the Derby d’Italia, which, as the name suggests, is one of Italy’s most storied clashes. Inter hate Juve with a passion; they are the club that has denied them so much.
The perceived scandal of 1998 – and two dubious penalties, one not awarded to Ronaldo, the other awarded to Alessandro Del Piero – cannot be shaken from the memory. Yet four of Inter’s five titles between 2006 and 2010 are viewed as illegitimate by Juve fans; a direct legacy of Calciopoli.
And so for all the talk of fractured north-south relations in Italy, rest assured, it would give Inter – themselves hunting a place in the Champions League next season – great pleasure to be the one to give the black and white Fiat a flat tyre.
Ironically, Napoli’s opponents on Sunday are Fiorentina (9th) – another team who harbors a deep hatred of Juventus. However, there is no suggestion of collusion. Pride is too great for these teams. And Napoli wouldn’t want to win it with anyone’s help. Nor should they need it.
In the last three games, Juventus should defeat both Bologna (12th) and Verona (19th), but face Roma (3rd) at the Stadio Olimpico in between. Yes, Roma is another axe to grind against the Piedmont giants. And they will fancy themselves to grab a point or better.
Napoli’s run home isn’t easy, but they should overcome both Crotone (17th) and Torino (10th) at home. Like Juventus, it’s their penultimate game in between, away to Sampdoria (8th), that might determine their destiny.
On paper, Napoli’s run-in is that little bit easier – they don’t face a team in the top seven, while Juventus face two Champions League contenders.
Whatever the outcome, fans of Serie A should rejoice. At last, Italian football will have the eyes of the world on it for all the right reasons.