The weekend began with a boxing match. “Let’s get ready to rumble!” roared Romelu Lukaku as he introduced Antonio Conte and Lautaro Martínez to a makeshift ring at Inter’s training ground.
The manager and his striker were supposed to be at each other’s throats after an argument during Wednesday’s win over Roma, which birthed one of this season’s great memes. Instead, they laughed and pretended to throw punches before enjoying a barbecue the Argentinian had laid on for the team.
They were saving the real haymakers for Saturday’s Derby d’Italia. After taking the Serie A title belt from Juventus, Inter had a chance now to deliver a knockout blow to their rivals’ Champions League bid. The Bianconeri sat fifth in the table with two matches left to play. Even a draw could end their hopes of making it back into the top four, depending on results elsewhere.
With four minutes left on the clock, the scores were level at 2-2. Juventus were down to 10 men. Neither team had performed especially well, but that scarcely felt relevant. This was not so much a football match as a psychodrama about a referee haunted by a spectre named VAR, a whisper in his ear that would not stop nagging: “are you sure you got that right?”
The man with the whistle, Gianpaolo Calvarese, gave out three penalties. The first, awarded for a hold by Matteo Darmian on Giorgio Chiellini at a corner, felt soft. The second was slightly more clear-cut, Matthijs de Ligt treading on Lautaro’s heel. Neither infringement was spotted in real-time, both decisions arriving after Calvarese was persuaded to make pitchside reviews.
Juan Cuadrado restored Juve’s lead with a rocket from the edge of the box, before Inter pulled level for a second time when Chiellini knocked the ball into his own net. Once again, Calvarese found a way to insert himself, initially disallowing the own goal out on the basis that Lukaku had fouled Chiellini. Replays showed him that the exact opposite was true.
Was it some feeling of insecurity brought on by all these corrections that prompted him to award the third, decisive spot-kick when Cuadrado went down under pressure from Ivan Perisic in the 86th minute? Or perhaps some lingering guilt over the soft red card he had shown to Juventus’s Rodrigo Bentancur? Regardless, there was no foul here at all.
Cuadrado converted all the same. If Juventus do indeed find their way back into the top four, he would make a fitting saviour. He is one of few, this season, to consistently play up to his ability in a team that has struggled to produce joined-up performances since Andrea Pirlo took charge.
Juventus head into the final weekend with their fate in other teams’ hands, despite beating the champions. They remain fifth, one point behind Milan and Napoli, but that is a better scenario than they might have hoped for. The Rossoneri had a chance to secure their own Champions League spot with a win at home to Cagliari on Sunday night, but could only manage a 0-0 draw.
It was a result few people saw coming. Milan were coming off two of the most impressive results of their season, both in Turin: a 3-0 rout of Juventus followed by a 7-0 demolition of Torino. Cagliari had nothing riding on this game, their top-flight status secured when Benevento failed to beat Crotone earlier in the day.
The Sardinians had not taken a point at San Siro for 22 years, yet they were the team who carried the greater threat. Gianluigi Donnarumma had to be in just the right spot to block Leonardo Pavoletti’s point-blank header and was even more impressive as he dived to claw away another from Diego Godín.
Despite dominating possession, Milan scarcely demanded a save from Alessio Cragno. Had a young team lost its nerve at the crucial moment? Would the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic have made all the difference if he had been on the pitch, instead of watching anxiously in his hoodie? Or was there simply an element of fatigue here at the end of this gruelling, condensed campaign?
There is no time for an inquest. All that matters now is the outcome of next weekend’s final round. Milan’s final fixture is a far tougher one, away to Atalanta, though circumstances may favour them yet. The Bergamo club secured their own Champions League spot with a 4-3 win over Genoa that keeps them three points ahead of Juventus, over whom they hold a head-to-head tie-breaker.
Atalanta have a chance to finish second in the table, their highest-ever position, so it would be a mistake to presume they will take the final game lightly. The team’s focus right now, though, is on Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final against Juve. The outcome of that match may affect their mood but even if it doesn’t, the Milan game will be their fifth in the space of 15 days.
Amid all the inevitable focus on Juventus’s struggles these last few weeks, Atalanta’s comparatively serene progress to a third consecutive Champions League qualification has been too easily overlooked. There were some fraught moments on Saturday as they almost let a three-goal lead slip, but only two teams have beaten them since January: Inter and Real Madrid.
Napoli still need one more win to secure their top four spot, but their form through the latter part of this campaign also demands acknowledgement. They have lost once in their last 15 matches, and Sunday’s 2-0 win over Fiorentina was not a result to be taken for granted. It was only three years ago, after beating Juventus in Turin, that their title bid collapsed with a 3-0 defeat to a Viola team that also had ‘nothing to play for’.
The fear of history repeating was tangible when Dusan Vlahovic headed the ball past Alex Meret in the 13th minute, but his goal was correctly ruled out for offside. Gennaro Gattuso’s side rallied, Lorenzo Insigne getting the opener; he could have had a hat-trick if he had not twice shot against the post.
Of the three teams fighting for those last two Champions League spots, Napoli would appear to be in the best spot, playing at home to a Verona team that has won once since 3 March. Milan also control their own destiny, but recent results against Atalanta are not encouraging. They lost 5-0 in the corresponding fixture last season, and 3-0 at San Siro earlier this year.
Juventus’s only realistic route into the top four is to win away to Bologna, and hope that either Milan or Napoli slip up. No knockout blow was struck this weekend, and so Serie A’s fight for the Champions League places must go to the final bell.