It’s extremely poetic that Juventus were all too keen to chuck the Champions League in the bin for the new and shiny Super League only weeks ago, and they now face the fight of their lives to scrape into the competition.
Andrea Agnelli had already mentally waved goodbye to the trophy he couldn’t lay his hands on, and was probably watching I Bianconeri limp towards the top four, giggling to himself at how irrelevant all of these matches were.
Luckily, his players have not taken for granted just how special the Champions League is, and it’s a good job too, given how quickly the Super League has blown up in Agnelli’s smug face.
It would be an ultimate gift from the karmic gods if Juve failed to finish in the top four, and were instead hit with a punishment far worse than expulsion from Europe – a place in the Europa League.
But the Old Lady has still got some life in that frail, battered body, and she won’t go down without a fight.
The 3-0 defeat to Milan last Sunday appeared to be the final nail in the coffin. A top-four finish was now out of their hands, and they’d have to rely on other teams slipping up to sneak back into the Champions League qualifying spots. And of course, they couldn’t afford any more disasters of their own.
So, in-form Sassuolo and newly-crowned champions Inter were hardly the opponents you’d want to face in search of easy gimmes. Four days later, however, Juve find themselves back in the top four – for the time being, at least – and with renewed hope.
I Bianconeri rode their luck against I Neroverdi on Wednesday, and required a huge penalty save from Gianluigi Buffon to keep them level early on. Pirlo’s men went on to score three superb goals, with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala reaching 100 strikes in the black and white jersey.
That led neatly onto Saturday’s Derby d’italia, where champions Inter would have loved nothing more than to banish Juve’s top-four aspirations once and for all. The game was played at a frenetic pace, and the trigger-happy officiating of referee Gianpaolo Calvarese only intensified the bitterness between the two sides.
Juve started well and got their reward on 24 minutes, when Matteo Darmian was penalised for a pull in the box. The usually impeccable Ronaldo fluffed his lines from the spot, but he was handed a reprieve as Samir Handanovic could only parry back into the striker’s path, who tapped home the rebound.
Once again though, this Juve side’s resolve was tested to the limit. Lautaro Martinez went down in the box like he’d been shot, after he was caught by the faintest of touches from Matthijs de Ligt, and Calvarese decided it was worthy of another penalty. Romelu Lukaku did the business, and it was game on.
But for once, the experienced heads did not let Pirlo down. The frustratingly inconsistent Juan Cuadrado was on fine form, and it was his explosive, deflected shot which put Juve ahead once more, beating Handanovic all ends up. That thunderbolt arrived just before the break, and so far, so good for the hosts.
Then came the next controversy. Rodrigo Bentancur clipped Lukaku on his charge towards the box, and having initially deemed the contact not worth penalising, Calvarese changed his mind, awarded a free-kick and dished out a harsh yellow card.
That second yellow for the Uruguayan left Juve a man light and with a fight on their hands from a spirited Nerazzurri side. Sure enough, the crumble came. Nicolo Barella crossed from the left, and Giorgio Chiellini could only turn the ball into his own net under pressure from Lukaku.
Calvarese spared the veteran’s blushes by awarding a free-kick to Juve, but overturned his decision upon a VAR review, meaning Inter were level again. Aware of what was at stake, the Old Lady rallied, and when Cuadrado threw himself to the ground in the box with two minutes to play, the referee could not wait to award another spot-kick.
The Colombian dusted himself off to dispatch the penalty, and the game was won. It took a gargantuan effort from Pirlo’s men, who showed the fight, courage and spirit needed to overcome a number of setbacks and get the three points over the line.
This recovery from last Sunday’s destruction at the hands of Milan leaves Juve in fourth place, praying that Napoli crack under the pressure and collapse against Fiorentina.
In the grand scheme of things, this season will always be remembered as a failure. But should Pirlo and co sneak into the top four come the end of the campaign, then they’ll have shown that there is a love and respect worth fighting for between the coach and his players.
No one is throwing anyone under the bus yet. Fino alla fine.