After a full week’s worth of build-up the waiting is finally over: it’s time for Inter Milan to play without a shadow of a doubt their most important game of the Serie A season.
On Saturday evening the Nerazzurri will walk out in front of approximately 80,000 people at San Siro to complete matchday 35 of the 2017-18 campaign, which presents them with arguably the biggest Derby d’Italia of the new millennium against league leaders Juventus.
In the black-and-blue corner, Luciano Spalletti’s men are in desperate need of points as they continue pursuing a spot in Italy’s top four and thus next season’s UEFA Champions League.
Victories over Cagliari and Chievo over the past 10 days have restored a degree of optimism and enthusiasm around the club after a frustrating run of two points in three games, but with both Lazio and Roma also picking up maximum points in that period they have not been enough to put them back into the positions that count.
Inter therefore cannot afford any more slip-ups with the games beginning to run out, and are obliged to do everything within their power to ensure they walk away from Saturday’s big match with all three points.
In the white-and-black corner, Massimiliano Allegri’s side have their backs to the wall following last week’s defeat at home to Napoli and have even less margin for error if they wish to secure a seventh Scudetto in seven seasons.
At one stage on matchday 33 Juventus were as many as nine points clear of the Partenopei with Maurizio Sarri’s men losing at home to unfancied Udinese, but a quick turnaround at the San Paolo - coupled with a spectacular overhead kick goal from Crotone striker Simy against the Bianconeri - soon put paid to that and paved the way for the gap to be cut to just one point last weekend, when Napoli emerged victorious from the Allianz Stadium in dramatic fashion.
As such, with four games left to play, they cannot afford anything but a win either.
On paper, these are the matches in which you would expect Juventus to get the job done and reaffirm exactly who’s in charge when it comes to Italian football (interpret that phrase in any which way you like).
They may be missing spiritual leader Giorgio Chiellini in the heart of their defence this weekend, but with all the quality, experience and charisma Allegri has at his disposal between the starting XI and the substitutes’ bench it’s difficult to imagine them screwing up a third game in succession - not least in a moment as decisive as this.
It just doesn’t seem to fit the narrative that we’ve become so accustomed to over these last seven seasons. Juventus don’t fall apart when it comes to the crunch.
(At least not in the league, anyway... ahem...)
Having said that, Inter also have reason to believe that they can come out on top.
They remain the only team in Serie A this season not to have lost a single match against the league’s current top seven (albeit with three wins and seven draws), thanks in no small part to a rock-solid defence that has let in just 23 goals in 34 matches this season (the second-best record in the division) and only two in their last nine games played.
What’s more, Spalletti’s men have won four of their last five games at home and have not conceded at San Siro in over 400 minutes, since Rodrigo Palacio scored for Bologna during their 2-1 loss on 11 February.
And of course, in Mauro Icardi they have a player who has scored seven goals in 10 career matches against Juventus (although he has only found the net once in the last five meetings, it must be said).
Quite what’s going to happen at San Siro on Saturday night I have no idea.
Deep down, my expectation is that Juventus will turn up with a point to prove and sneak a gigantically important victory that will propel them towards the Scudetto and severely damage our hopes of reaching the top four.
Even deeper down, though, I do hold out some hope that we can inflict yet more pain on them at the end of a torrid fortnight, and land a blow that could be decisive both in a positive sense for us and in a negative sense for them.
One thing I feel fairly certain of is that we’ll give a good account of ourselves and cause Juventus problems. Not least because this is a match that they have to win, which means that they surely can’t afford to sit back like they normally do and wait for the right moment to strike. They’ll need to take the game to Inter more than they’d want, and that will inevitably open up space for our athletic wide men and transition play specialists.
Whatever happens this weekend, the likelihood is that we will remember this match for a very long time indeed. Let’s just hope we can look back on it in a positive sense.
Date & Time: Saturday, April 29th, 2018; 20:45 PM CEST (14:45 PM on the U.S. East Coast)
Location: Stadio Giuseppe Meazza; Milan, Italy
TV/Streaming: In the US television viewers will be able to find the game on beIN Sports and Rai Italia, while if you’d like to watch it online then FuboTV and beIN Sports Connect are the places you need to head. In the UK it will be shown on BT Sport 2 HD and BT Sport Live online.
Click here to find out where you can watch the match everywhere else in the world.
Inter’s Matchday Squad
Goalkeepers: Handanovic, Padelli, Berni
Defenders: Lisandro Lopez, Joao Cancelo, Ranocchia, Santon, Miranda, Dalbert, D’Ambrosio, Skriniar
Midfielders: Rafinha, Borja Valero, Brozovic, Vecino
Forwards: Icardi, Karamoh, Eder, Perisic, Candreva, Pinamonti
Unavailable: Gagliardini (hamstring)
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