When is a loss not really a loss? It is a question Italians have been wrestling with since last Tuesday night, and Juventus's Coppa Italia semi-final second leg against Milan. Having won the first leg, at San Siro, 2-1, the Bianconeri found themselves down by the same margin after 90 minutes of the return fixture in Turin. In extra-time Mirko Vucinic popped up with an equaliser that made it 2-2 on the night, and 4-3 on aggregate.
It was enough to put Juventus through to the final, but not sufficient to prevent an argument over the club's unbeaten status. In this remarkable first season under Antonio Conte, the Old Lady had either won or drawn every one of their previous 31 games in all competitions. The next day's newspapers proclaimed that the run had now been extended to 32, but Milan's vice-president, Adriano Galliani, disagreed. On Friday Gazzetta dello Sport ran a letter he had sent to them in protest.
"Clearly I have never questioned the fact that Juventus went through," he wrote. "My point relates to their presumed unbeaten status. Which, taking into account the prescribed 90 minutes, they lost. I think you can draw this conclusion from Rule Seven of the Laws of the Game, which states that, 'The match lasts two equal periods of 45 minutes, unless otherwise mutually agreed between the referee and the two teams.'"
Galliani would insist later in the same letter that "the last thing I want to do is spark a controversy", though one has to wonder what he did hope would come of it. Certainly he cannot have been too optimistic about his chances of changing the minds of anyone at Juventus. This is a club with a strong enough sense of its own convictions that even six years later it continues to openly reject the verdicts handed down by the sport's governing bodies in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal.
That much was rammed home to Internazionale's players on Saturday as they arrived for their first visit to the new Juventus Stadium. There, in the corridors connecting the changing rooms to the pitch, hang shields commemorating every one of Juventus's Scudetto wins, including those from 2005 and 2006 – both of which were formally stripped from the club as part of their Calciopoli punishments. The latter title was officially awarded to Inter.
"Our position is rigid and intransigent when it comes to those titles won on the pitch," said the Juventus general manager Beppe Marotta when asked about the signs. "They are trophies which our captains raised to the sky." The home support at Juventus Stadium confirmed their wholehearted agreement. "That which is ours was sweated for on the pitch," read the banner dissecting the Curva Sud. "That which is yours was assigned to you in a courtroom."
If it was not Calciopoli that created the rivalry between these two clubs – the phrase Derby d'Italia (Derby of Italy) having been coined for these fixtures in the 1960s – then it has certainly generated fresh ill-feeling. While the pre-match fan choreography which transformed the stadium into a sea of black and white – broken only by an enormous Italian flag commemorating those last two titles – was breathtaking, the chants from a section of supporters celebrating the death of the former Inter full-back and director Giacinto Facchetti were dispiriting.
The home supporters' intensity was amplified by the knowledge of this fixture's importance. With Milan having beaten Roma a night earlier, Juventus required victory simply to stay within five points of the league leaders. On paper they were clear favourites over an Inter team struggling in seventh, but the fear that their first-ever defeat (Galliani's views notwithstanding) at this stadium could come at the hand of these rivals was also tangible.
Inter, for their part, needed to start winning games soon if they are to have any hope of qualifying for European competition next season. Yet if such tensions might have suggested a cagey and ill-tempered affair then reality would offer the exact opposite: the teams contesting an open, high-tempo game that passed off without any real controversy.
The visitors started more brightly, pressing Juventus high up the pitch and creating opportunities in the process. Were it not for a series of breathtaking interventions from Gigi Buffon in the Juventus goal, the hosts might have conceded four before the interval. His reaction save from a near-post Diego Forlán header, in particular, was jaw-dropping. There had been chances at the other end, too, yet Inter's Júlio César had not been similarly tested.
Buffon's form has been excellent all season, the goalkeeper finally seeming to have put the worst of his long-running back problems behind him. Not that he was in a particularly self-congratulatory mode come full-time. "I'm paid well to make saves," he said. "It's all in the job description."
But if it was Buffon who kept Juventus in contention early on then it was an even longer-standing member of the dressing room who would help turn the tide. Alessandro Del Piero had scored in the Coppa Italia fixture against Milan on Tuesday but the club captain has been no more than a bit-part player in the league this season, starting only three games. On the evidence of this last week it is tempting to wonder why.
