If Juventus are “a benchmark” and “a reference point”, as Antonio Conte suggested pre-match, the Inter head coach can now feel much more positive about his side’s Scudetto hopes after a superb 2-0 win.
Conte, formerly the main man in Turin, had good reason to be pessimistic even as the Nerazzurri entered the Derby d’Italia four points ahead of the champions.
Juve were the only Serie A opponents against whom Conte possessed an 100 per cent losing record, beaten in each of his prior three matches against his former club.
And Inter’s misery in this fixture extended beyond the start of Conte’s reign, going seven without a win as Juve used meetings with the Nerazzurri to consolidate their domestic dominance.
Indeed, there was little reason heading into this match to doubt Juve’s credentials, with Andrea Pirlo’s side seemingly building up a head of steam in his rookie season.
The Bianconeri had followed up a shock December defeat at home to Fiorentina with four straight successes in all competitions, scoring 13 times in the process.
Among those victories was a deserved triumph at league leaders Milan. Juve had not won at both Milan and Inter in the first half of a Serie A season in 80 years; they now had the opportunity to do so in consecutive away games.
But preparations were not ideal. Cristiano Ronaldo, like opposite number Romelu Lukaku, had not been able to enjoy the week of rest he had set aside, instead called from the bench in a midweek Coppa Italia tie and forced to see out extra time.
Ronaldo played on the fringes at San Siro, his most notable involvement an 11th-minute tap-in ruled out for offside, with the clash between two of Serie A’s foremost scorers not panning out as many would have imagined.
Lukaku was as influential as ever in the Inter attack, running Giorgio Chiellini ragged as he contested 15 duels, winning nine, earned three fouls and conceded two, and created three chances.
There was no goal for the forward, though, as the game was decided in the midfield, where Inter were even more impressive, setting the tone right from the outset.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) January 17, 2021
Marcelo Brozovic anchored the side, Nicolo Barella buzzed all over the pitch, and Arturo Vidal – the subject of a clip on social media that appeared to show him kissing the badge of former club Juve pre-match – made clear where his loyalties now lie.
Conte had failed to offer an explanation for some slow starts so far this season but certainly had no need to worry about that issue on this occasion. By half-time, Inter’s only concern could have been their failure to add to a lead secured by Vidal.
The midfielder, whose previous Serie A goal back in 2015 had won Juve the title, spread the ball wide to Barella moments after Ronaldo’s disallowed goal and then ran onto the subsequent cross, towering over Danilo to nod beyond Wojciech Szczesny and offer a muted celebration.
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) January 17, 2021
That was one of 11 first-half Inter efforts, their joint-high this season. Juve mustered just three before the break, a joint-low for them.
But this unpredictable Inter side had led 4-1 and trailed 2-0 respectively on the previous two occasions they had attempted 11 shots in the opening 45 minutes this term.
Juan Sebastian Veron, a former Inter star, told Stats Perform News prior to this game the Nerazzurri would “need to be decisive”. Despite the opener, they were anything but.
Vidal’s wait for his next Serie A strike should have lasted only three minutes, but he blazed over. Then so too did Lautaro Martinez after Szczesny saved from Lukaku.
Martinez shot wide and Szczesny again denied Lukaku, before scrambling to retrieve Barella’s deflected drive. A one-goal first-half deficit felt like an escape for Juve.
But if the Bianconeri were going to make their hosts pay, a swifter start to the second period would have to follow.
Instead, Inter scored with their very first shot after the break and finally the game was beyond Juve. A slipping Alessandro Bastoni’s low, long pass somehow tore a gaping hole through the visiting defence and Barella, a deserving scorer, held off Chiellini and Gianluca Frabotta to finish high into the net.
Rather than call on Weston McKennie and Dejan Kulusevski to build on an advantage, as against Milan, Pirlo turned to the pair in a desperate, failed rescue bid.
Juve still had 32 minutes to forge a response after reinforcements arrived, but one strong Samir Handanovic save from Federico Chiesa was all they had to show for a period of pressure.
Inter could have added further goals on the counter yet will worry not. Indecisive, perhaps, Conte’s side ended the weekend level on points with Milan. It is now for Pirlo and Juve, seven points back, to rise to this benchmark.