Juventus retain their edge over bitter rivals Inter

Italians are cannier about their football than the Spanish, or maybe they’re just more cynical.
Juventus retain their edge over bitter rivals Inter

They would never label a game as El Clasico, knowing full well that needle matches are often anything but classics.

So their biggest match is known as Derby d’Italia, the Italian Derby, christened by their greatest football writer Gianni Brera in 1967. Half a century later Juventus against Inter continues to be worthy of that status, despite the claims of other famous clubs.

It is not simply that this is the longest-standing fixture in the calendar, pitting Italy’s two most important industrial cities against each other.

It is also the fixture that has sparked most post-match polemics down the years, most famously in 1998, when there were confrontations between rival factions in parliament after Juventus won a match of disputed penalties and thus took the title — or stole it, depending on your point of view.

The game on Sunday night was relatively tame by those standards. There were only eight bookings and a red card in the dying moments after referee Nicola Rizzoli took exception to the protests of Inter players at being denied the chance of a late equaliser.

Rizzoli has endured his share of controversy in the Derby and on other occasions, but he got the crucial decisions right and Juve just deserved a 1-0 win that confirms them yet again as title favourites.

Inter often feel like underdogs against Juventus, a feeling cultivated by their fans and born out of scarring defeats. They also claim the moral high-ground because of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in which Juve director Luciano Moggi played the pivotal role.

But that was 10 years ago, and the most galling thing for Inter is that they failed to take advantage of Juve’s disgrace and disarray.

Their rivals were relegated and stripped of two titles and lost players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira. Inter then enjoyed unprecedented success, thanks to some of those players, first with Roberto Mancini then with Jose Mourinho’s treble winners. Yet a resurgent Juve have won five titles running and now bask in the luxury of a new stadium that is all their own, whereas their rivals in Milan and Rome and Naples are still in rented accommodation.

On Sunday one of those at the heart of that revival, Antonio Conte, was there to see his favourite club take another step towards a historic sixth title, although he’s also rumoured to have been scouting Juve’s rising star, Paulo Dybala.

If so, he can only have been impressed. The young Argentinian was close to scoring twice just in the opening 11 minutes, first with a close-range scissor-kick, then with a dipping shot from distance against the bar.

The match was billed as a contest between two of Europe’s in-form strikers, Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain. But Icardi was ineffective while Higuain only got in behind the Inter defence with 15 minutes left, when his shot was met with a fine reflex save.

Dybala, by contrast, was a threat throughout most of the first half and also in the second, until he tired and was subbed late on. He’s a target for several clubs but Juventus are not short of money, and he is popular with fans.

He is also a good advertisement for his club — clean-cut, with a reputation for generosity and good deeds — the opposite of Icardi, whom even some Inter fans dislike because of his off-field behaviour.

Juventus these days are more conscious of branding and image than ever, and Dybala is the boy every Italian mother wants as a son-in-law, at least according to a gushing profile in the Gazzetta dello Sport.

Paul Pogba’s last Juventus contract (in 2014) was worth a basic €4m a year, plus increments and bonuses. Dybala is on the point of renewing in a deal that is said to be worth a basic €5 m, rising to €7.5m (Higuain’s current salary), to run to 2021, when he’ll be 27. It’s not the highest salary, especially by Chinese standards, but it would evidently take a huge fee to persuade Juventus to sell.

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