His introduction – along with Leonardo Bonucci – in the 52nd minute, was part of a reshuffle by the manager, Conte, from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2, but while that was clearly an astute tactical move: creating the width that would expose a narrow Inter, then Del Piero's individual performance was also key to ensuring its success. Where Juve's front-line had otherwise struggled – Alessandro Matri, whom he replaced, failing to take his chances while Simone Pepe toiled fruitlessly on the right and Vucinic gave the ball away with familiar regularity – Del Piero was incisive and purposeful.
That Juventus lack a fuoriclasse up front – a superior talent capable of unpicking a stubborn defence – is a familiar refrain this season, but while age has clearly begun to catch up with him, it is clear that even at 37 Del Piero retains the ability to outwit opponents. He had already unsettled Inter's defenders with his movement before Martin Cáceres headed home an Andrea Pirlo corner to open the scoring. Then, after seeing his delightful through-ball wasted by Vucinic, Del Piero took matters into his own hands, slotting home the second.
It was Del Piero's ninth career goal against Inter and the 317th of his career in all competitions – placing him just one behind Roberto Baggio – yet also his first in the league this season. Inevitably, it prompted fresh questions about his future, and whether there was any possibility he could stay at Juventus after the club announced last year that this would be his final season. He flat-batted all such queries with a simple "now is not the time" for such conversations.
"I want to thank him," said Conte when asked about his captain's contribution. "He works hard for me on the pitch and off it." The manager was teary-eyed at the game's conclusion, explaining that he had lost a much loved aunt the day before the game. He also stated that the title was still Milan's to lose. With Juventus facing Napoli, Lazio and Roma in their next five games, the fixture list is certainly not in their favour. But the return to form and favour of one of the greatest players in the club's history just might be.
• If there was one piece of good news for Inter on Sunday it was that their youth team had been rather more successful, beating Ajax on penalties in the final of the NextGen Series – with the owner Massimo Moratti in attendance. The bad news for Claudio Ranieri, however, is that some outlets have already started linking that group's coach, Andrea Stramaccioni, with his job. "Am I ready for the move up? I will do whatever Moratti and Paolillo decide," said Stramaccioni when asked if he was ready to take the senior job. "But I am already coaching a first-team side."
• Speaking of Moratti, here's a nice banner that the Juventus fans made for him.
• As much as Milan could feel pleased with their 2-1 win over Roma, there was bad news too as Thiago Silva limped out of the game. The defender has been ruled out for three to four weeks with a thigh injury – meaning he will miss not only crucial games in the Scudetto run-in but also both legs of their Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona. It is a heavy blow, but also indicative of a greater problem for the club, with Gazzetta dello Sport publishing a study on Saturday claiming that their players had missed a combined 218 matches through injury: more than any other club in Serie A. The division average is 108.4. For all that bad luck has played a part, such figures do to some extent give the lie to the mythology surrounding MilanLab.
• Defeat dealt further damage to Roma's hopes of a Champions League place, and for all that Milan's victory was deserved there was great frustration for Luis Enrique's side at having thrown away another winning position. The half-time league tables show that if games finished after 45 minutes Roma would be top of Serie A with 55 points. On the other hand, if only second halves counted, they would be in the relegation zone with 30.
• The big winners among the Champions League-chasing sides were Lazio, 1-0 winners at home to Cagliari while Roma lost and both Udinese and Napoli drew. The latter had led 2-0 against a Catania side that had not scored a goal at San Paolo in 50 years (admittedly, they haven't had too many top-flight seasons in that time) but contrived to let that slip in the final 15 minutes. For Catania this was just the latest step in a remarkable season under Vincenzo Montella. They need only four more points from their remaining nine games to match the club's record points tally in Serie A.
• Napoli's owner Aurelio De Laurentiis, meanwhile, has been getting wound up about the venue for the Coppa Italia final against Juve, stating that he and his Juventus counterpart Andrea Agnelli could move the game to "Paris, London or Milan" if they feel the facilities at Rome's Stadio Olimpico to be inadequate. It's safe to say that the latter is the only realistic possibility from those three if the game does get moved, though it is nevertheless interesting to see that De Laurentiis should nominate London, given his previous comments on the English.
Atalanta 2-0 Bologna, Cesena 2-2 Parma, Chievo 1-1 Siena, Genoa 2-2 Fiorentina, Juventus 2-0 Inter, Lazio 2-0 Cagliari, Milan 2-1 Roma, Napoli 2-2 Catania, Novara 0-0 Lecce, Palermo 1-1 Udinese