The Coppa Italia final in Rome on Wednesday is a Derby D’Italia, the nickname that honours the elevated status of Juventus and Inter Milan in the national sport. It will pit the holders against the reigning Serie A champions, but at a time when neither club are at risk of being carried away with a sense of their own importance.
Inter are on course, within the next 11 days, to see their scudetto removed from them by AC Milan, who lead the league table by two points with two to play. Juve, meanwhile, have swapped winning the title routinely for making fourth place their standard setting.
Retain the Cup on Wednesday and the main emotion around Juventus will be of relief at avoiding an uncomfortable landmark. In each of the last nine seasons, Juve have lifted at least one major domestic trophy. Eight times that was the Serie A title; last year it was ‘only’ the Coppa Italia, when, as a result of the meagre haul of medals, the Coppa-winning manager, Andrea Pirlo, was sacked.
Others departed, too. Last May’s Cup final, a 2-1 victory over Atalanta, featured a fine, curled opening goal from Dejan Kulusevski. Some determined pressure on the Atalanta defence by Cristiano Ronaldo helped create the chance. Gianluigi Buffon made a couple of alert saves while the final was evenly poised but could do little when Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovskyi steered the equaliser over Rodrigo Bentancur’s attempted block. Kulusevski then set up the winner for Federico Chiesa.
A year on, Ronaldo is at Manchester United, Buffon at Parma, Kulusevski and Bentancur at Tottenham Hotspur and Pirlo between jobs, his single season as manager more associated with his failure to maintain Juve’s long record of scudetti than his success at delivering knockout silverware.
Chiesa, the flag-bearer of Juve’s next generation, is meanwhile injured while Paulo Dybala, 28 and formerly the star-in-the-making for a bright Juventus future, is touch-and-go to make the starting XI. Dybala’s contract expires next month when he will end his seven-year association with Juve. His preferred next destination – a storyline to spice up Dybala’s bid to add a fifth Coppa to the five Serie A titles he has won with Juve – is Inter.
Dybala was one of the better performers on Sunday, when Juve lost for the seventh time in the league this season. They let slip the 1-0 lead Dybala – with a handsome long-range strike – had given them at Genoa, who equalised three minutes from time and snatched the winner deep into stoppage time. Juve manager Max Allegri immediately pointed out the defeat “made no difference to the league table” and that his substitutions and original team selection had been shaped by wanting to rest players for the Cup final.
The loss still left an uncomfortable residue. Even if Juventus had already secured a spot in the division’s top four, which means Champions League qualification, what they cannot now do is finish with a better or equal points total than in 2020-21, when Pirlo achieved fourth place with 78 points – nine more than Juve have now – and was promptly sacked.
What they will certainly not do is reach the same 77 goals for the league campaign as last year. Only Torino in the top half of the table have scored fewer goals than Juventus’s 55. But then that’s perhaps an inevitable consequence of waving goodbye to Ronaldo, whose three full league campaigns as a Juventus player yielded 81 CR7 goals, 29 of them last term.
Dybala is, across competitions, the club’s leading marksman this season, and his 15th against Genoa was a reminder that, strongly left-footed though he may be, his right can also be an instrument of power and great precision.
Juventus may come to miss the Argentine, although so much has been invested in Dusan Vlahovic, signed from Fiorentina for more than €75 million in January, that Dybala is in no doubt about which forward Juventus imagine will be shaping what they hope is a revival.
The Cup final is an important night for Vlahovic, 22, too. His brilliant start – a strike on his league debut for Juve, another within a minute of his first Champions League match for them – has given way to a barren run, goalless in his last four appearances.
“It’s about finding a balance,” said Allegri of the Serbia centre-forward’s dip in form. “He needs to balance his energies and tempo in games, and learn that he hasn’t failed if he doesn’t score. It’s about more than that. I think next season we’ll see improvements.” Whether Allegri is the coach supervising those improvements may depend on Juve grasping last chance at a medal.