We may only be six games into the new Serie A season, but this Sunday’s contest between Inter Milan and Juventus could well shape the year to come. After years away from the spotlight, Inter vs Juve is the marquee fixture in Italian football once again.
The famous Derby D’Italia, a title coined by journalist Gianni Brera in the 1960s, is more than just a match-up between two of Serie A’s most successful team. Its politics even stretch beyond the rivalry between two of the most prominent Italian cities in the north west of the country.
Indeed, the Inter-Juve contest of April 1998 - which saw referee Piero Ceccarini deny Inter a penalty before awarding eventual 1-0 winners Juve their own spotkick within 15 seconds of one another - led to scuffles in Italian parliament between ministers supporting rival teams, with the country’s governing body having to be suspended as a result.
And this fire was further stoked by the Calciopoli scandal of 2006, where Juventus were stripped of the 2004 and 2005 Scudetto titles and relegated to Serie B after being implicated in match-fixing. One of those Serie A triumphs went to Inter, who then went on to pinch Juventus’ Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to rub even more salt into the wounds of their rivals.
Juventus returned to challenge for more domestic honours alongside Inter, but the relevance and significance of the fixture has dropped in recent years, with the match-up being a far cry from the match that featured the likes of Ronaldo, Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
This has partly to do with Inter fading away from the upper echelons of the Italian game. While Juventus have won every single Serie A campaign since 2011/12, Inter have failed to finish higher than fourth place in that time, including some seasons finishing outside of Italy’s continential qualification places. The Nerazzurri have been starved of even the slightest glint of silverware while the Old Lady have romped home.
Yet the last couple of seasons have seen Inter rise from their ruins under Chinese owners Suning Holdings Group, who acquired a majority stake of the club in 2016. The Milan club have qualified for the Champions League in each of the last two seasons, having spent six years away from Europe’s premier club competition. And this summer, Inter’s new owners made a statement of intent by hiring former Juventus boss Antonio Conte on a three-year deal - the Italian who won three Serie A titles as coach in Turin, as well as the Premier League with Chelsea in 2017.
Inter’s playing squad has been enhanced too - with acquisitions such as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez and Diego Godin showcasing the Milanese club’s intent to return themselves back to the top of the Italian game.
So far, these changes have brought positive results. Conte’s team have won six games out of six so far in Serie A, a run which includes important wins over local rivals AC Milan and fellow heavyweights Lazio on the way. This leaves them two points clear at the top of the table over (who else?) second-placed Juve.
Yet Juventus’ visit to the San Siro on Sunday evening presents Conte’s biggest domestic challenge so far this season, with the politics of the game - both historic and modern - set to divert the eyes of European football fans towards this compelling contest.
The personal element can't be ignored either; Conte will be facing the team he represented nearly 300 times as a player, before his three successful years there as a manager.
In the opposition dugout? Conte’s successor at Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri – back in Italy after failing to enamour the Stamford Bridge faithful, having been brought in to replace the sacked Conte.
Sunday’s match also sees the latest development in the Cristiano Ronaldo vs Diego Godin saga, a personal duel which has lasted several years, starting when the pair played for Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid respectively.
Atleti fans accused Ronaldo of ‘punching’ Godin in the face during a match in August 2014, while the Uruguayan defender accused the Juventus superstar of “lacking respect” after the Portugal forward celebrated wildly after scoring a hat-trick last season for the Serie A side to knock Atleti out of the Champions League. With the pair set to stride out on the San Siro pitch this weekend, their personal duel will be one to watch.
The two clubs also clash off the pitch, so to speak. Both sides are equipped with young and innovative owners who are set to battle at the very top of the Italian football pyramid for the first time.
Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli is the established competitor, the Goliath of the Italian football community. The 43-year-old businessman is widely reognised as the man behind the club’s recent domestic success, which has seen the Serie A giants win eight Scudettos and eight domestic cups in the past eight seasons.
The challenger to Agnelli’s throne is Steven Zhang, the 27-year old adversary who has a strong vision of football’s future. Obsessed with the way in which media and technology can play its part in the game, the Chinese businessman was recently appointed to the European Club Association board (itself chaired by Agnelli), and will have sway on the potential restructuring of the Champions League.
Just like with Agnelli, Inter’s return from domestic and European obscurity to potential title challengers is partly down to Zhang’s ambition.
Agnelli’s aspiration to build a ‘Galactico’-esque squad is clear to see: superstars like Ronaldo, Dutch defender Matthias de Ligt, winger Douglas Costa and midfielder Aaron Ramsey have been added to the Juventus ranks in recent years to complement the already star-studded line-up of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Giorgio Chellini and Blaise Matuidi.
Inter and Zhang too have tried to add powerful names to their squad, but the presence of Juventus in their league means they have had to be smarter in their business than their often free-spending rivals.
A key part of Inter’s success story this season has been loan signings Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella, who joined on temporary deals from Sassuolo and Cagliari respectively this summer.
The Italian duo have, despite their low purchasing fee, have shown flair, composure and an all-round game which is not often seen with many early 20-year-olds. National team boss Roberto Mancini has also noticed the high value of the pair, and Sensi and Barrella have featured together for Italy in their recent European qualifiers.
Other prospects who Inter have developed include young Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez, who scored the opening goal of their 2-1 defeat to Barcelona on Wednesday night and Slovakian defender Milan Skriniar, who has been strongly linked with a Premier League move in recent years.
This Sunday’s fixture between Inter and Juventus involves the past, present and future. It’s a historic clash, with a modern twist now, and it could affect the future of Serie A to come.
What time is Inter vs Juventus?
Inter host the Old Lady at the San Siro Stadium at 7:45pm BST (8:45pm CET), with the game live on Premier Sports 2. Here's how to stream the game if you're out of the country.
Inter vs Juventus team news
Inter are sweating over the fitness of striker Romelu Lukaku, who missed the 2-1 Champions League defeat to Barcelona on Wednesday with a muscle injury.
Alexis Sanchez started up front with Lautaro Martinez at the Camp Nou, and is expected to feature once again after netting his first Inter goal last weekend at Sampdoria.
Juventus meanwhile, have a more severe absence list, with Giorgio Chellini out with a long-term cruciate ligament problem.
Douglas Costa is also a doubt with a muscle injury while summer signing Danilo has a bicep issue and will not play.
Mario Mandzukic, heavily linked with a move to Manchester United, and Emre Can are both unlikely to be involved after being told they are not part of Maurizio Sarri’s plans this season.
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