It was not supposed to be this tricky. Ahead of the season’s first Derby d’Italia, Juventus and Inter had been widely expected to breeze through midweek appointments with Bologna and Sampdoria respectively – setting up a blockbuster showdown on Saturday night. They got there in the end, but it wasn’t always pretty.
Over the course of Wednesday evening the theoretical gap between Juventus and Inter at the top of Serie A see-sawed from four points to six, then all the way down to two before returning to where it had started off. Juventus, the league leaders, had blown a second-half lead over Bologna only to rescue the win with a Paul Pogba header at the death. Inter recovered from a goal down to beat Sampdoria 3-2.
With Napoli losing away to Atalanta, those results also meant that Inter moved up to second. “Now it is official,” declared Alberto Cerruti in Gazzetta dello Sport, playing somewhat fast and loose with that last word. “Inter are Juventus’s main challengers.” The front-page headline in Corriere dello Sport on Thursday proclaimed this to be a battle “worthy of the Scudetto”.
It ought to be a little early for title talk, but the pace being set by Juventus is such that if something doesn’t slow them down soon they could be almost home and hosed by Christmas. Strengthened by new arrivals such as Paul Pogba, Sebastian Giovinco, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah, plus seemingly unhindered by Antonio Conte’s touchline suspension, they have dropped just two points in 10 games.
Inter, though, are also in rare form, having won their last eight games in all competitions. Only once in the club’s history have they enjoyed a longer run – under Roberto Mancini during the 2006-07 season. Perhaps even more noteworthy, Inter have won all eight of their away games this season - a feat they had never previously achieved. And this Saturday’s game is being held at Juventus Stadium.
In other words: something has to give. But if predicting what that will be is not a straightforward process, it is certainly not because both teams are without flaw. Juventus have scored 22 league goals already this season, yet in Europe the absence of a top class No.9 up front has been painfully apparent; the fear lingers that this weakness may eventually tell against a strong opponent domestically too.
Nicklas Bendtner has started each of the last two games up front but despite some positive contributions has rarely in that time looked likely to connect ball with net. Conte rotated his team heavily for the Bologna game but such is the uncertainty up front that it is not at all clear who he will start alongside Mirko Vucinic on Saturday.
Inter, meanwhile, simply remain unconvincing as a unit – despite their positive results. Against Sampdoria a midfield of Fredy Guarín, Gaby Mudingayi, and Esteban Cambiasso were at times simply out-passed by their opponents.
Unlike Juve, though, they have been able to rely on consistent production from their own forward line. Diego Milito and Antonio Cassano have five goals apiece, while Rodrigo Palacio – having shaken off the injuries which disrupted his start to life with the club - has three in his last four games.
Juventus are rightly favourites, and – as my prediction below shows – I expect them to win. But with the odds on such an outcome as short as they are, the better value bet would in my opinion be to take the draw at 3.5.
And despite Juve’s impressive defensive record – having conceded just five goals all season – I find it hard to envisage another clean sheet against an Inter attack which has scored 11 times in five away matches. In fact, I would suggest backing more than 2.5 goals in the game. Diego Milito, who seems to have gotten over his October hex, is my top pick in the goalscorers’ market.
Score prediction: Juventus 2-1 Inter