The champions took revenge over their great rivals in a clash that was sadly more antipasto than main course
The Derby d'Italia ticked all the right boxes. There were the usual hysterical headlines in the week leading up to the game, with the Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon seeking "revenge" for his team's 3-1 defeat to Internazionale earlier in the season. His manager, Antonio Conte, provoked a faintly absurd furore with the 'revelation' that, if he were ever to manage Inter in the future, he would celebrate that team's victories just as enthusiastically he does Juventus's triumphs today.
Inter's supporters played their part in proceedings, too, with a typically excellent display of pre-match choreography at San Siro. It began with an image celebrating their 2010 treble, which then morphed into the message: "We've never been in [Serie] B". Hung beneath both displays was a further banner which read: "Proud to be the only ones" (in Italy to achieve either feat).
The game itself was eventful. Fabio Quagliarella put Juventus in front with a 25-yard strike in the third minute and his team continued to dictate play thereafter. But Inter had their moments. Antonio Cassano and Rodrigo Palacio drew sharp saves from Buffon inside the first quarter of an hour. Early in the second half the same pair linked up to forge an equaliser – Palacio running onto Cassano's square ball before side-footing past the keeper.
Alessandro Matri restored Juventus's lead just a few minutes later, however, poking the ball home at the near post. The game finished 2-1, though not before Inter's Esteban Cambiasso had been sent off for a late and extremely reckless challenge on Sebastian Giovinco – who was fortunate to avoid a serious injury. Cambiasso was remorseful afterwards, apologising on the field and then again in the Juventus changing room, but he can expect a lengthy suspension.
His team, who sat just one point behind Juventus after winning the corresponding fixture back in November, now trail the leaders by 21. Inter handed the champions their first league defeat under Antonio Conte, and their first-ever loss at Juventus Stadium, but four months later the Nerazzurri have slid all the way down to seventh in the table. Juventus, despite losing three further games, are six points better off than at the corresponding point last year.
Sadly, that divergence in fortunes had also gone some way to taking the edge off Saturday's game. The ingredients for a classic Derby d'Italia were present, yet in the end this felt more like an antipasto than a footballing main course. Although they got the result they came for, Juventus gave the impression of a team with bigger things on their minds.
Conte was quick to reject the notion that his team had been playing with one eye already fixed on Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final first leg away to Bayern Munich. "For me this was the Match with a capital 'M'," he said. The manager has long argued that the league remains his team's top priority. The Champions League might be the stuff of dreams, but, as he is fond of reminding us, "those rarely come true".
Even so, Conte's assessment of the two games' relative importance is hard to justify. Juventus came into the weekend nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with nine games remaining. A defeat would hardly have been catastrophic. Simply put: there is more riding on Tuesday's fixture.
But if the Derby d'Italia lacked its usual lustre that might also have had to do with the fact that an even more entertaining game took place later the same day in Juve's own home town. Napoli have spent most of this season as Juventus's closest rivals for the Scudetto but by the time their game at Torino kicked off on Saturday night, they were 12 points behind the Bianconeri.
There were reasons to believe they might be in for a difficult evening. Torino's form was not especially imposing, but they have exceeded expectations under Giampiero Ventura this season and are hard to break down at home. More to the point, a number of Napoli's players were still recovering from midweek exertions with their respective national teams.
So was everyone else, of course, yet the numbers published in Wednesday's edition of La Repubblica suggested Napoli struggled more than most with such distractions. The Partenopei had averaged just 1.58 points per game in fixtures immediately after a round of midweek internationals or their own involvement in the Europa League. On all other weekends that average rose to 2.41 points per game.
The disruption this time around was even greater than usual. Napoli's leading goalscorer, Edinson Cavani, had been delayed on his return from Chile – where he was playing with Uruguay – after his plane was grounded by a mechanical fault. As a consequence he (along with Inter's Walter Gargano and Alvaro Pereira) only returned to Italy on Friday.
Cavani had time to take part in just a single training session before Saturday's game, and was dropped to the bench as a consequence. Instead the manager, Walter Mazzarri, opted to start Goran Pandev and Lorenzo Insigne up front. As strike partnerships go, it was hardly the most prolific. The two players had combined for a grand total of seven goals in 48 appearances this season.
Thankfully Blerim Dzemaili was on hand to make up for their deficiencies. The Swiss midfielder – a former Torino player – is not exactly a known goalscorer. Thus far in his Serie A career he had scraped together six goals in four and a half seasons. Yet it was he who opened the scoring with a powerful drive from outside the box after 10 minutes. He added a second shortly after half-time.
In between, Paulo Barreto bundled home an equaliser for Torino, capitalising on Napoli's repeated failure to deal with a corner. At times, the visitors seemed intent on self-sabotage. Shortly before half-time, with the score at 1-1, Marek Hamsik had seen a penalty saved by Jean-Francois Gillet.
When Napoli finally did get their noses back in front, Cavani himself promptly gave up a penalty at the other end. Sent on to replace Insigne midway through the second-half, the striker's first contribution had been to handle the ball inside his own area. Jonathas converted from the spot to make it 2-2.
