Sports News of Thursday, 27 February 2020
When you’ve won eight successive Serie A titles, the entire league is trying to bring you back to earth, as is the case with Juventus. The Old Lady’s top flight hegemony has hardly been challenged for the better part of a decade as they’ve always found ways to wear out the chasing pack.
Their stranglehold came under threat in 2017-18 when Napoli, managed by Maurizio Sarri, ran Massimiliano Allegri’s troops close, with Gli Azzurri claiming 91 points to Juve’s 95.
That was the closest and most entertaining title race in Italy in about a decade, but Sarri’s departure to Chelsea, meant Napoli couldn’t push Allegri’s side in 2018-19 like they did the previous year.
Having seen enough of Juventus’ dominance, Internazionale called on Antonio Conte, the man who started it all for the Bianconeri with three Scudetti on the spin from 2011 to 2014, to wrest the championship from the club he holds in high esteem.
Inter’s logic was sound too: they’d seemingly bought well in Luciano Spalletti’s final season in charge, with purchases of Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martinez as well as free transfers of Stefan de Vrij and Kwadwo Asamoah seeing many tip them for league success.
However, their performances weren’t good enough and Spalletti ultimately paid the price for a fourth-place finish that wasn’t assured until the final game of the season.
Conte’s arrival in Milan may not have gone down well with many in Turin, but one man who was likely happy about the 50-year-old’s arrival was Asamoah, owing to what the pair achieved together at Juve.
It was the Italian manager who signed Asabob from Udinese in the summer of 2012, and the Ghanaian made a combined 41 league appearances in the next two seasons, becoming a vital component of the top dogs while Conte was in charge.
The pair won two Serie A titles together and when a reunion was confirmed at Inter, it seemed like the stars had aligned for the 31-year-old defender.
However, persistent knee troubles have plagued the Ghana international this term, causing him to miss nearly 20 games this season, a less than ideal scenario for player and manager.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Conte opted to strengthen at wing-back with the signings of Ashley Young, Cristiano Biraghi and Victor Moses in January.
While the latter pair are on loan, from Fiorentina and Chelsea respectively, it only strengthens the passionate coach’s belief that this campaign may represent the best chance in years to supplant the Old Lady.
This year’s title race has been wildly exciting with the momentum shifts certainly pleasing to the neutral seeking entertainment. After a 4-2 win over AC Milan a fortnight ago, Conte’s troops appeared to have gained the foothold in the race. However, a second-half collapse at Lazio last week, which resulted in a 2-1 defeat, saw Inter fall to third in the standings.
There’ll still be more twists and turns in the final 14 games of the season, so calling a title winner at the moment would be bold.
With Sarri’s Juventus seemingly suffering an identity crisis, and Simone Inzaghi’s Eagles out-performing their Expected Points by 11 points, the expectation is for the side from Rome to experience a mean reversion in the closing stages of the campaign.
The Old Lady, on the other hand, have run into trouble this season trying to shift from Allegri’s win-at-all-costs style to something more entertaining, but that hasn’t been the smoothest transition, with Juve lacking that ruthlessness of previous years while not playing the sort of football Sarri wants.
Inter and Juventus collide on Sunday in a blockbuster that may extinguish the Nerazzurri’s title aspirations once and for all, assuming the match goes ahead amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
In the meantime, they face Ludogorets behind closed doors in the Europa League on Thursday, a match in which Asamoah may be given a rare opportunity to stake his claim for a starting berth.
Conte’s recognised the unpredictability of this year’s title race, and that’s why he put in so much into convincing the Inter hierarchy to back him in the January window. Whether the gamble pays off remains to be seen, but the passionate coach’s desperation will certainly have far-reaching consequences for Asamoah, who’s fallen way down the Nerazzurri pecking order.