Straight from the dark heart of Italy
RESULTS Sat 28 Jan Catania 1-1 Parma; Juventus 2-1 Udinese Sun 29 Jan Fiorentina 2-1 Siena; Cesena 0-1 Atalanta; Roma 1-1 Bologna; Lecce 1-0 Internazionale; Chievo 0-3 Lazio; Genoa 3-2 Napoli; Palermo 2-0 Novara; Milan 3-0 Cagliari
It has been a week of worrying seismic activity and blizzards in the north of Italy but even Mother Nature can't knock Juventus off their stride.
The weather was fitting for the winter champions when they took on third-placed Udinese at the Juventus Stadium – where the undersoil heating meant there was never any doubt of the match going ahead.
FEATURE, Mon 23 Jan Winter champions Juve take heart in title charge
However, just be on the safe side a massive tarpaulin covered the pitch before the match. Rolling it up proved problematic, which meant that the teams had to delay their warm-ups – but once the bubble-wrap was out of the way both sides got stuck into each other in good old full-blooded fashion.
When AS Roma had visited earlier in the week, those present had witnessed the visitors pass the ball around neatly, making pretty patterns all over the pitch before forgetting the whole point was to finally score.
No such kaleidoscopic art with these two sides, who only saw the outcome in black and white – although Juve were forced to wear their pretty-in-pink shirts. Both sides lived up to Juve coach Antonio Conte’s assumption that the outcome was worth six points by playing the game at twice the normal pace – an urgency sorely lacking when they had met in Friuli just before Christmas.
The direct approach meant that the ball seldom remained in the possession of either side for more than one or two passes. It did ensure that another sold-out crowd could forget that their cars were all snowed in, but it had Andrea Pirlo parked in the centre of the pitch on many an occasion as the ball whizzed over his head for the ever-keen Alessandro Matri and Udinese old boy Fabio Quagliarella to chase after.
However, only when the playmaker managed to bring some calm to the frantic proceedings could we enjoy the full repertoire of his passing master-class as his man-marker Almen Abdi, an attacking midfielder by trade, gamely followed him around like a lost dog.
With his side trailing to a typical Matri predatory finish, visiting coach Francesco Guidolin replaced Abdi to set Antonio Floro Flores – one of the top flight’s most under-rated finishers – free in the wide-open spaces where the Juve defence had once resided.
Flo’s equaliser, which if it had been scored by his team-mate Antonio di Natale would have had the press crowing for days, looked to have given the visitors impetus to go on and win the game – and if Di Natale had been at his sharpest they may have taken the lead.
But here’s the rub: when in doubt Conte plays to the team’s strengths and rather than throw on a fresh striker for the tiring Quagliarella the touchline growler opted to shore up the midfield with Claudio Marchisio, who no one believes is an attacking midfielder but certainly acted like one in picking out the perfect pass for Matri’s winner.
We now understand why Conte signed Marco Borriello: not to pick the former AC Milan and Roma benchwarmer, but to get the best out of Matri, who has responded strongly to the thought of being replaced by someone equally concerned with personal grooming.
Despite their immaculately presented frontmen, Juventus are far from beautiful to watch – but as Conte pointed out, if his side has to win ugly so be it.
Such comments would never find their way down the motorway to Milan, where finesse and a certain savoir-faire is expected whenever the Rossoneri take to the pitch. They needed only a sprinkling of style to overcome Cagliari on Sunday evening in front of a disappointing crowd of just under 20,000 at the San Siro but once again Zlatan Ibrahimovic lit up proceedings with a delightfully executed free-kick in a routine 3-0 win.
With Udinese knocked back and Inter losing at Lecce of all places, the Old Lady and the old Devil are beginning to stretch away at the top – although much to Conte’s pleasure, there's little time to sit around and mull things over. Juve are back in action tomorrow evening at Parma while Milan travel to Lazio, who are back in the hunt for third, on Wednesday.
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