It's all over already, say the Italian press, after Sunday's victory over Roma sends Juve eight points clear at the top of Serie A
Just like that, the Serie A season came to an end. Not even half of the league's fixtures had been completed, with most teams yet to return from their winter breaks, and yet the headlines on Monday morning suggested that they might as well save themselves the bother. The title race, you see, had already been decided. After beating second-placed Roma 3-0 in Turin, Juventus had been crowned as champions of Italy with 20 games left to spare.
"Juventus put their hands on the Scudetto" ran the headline on La Repubblica's website. An accompanying poll found almost two-thirds of readers in agreement that the Bianconeri could no longer be caught. The columnist Massimo Mauro shared that opinion. "Juve's victory over Roma is a true and proper sentence for the league," he wrote. "To think that a strong and complete team like [Antonio] Conte's could lose their eight-point advantage seems impossible to me."
Similar views were expressed elsewhere. Il Giornale's Riccardo Signori declared that Juve's latest victory "strips away any vain hope of a comeback that the others might have had". Gazzetta dello Sport's Luigi Garlando observed wryly that: "The Scudetto mystery appears to have been solved. Unless Juve's rivals start to arm themselves with Turkish tractors, at any rate."
His reference, of course, was to Juve's Champions League defeat to Galatasaray last month – a game that was delayed overnight after a flurry of snow in Istanbul. By the time it resumed, one half of the pitch had been thoroughly churned up by a tractor. It just so happened to be the half that Juventus would be attacking for 45 of the remaining 60 minutes. The Italians lost 1-0 and were eliminated from the competition, with Conte protesting that the game should never have gone ahead under such conditions. Leaving aside the merits of that argument for now, what we can say is this: Galatasaray are the only team to beat Juventus since the middle of October.
Conte's team slipped up twice in that month, losing to first Fiorentina and then Real Madrid in the space of four days. The former result left them five points off the pace at the top of Serie A, trailing a Roma side that had won all eight of its games under their new manager, Rudi Garcia.
Juventus were hardly performing disastrously, and yet somehow they looked vulnerable, their 10 goals conceded standing out in stark contrast to Roma's seven clean sheets to that point. One or two pundits had begun to speculate that, after consecutive league titles, Juventus's players were suffering from a 'pancia piena' – literally, a full belly, but used figuratively to convey the sense of a group that had already achieved all its goals, and no longer had the desire to press on for more.
Roma, by contrast, were "hungry like wolves", a phrase used more than once by Garcia after taking up his position. Their previous campaign had been a miserable one, the Giallorossi finishing outside of the European qualifying places in Serie A before losing to their city rivals Lazio in the final of the Coppa Italia. As such their returning players began the campaign anxious to right a few wrongs.
The new signings Kevin Strootman, Mehdi Benatia, Adem Ljajic and Gervinho seemed equally eager to prove their worth to their new employer.
But Roma's perfect start could not go on forever. Their winning run ended at 10 games, with a 1-1 draw at Torino. The Giallorossi went on to draw four of their next five league fixtures. They reached the end of 2013 still unbeaten, but no longer on top of the table. Juventus had overtaken them, rebounding from that loss to Fiorentina with a nine-game winning run of their own.
And so the stage was set for Sunday's head-to-head. After a brief winter break, Serie A would ring in the new year with a clash of first versus second – the reigning champions Juventus against a Roma side who might be the only ones capable of denying them a third consecutive Scudetto. Although Napoli had been cast as the 'anti-Juve' in pre-season, they had already slipped 10 points off the pace.
Both Juventus and Roma arrived for this crucial game at close to full strength. There was nervousness in Turin as Carlos Tevez's return from Argentina was delayed by a health scare for his pregnant wife, but the striker eventually made it back just in time. Andrea Pirlo had also recovered from the knee injury that kept him out for most of December. Garcia, meanwhile, had all six of his first-team forwards available for selection for the first time all season.
The most important of those, of course, was the captain, Francesco Totti, whose hamstring injury had coincided with the team's dry run at the end of last year. He added a little extra spice to proceedings with comments made to the newspaper Il Messaggero in the days running up to the game. "I once said that against Juventus you are always playing with 11 men against 14, and [the league] punished me for it" said Totti. "Have things changed? They [Juventus] will always get a little help."
Totti might feel such comments were justified by the two red cards that his team subsequently received on Sunday – although in truth it would be hard to argue with either of them. After Daniele De Rossi was dismissed in the 75th minute for a wild challenge on Giorgio Chiellini, his team-mate Leandro Castán was sent off for a blatant handball on the goal-line while defending the ensuing free-kick.
Roma were already two goals down by that stage in any case, undone by a 17th-minute effort from Arturo Vidal (teed up by a crafty assist from Tevez at the near post) and then a well-worked free-kick at the start of the second half. Pirlo's delivery from the left was met at the far post by the centre-back Leonardo Bonucci, who volleyed home with aplomb. Mirko Vucinic added his team's third from the penalty spot after Castán's dismissal.
Juventus had not dominated the game in a conventional sense – sitting back for long periods and leaving the ball to Roma, who finished with more than 59% possession. But they had drawn their opponents' sting expertly, denying them space to attack down the flanks and cutting off their supply lines in the process. Roma's only chances of note came from speculative long-range efforts.