Moments later Torino were in front, a staggering lapse in concentration from Napoli's Miguel Britos allowing Riccardo Meggiorini to steal possession on the edge of the area, round Morgan De Sanctis and roll the ball into an unguarded net. After twice leading at the Stadio Olimpico, Napoli now trailed 3-2 with just 12 minutes remaining.
Once again it was Dzemaili to the rescue, the midfielder completing his first-ever hat-trick with a delicious finish off the outside of his right boot into the corner of the net. And then, at last, it was Cavani's turn. First the striker crashed home a free-kick to give Napoli their third lead of the game. He then put the result beyond doubt with a close-range header as time expired.
Napoli, somehow, had emerged as 5-3 winners – the victory bringing them back to within nine points of Juventus. Realistically, the team's greater focus at this stage may be on preserving second place, with Milan just two points behind.
Of even greater importance than the result for Napoli this weekend was the fact that Cavani seems to have emerged from his slump. The striker had scored another brace in the team's 3-2 win over Atalanta immediately before the international break, but prior to that he had gone eight games without a goal. Napoli won just one of those matches.
In what is still just his third season with the club, Cavani is already up to joint-fourth on Napoli's all-time goalscoring charts. His two strikes this weekend took him to 97 in all competitions – enough to move ahead of Careca and level with José Altafini. He is 18 goals behind Diego Maradona in first place, though it seems increasingly unlikely that he will be around long enough to close that gap.
Last week the player's father was quoted as saying there was a "50% chance" he would join Real Madrid. The words of Aurelio De Laurentiis were just as telling. The Napoli president insisted he would not shove the player out the door, but also gave the impression of a man ready to do business if the price was right.
"If the most beautiful woman in the world shows up and we're only the second-most beautiful, then we can only hope he doesn't fall into temptation," said De Laurentiis. "But if he does decide to go, we will thank him without kicking up a fuss. Napoli will turn over a new leaf just as we did with [Ezequiel] Lavezzi."
Napoli fans could be excused for not finding that comparison to be a wholly reassuring one – many, after all, would argue that Lavezzi has still not been adequately replaced. And for all the Argentinian's talents, he was not nearly as irreplaceable as Cavani. The Uruguayan has scored 71 Serie A goals in 97 games over the last three seasons.
For now Napoli must simply hope that Cavani can help steer them back into the Champions League, positioning them best for whatever comes next. A little more help from Dzemaili certainly wouldn't hurt, either.
• The Miroslav Klose effect remains as powerful as ever. When the German striker limped out of Lazio's 3-2 defeat to Genoa on 2 February, his team were third in the Serie A table. Over the next six games, with Klose sidelined, Lazio collected a grand total of four points. On Sunday they were 1-0 down at home to Catania when he finally returned to action – coming off the bench as a 75th minute substitute for Hernanes. Within six minutes Lazio were ahead, and they went on to win, 2-1. Klose did not have a direct hand in either goal, yet the correlation between his presence on the field and Lazio winning games is striking. This will be the second year in a row that his absence through injury has derailed Lazio's Champions League push.
• Saturday's relegation six-pointer between Genoa and Siena ended in a 2-2 draw, meaning that the real winner was not either of those teams but instead Palermo – who pulled off the shock of the weekend with a 2-0 victory over Roma. It was the Sicilian club's first win since 24 November. As Massimo Cecchini wrote in Gazzetta dello Sport: "Easter is a time of miracles."
• Francesco Totti celebrated the 20th anniversary of his debut for Roma last Thursday, an event which he celebrated by giving out one or two revealing interviews. Herewith a few of his more colourful comments:
On first sexual experiences: "I made love for the first time at 12 years old. It was in Tropea with a 17-year-old Roman girl."
On whether he nearly left Roma when Carlos Bianchi was in charge: "Yes, he didn't have any time for Romans. In our practice matches he would make the teams 'Romans against non-Romans'. If I had gone to Genoa [to play for Sampdoria] I would never have come back and now I would be a long way away. Even years later, before my penultimate contract renewal, I had decided to go to Real Madrid. Then the contract Roma offered me and certain issues around my private life convinced me to stay here. And I haven't left since."
On which players he watches and thinks 'I could never do that': "Only one, [Lionel] Messi."
On the best manager he's ever had: "[Marcello] Lippi. He had a charisma unlike any other."
On the manager he'd most like to work with one day: "[José] Mourinho."
On Zdenek Zeman's departure: "Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and in the end when things aren't going right it is always the manager who pays. But if every one of us [players] had given 100% then things would have gone differently."
• Did Amauri really score a goal of the week contender against Pescara? It certainly looks that way …
• For once Mario Balotelli didn't get his name on the scoresheet for Milan, but that isn't to say he wasn't involved in his team's win over Chievo. Riccardo Montolivo scored the game's only goal when Christian Puggioni spilled a Balotelli free-kick directly into his path.
Results: Atalanta 0-0 Sampdoria, Cagliari 2-1 Fiorentina, Chievo 0-1 Milan, Genoa 2-2 Siena, Inter 1-2 Juventus, Lazio 2-1 Catania, Palermo 2-0 Roma, Parma 3-0 Pescara, Torino 3-5 Napoli, Udinese 0-0 Bologna