Italy wakes from mid-season break to find Juve out of sight

At 8.47pm on Sunday night, Italian football returned from its winter break; at 10.37pm, the title race was over.

Italy wakes from mid-season break to find Juve out of sight

It feels that way at least, after a 3-0 Juventus win against Roma that emphasised the gulf in class that has opened up between first and the rest in Serie A.

Roma finished with nine men after their players lost their heads with 15 minutes left. Two red cards and a penalty in the space of 84 seconds is a spectacular way to commit suicide but they were already well beaten by then.

The contenders from the capital arrived in Turin undefeated, with the best defensive record in Europe — just seven goals conceded in 17 games. They finished the match on the ropes, desperately waiting for the final whistle. There should have been at least five minutes added time but referee Nicola Rizzoli, like a wise boxing ref, took a look into their eyes and decided to call a halt.

As he talked after the game, Roma goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis covered his face for a moment and shook his head like a man still seeking to shake off a nightmare.

“An eight-point gap is a lot,” he said, echoing the words of his manager Rudi Garcia, “But there are still 20 games to go.”

True, and there are precedents for Juventus letting an even bigger lead slip, as Italian journalists were comforting themselves yesterday. It’s not that Juve are unpopular with the media but a one-horse race is the last thing Italian football needs at the moment.

Milan, Italy’s one remaining hope in the Champions League, are looking like a mid-table side at best. The Europa League is a sideshow, even if a more attractive one than usual as Juventus have a good chance of winning it in their own stadium.

At home, Napoli have already suffered the same 3-0 crushing as Roma and are 10 points adrift. As for Fiorentina, this season’s attractive outsiders and the one side to have defeated the Juve juggernaut, they have just lost their second striker to a ligament injury, Giuseppe Rossi following Mario Gomez to the sidelines. Gomez should shortly be playing again; Rossi, Italy’s leading scorer this season, is unlikely to play before the World Cup.

The precedent for a Juventus collapse dates back to Carlo Ancelotti’s time at the club 13 years ago. Then they had a nine-point lead and there were just eight games, left not 20. The team that overhauled them on the final day were Rome’s other club, and even though there was some controversy about Lazio’s triumph, it shows it can be done.

Roma themselves nearly achieved an even more remarkable comeback in 2010 when they recovered a 13-point lead, only to lose at home against Sampdoria and concede the title to Inter.

But this Juventus side, already back-to-back champions, seem most unlikely to slip up. Mentally as well as physically, they have an edge. On Sunday Antonio Conte also pulled off a tactical coup that showed how adaptable they can be, unlike their rivals.

Instead of Juventus employing their normal pressing tactics they started by defending deep, so deep that there was no room for Roma to play their usual counterattacking game. Roma had far more of the ball than they could have expected early on but Juve held them off and kept their shape. Then their two best players, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal, combined lethally to put the home side ahead with their first strike on goal.

From that point, Juventus gradually began to press and harry the opposition further and further up the pitch. From cobra they were transformed to constrictor and Roma, 2-0 down early in the second half after making a mess of a set-piece, eventually boiled over with frustration.

Juventus now have equalled the Italian record of 10 consecutive league wins that Roma set at the start of the season. They have conceded just one goal since the end of October. They are currently scoring more than anyone else as well.

The crunch could come on March 9, with Fiorentina at Juventus and Roma travelling to Napoli: two of Italy’s traditional needle games that mean the season is still alive. But the champions are now very strong favourites to retain the scudetto.

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