Paulo Dybala did not require an audience. The Juventus forward was not thinking about the empty stand behind him as he accelerated down the right wing at the Allianz Stadium. He did not stop to contemplate the quiet as he cushioned Rodrigo Bentancur’s cross-field pass on his instep and cut inside Ashley Young. Dybala was not dazzled by the banks of white seats before him as he exchanged a one-two with Aaron Ramsey, wrongfooted Young for a second time and slipped an outside-of-the-boot finish beyond Samir Handanovic in the Internazionale goal.
It was a strike worthy of winning one of Serie A’s most keenly anticipated matches in years. A Derby d’Italia that pitted Juventus and Inter against one another as genuine title rivals for the first time in almost two decades. A game that had already been postponed once and now, after a week of chaos and confusion, was finally taking place behind closed doors.
As late as Sunday lunchtime, it was not clear whether this game – or any other in the Italian top-flight – would go ahead. After the previous week’s string of cancellations, Serie A was supposed to resume at 12.30pm on Sunday with Parma hosting SPAL. Instead, after completing their warmups and gathering in the tunnel, players were sent back to the changing rooms.
Kick-off had been thrown into limbo after Italy’s sports minister, Vincenzo Spadafora, suggested that Italy’s professional football leagues ought to be suspended while the nation works to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Damiano Tommasi, the president of the Italian Footballers’ Association, had written to him, as well as the prime minister and the heads of the sport’s various governing bodies, requesting a halt.
“The situation is grave and serious,” read a statement from Tommasi on the Footballers’ Association website. “We have already had cases of contagion in professional teams, greater attention is required. We cannot play football in this country, when players are not supposed to be touching each other.” Three players on the Serie C team Pianese tested positive for Coronavirus last month and on Sunday another case was confirmed at Reggiana, who play in the tier below. Tommasi was responding in part to these cases but also to a government decree enacted in the small hours of Sunday morning, which placed the entire region of Lombardy into quarantine.
Beyond the headline measure of banning all but essential travel in or out of the region, the law closed down swimming pools and gyms, and stated that restaurants could only stay open (for limited hours) if able to guarantee at least one metre of space between each customer. If people were being told not to touch each other, asked Tommasi, how could it make sense for football to continue? Spadafora higlighted the same issue during an interview on Rai’s 90º minuto, observing how Goran Pandev had been hugged by his teammates after scoring against Milan: “a terrible example”. He also delivered a scathing assessment of the Serie A president Paolo Dal Pino, accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.
Football’s handling of this crisis has left a lot to be desired, though Spadafora has hardly been consistent himself. He introduced legislation requiring games to be played behind closed doors just three days before. If he felt at the time that they ought to be cancelled altogether, why not specify as much, instead of holding discussions with broadcasters about getting them played free-to-air?
An emergency meeting of the Italian Football Federation has been called for Tuesday. Although it is impossible to say anything with certainty in the current climate, a complete suspension of professional leagues – as has already happened in Switzerland – is at least a strong possibility. What that would mean for the eventual completion of this season is anyone’s guess. With Euro 2020 looming and the virus continuing to spread across the continent, Italy is unlikely to face such conundrums alone.
Players are more aware of this than anyone. It made for a bizarre Sunday, with games that felt more like training sessions surrounded by unnecessary pomp. Even without fans present, clubs followed the same routines as they would for any other matchday. Teams still lined up for the Serie A anthem before kick-off. Stewards still took up their positions in each stand.
Most surreal might have been the music. AC/DC’s Thunderstruck still boomed out before kick-off at Juventus’s Allianz Stadium, as it does before every game. In Udine, goal celebration music was mistakenly played after Stefano Okaka thumped a header over the bar.
Despite it all, the Derby d’Italia still felt different. Although not the occasion that it would have been, there was still an edge here that had been missing elsewhere. Inter assaulted Juventus early with an atypical high press. The Bianconeri, after 11 days off, played with the sort of pace and commitment that seemed to have deserted them during their previous outing: a dismal 1-0 defeat in Lyon.
Maurizio Sarri’s decision to drop Miralem Pjanic, drafting Bentancur into the centre of midfield and deploying Ramsey in a box-to-box role on the right, felt decisive. After mixed performances in a No 10 role, Ramsey had asked for this opportunity to start deeper, telling his manager that he felt more able to make the line-breaking runs that the team wants from him when he can see more of the pitch ahead.
Ramsey scored the opener, reacting fastest to a loose ball on the edge of the six-yard box. His was the assist on Dybala’s goal, too. After a frustrating, injury-disrupted, first season in Turin, this feels like a moment for the Welshman to press on and really make his mark. Or it would, at least, if not for the uncertainty about whether the rest of this season will even go ahead.
For now, Juventus are back on top of the table, one point ahead of Lazio but nine clear of Inter. The Nerazzurri have a game in hand, but have lost their last three domestic games. Defeat felt like a hammer blow to their title ambitions.
Antonio Conte, returning for the first time to face the club that he led to three consecutive titles, was measured in his post-game comments, arguing nobody should be surprised that a team built over many years would hold the edge over his Inter side, whose personnel has been overhauled since his arrival.
Both he and Sarri were asked about football’s handling of the coronavirus. Where the Juventus manager suggested that he didn’t know enough to offer an opinion, Conte acknowledged concerns.
“We are all human beings, we all have a family,” he said. “At times I would like to raise my voice, but I stop myself. Keeping one’s concentration up is not simple. I hope that decisions will be taken that safeguard everyone, without distinctions.” That much, frankly, ought to be a minimum standard.