The most fascinating story in the build-up to last night's Derby d'Italia centered around Inter attacking superstar Samuel Eto'o and Juventus defensive rookie Frederik Sorensen. It was revealed that the Cameroonian earns as much in one day as the teenage Dane does in an entire year. Despite an annual salary of just €20,000 to Eto'o's €10.5 million - 525 times lower - Sorensen won the duo's personal battle as the Turin giants emerged 1-0 victors. In true fairytale fashion, it was Sorensen who created the only goal of the game while Eto'o cost Inter a point in the dying minutes as he hit the crossbar from a virtually unmissable position.
Two wins in eight days over Cagliari and Inter have suddenly given Juventus new belief when all seemed lost. The main man responsible is Alessandro Matri, who scored twice in the 3-1 victory in Sardinia before heading home the winner at the Stadio Olimpico last night. Signed from Cagliari on loan on the final day of the January transfer window, the 26-year-old really does represent Juventus’ final hope of rescuing a top four finish.
Following Fabio Quagliarella’s season-ending injury, Matri is the only forward Juventus possess with the potential ability to penetrate and strike fear into the opposition. Had the Bianconeri stuck with Amauri, Luca Toni, Alessandro Del Piero and Vincenzo Iaquinta as their attacking quartet until the end of the campaign, Champions League qualification would certainly have been unobtainable. Qualification that is vital for the club. Should Del Neri’s men fail, it will be a financial and sporting catastrophe. The ability to attract top-level players required to take the squad onto the next level will be compromised, and the Old Lady’s umpteenth “new project” will be in tatters.
As it stands, the odds are still against Juve. But Matri’s goals have provided Juve with a much-needed injection. With 13 games of the season remaining, they find themselves in sixth place. Four points behind Lazio in third, and three points off fourth positioned Inter who have a game in hand. The next five rounds could be decisive in determining where Italy’s most successful club finish. Sandwiched either side of the visit of Milan on March 5 are games against Lecce (a), Bologna (h), Cesena (a) and Brescia (h). Maximum points are required from these matches against four of Serie A’s bottom six.
What we have also learned in the last two outings is that Juventus are much more solid in defence with Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini all in the back four, even if it means the latter being shifted out to left back. A team can carry one weak link at full back, but it cannot cope with two. During their lowest point in January when the Bianconeri conceded seven goals against Parma and Napoli, the symmetry of Zdenek Grygera/Frederik Sorensen-Fabio Grosso/Armand Traore was disastrous. Chiellini ensures that nothing will pass down his side, as Maicon discovered last night. If January-signing Barzagli can maintain his positive start, then Juve will no longer concede buckets of goals.
As for Inter, this setback isn’t a devastating blow to their Scudetto hopes. After all, a victory at the Stadio Franchi in midweek against Fiorentina will take them to just five points behind league leaders Milan with a far more favourable run-in. The Rossoneri still have to travel to Juventus, Roma, Palermo and Udinese, and host Napoli. Inter have already completed their fixtures with Juve, Roma, Udinese and Palermo. The only Top 8 squads remaining for Leonardo’s men are Lazio at home on April 22, and Napoli away on the penultimate weekend of the season. And, of course, the Milan derby on April 2, which will be significant.
This isn’t to suggest that Inter will walk over Sampdoria, Cagliari, Genoa, Brescia, Lecce, Chievo, Parma, Cesena and Catania, particularly if Leonardo fails to plug the holes in defence. Although the Brazilian has led the Beneamata to an impressive seven wins from nine league games in 2011, his men have also conceded 14 goals during this time and kept just one clean sheet against rock-bottom Bari.
Leonardo’s strengths as coach do not include defensive organisation. We discovered that last season with Milan, who shipped a whopping 14 goals in eight Champions League fixtures without a single clean sheet. As European champions Inter prepare to meet last year’s beaten finalists Bayern Munich again next week in the last 16, Leo must realise that the Nerazzurri will not defend their crown unless they tighten up at the back.
The eventual return from injury of Lucio will help but not solve the problem. Inter are still too open on the counter attack, and there have been some worrying signs recently of reverting to a high defensive line – a strategy that proved such a failure under Rafa Benitez and will be exploited in Europe by top sides.
Which means that Inter may have to outscore their opponents if they are to enjoy a successful end to the season. And to do that, they will need €10.5m-a-year Samuel Eto'o to put away three yard open goals!