Conte was not shy about taking his share of the credit afterwards. "An Italian manager prepared the game tactically just right this time," he said. "We wanted to close down their wingers without ever losing our own dangerousness going forward. This is my job, otherwise anyone could do it. This is why there are better managers and less good ones, well-paid managers and less well-paid ones."
Unlike most of the country, however, he was not yet ready to declare this season over. "The danger of this eight-point lead is that it makes us too comfortable," he said, before pointing out that his team's performance could also serve as a cautionary note to his players. "Anything can happen. In very little time we have been able to make up 13 points on Roma."
On present form, it is hard to imagine Juventus slipping up as their rivals have done. The Old Lady is on course to collect more than 100 points, and their 10 consecutive victories have equalled a club record set in 1931-32. Much as Roma did at the start of the campaign, they have built their success on an impenetrable defence, conceding just one goal during the run.
But the truth is that there is plenty of time for circumstances to change. Conte's team might have been eliminated from the Champions League, but they still have the added distraction of the Europa League – a tournament they will not take lightly despite its diminished status. And Roma, with no such continental concerns to worry about, are hardly about to run up the white flag.
"The league does not end here," said Garcia. "We have learned that to win these matches we need to be even stronger in future. But there are still 60 points up for grabs, and we will not relent."
Juventus have certainly taken a commanding lead, and it will take something special to catch them. But with more than four months left in the season, perhaps we can hold off on handing out those winners' medals for another few weeks yet.
• A nation's worst fears were allayed on Monday, as Fiorentina announced that Giuseppe Rossi had not suffered a fresh cruciate ligament tear following a nasty foul by Livorno's Leandro Rinaudo. Instead scans revealed that he had damaged the collateral ligament in his right knee – a serious injury, certainly, but not one that is expected to require surgery or put his career at risk, as might otherwise have been the case. Early reports suggest he could return to the field within a couple of months, but with a World Cup on a horizon, the player must not allow himself to be rushed back too soon. As for Fiorentina, they can only hope that Mario Gomez returns soon from the injury that has kept him out of action since the middle of September.
• There was sad news from the Stadio Friuli, where Antonio Di Natale announced his intention to retire at the end of the season. The two-time winner of Serie A's capocannoniere (highest goal-scorer] award had extended his contract through to 2015 in the summer but insisted this was a considered decision, stating that he had already discussed it with his family and his agent. He has played through a variety of injuries over the last few years – most notably a long standing knee complaint that limits his ability to train during the week – and at 36 years old might simply feel that the time has come to give up the fight, though his comments suggested that his declining form this year (and the reaction to it) had also played a part.
• Napoli moved to within two points of second-placed Roma after beating Sampdoria 2-0 at the Stadio San Paolo, and are expected to further strengthen their squad in the coming days, with Maxime Gonalons heading the list of players who have been strongly linked. Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis was at his talkative best over the winter break, explaining that his team was "like Ferrari['s formula one team]". "They run great races; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they are always close to the pinnacle," he explained. "We have been doing the same thing now for several years."
• Kaká scored his 100th, and then his 101st goals for Milan as they routed Atalanta, but his enduring quality was not the only reason for Milan fans to hope that better things might be around the corner in 2014. Eighteen-year-old Bryan Cristante made his first senior start, and marked it with a well-taken finish from outside the box. New signing Keisuke Honda (curiously unimpressed with Kaká's goalscoring feats) was also watching from the stands, and should be available for next week's game away to Sassuolo. And in defence, Adil Rami made his debut as a late substitute for Cristian Zapata.
• Antonio Cassano was jeered as he made a late entrance off the bench in Parma's 3-1 win over Torino. He had angered them by confessing his enduring love for Sampdoria at a press conference that was called specifically to reassure supporters that he was not going to leave Parma. "I have always said that I would like to return to Samp one day," said Cassano. "My relationship with that city is particular and goes beyond football. It is like Nutella: once you have tasted it, one spoonful could never be enough. But nobody has ever sought me out and I do not have any relationship with [manager Sinisa] Mihajlovic. I don't know if Samp really wanted to sign me. They had time to do it, now that opportunity has passed."
• Edy Reja is back in charge of Lazio, and marked his return with a 1-0 victory over Inter on Monday. The path was cleared for him to formally take over on Saturday, when Lazio finally fired his predecessor, Vladimir Petkovic, citing 'just cause' and claiming that the manager had destabilised his team by accepting a position to take over the Swiss national team after the World Cup. Petkovic, though, rejects that assertion, and intends to challenge the decision in court.
• And finally, Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Sampdoria all removed a chewable dog toy shaped like a referee from their official online stores this week after the item's discovery caused uproar over the winter break. The clubs have maintained that they themselves were unaware of the product, since the sites in question – despite their 'official' tag – are actually run by third-party suppliers. Still, it wasn't the first time that a Serie A team had been involved in such a story. The Genoa president Enrico Preziosi infamously released a whack-a-mole style game called Akkiappa l'Arbirtro through his toy brand a few years back. Brilliantly he claimed at the time that it might help increase respect for officials, rather than diminish it, saying it was "better to hit a ref at home and then be calm at the stadium".
Results: Catania 2-0 Bologna, Chievo 0-0 Cagliari, Fiorentina 1-0 Livorno, Genoa 2-0 Sassuolo, Juventus 3-0 Roma, Lazio 1-0 Inter, Milan 3-0 Atalanta, Napoli 2-0 Sampdoria, Parma 3-1 Torino, Udinese 1-3 Verona