Serie A's match of the season, Juventus vs Inter Milan
Juventus - Inter is almost always the most anticipated match of the year in Serie A, but this season it’s an even greater attraction as it could be decisive for the title fight. The Bianconeri, who have lost only once in their last 14 matches against Inter, lead by 6 points. A win would pretty much destroy the Nerazzurri’s title hopes, even though Inter’s last match against Sampdoria was postponed and so they have a game in hand. However, if Conte’s men manage a win at Juventus, it would balance the defeat of the first leg, seriously threatening the Old Lady’s quest for a 9th consecutive league title.
This season Inter have done their utmost to close the gap with Juventus, and their expected goal difference makes it appear they’ve managed to do so. Their xG of 0.73 is only slightly worse than Juve’s 0.77. With penalties excluded, however, Juventus remain far superior, with a 0.77 non-penalty xG difference versus Inter’s 0.60.
In the first leg, Juventus showed that superiority, beating Inter 2–1, with double the number of Inter’s chances (18 shots to 9); the only goal they conceded was a penalty.
However, Antonio Conte's team, despite the win against Ludogorets in the Europa League, has been declining recently, no longer able to maintain the same level of performance as in the first half of the season. But the same can be said for Maurizio Sarri's squad, which suffered two defeats in their last five Serie A games and unexpectedly lost the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 match against Lyon (somehow).
Those who expected an improvement in Juventus' performance as the decisive moment of the season approached are disappointed. The team did not make the anticipated leap in the quality of their play; on the contrary, they dropped in performance, though they still do benefit from Cristiano Ronaldo's fantastic finishing form.
Ronaldo has scored in 11 consecutive Serie A games, a record on a par with Fabio Quagliarella and Gabriel Batistuta adding a total of 16 goals (including 5 penalties), though he had scored just 5 times before the start of December.
If Inter manage to limit Ronaldo Juventus will seriously struggle, as other Bianconeri have often failed to convert their chances during their top scorer's streak. As Mike Goodman pointed out, Juventus have a high percentage of ball possession, but have a hard time getting into the penalty box and are sometimes forced to take relatively low-quality attempts (their average xG per shot is 0.09). Inter's defense, which concedes shots with an average xG of 0.08 and just 1.92 passes inside the box, will be far from easy to crack.
But things will change if Conte is forced to do without his starting goalkeeper; Samir Handanović has already missed six games and his month-long finger injury could keep him out of the Derby d’Italia as well. Not that he has been stellar this season (he's 13th in the league per goals saved compared to the average goalkeeper) but in the few games he’s played, it’s been obvious the Inter players don’t have as much confidence in his replacement, Daniele Padelli, as they do in their trusted veteran Handanović.
Back in October, Juventus' pressing strategy worked well. Against Inter’s 3-5-2, Sarri had lined up his team in 4-3-1-2. Ronaldo, on the left, pressed Diego Godín, while Paulo Dybala, selected over Gonzalo Higuaín, limited Stefan De Vrij and Sami Khedira while also pushing higher up to press Milan Škriniar. Federico Bernardeschi, as the offensive midfielder, marked deep-lying playmaker Marcelo Brozović. If Inter managed to gain space, then Juventus would regroup, leaving De Vrij, the central defender in the opposing three-man defense, free. Juan Cuadrado and Blaise Matuidi, on the other hand, were effective in shutting down Inter attacks on the flanks, a key area for a team lined up with a midfield diamond.
In the reverse fixture, Juventus will probably line up with a different midfield and could even change their system of play, but if they manage an equally effective pressing strategy they will control the momentum of the match.
As happens often this season, last time around Inter leaned heavily on their two strikers in an attempt to overcome Juventus' effective pressing but failed to create high-quality chances. They couldn’t penetrate Juventus' defensive block, and more than half their chances came from the feet of Lautaro Martínez, who finished the game with 4 shots, 4 dribbles, and a key pass.
At the San Siro, Stefano Sensi’s injury was a real blow for Inter; when the midfielder was forced to leave the pitch before the end of the first half, they became much more vulnerable to pressing and less dangerous on the attack. It’s not clear if he will start in Turin, but the presence of Christian Eriksen could certainly help his teammates consolidate possession and achieve greater penetration.
In defense, Inter pressed Juventus's build-up by man-marking their players, but if their opponents overcame the first pressure they dropped deep, maintaining a 5-3-2 defensive shape, which gave too much freedom to the opposing midfielders.
Nevertheless, Verona has shown that even a team of Juventus' quality can get into trouble against intense, well-organized pressing. Inter cannot afford to be pushed into their own half for 90 minutes. Even the penalty in Inter–Juventus had come from a ball recovered from a successful pressing action. If the San Siro game is any indication, the pressing battle will be decisive for the outcome of the match. If the drop in Inter's intensity in recent games is a result of Conte's load-management, then this is the match where no one will limit their effort.
This huge match will be played in an unreal atmosphere, as due to the coronavirus outbreak it will take place behind closed doors. However, even without a crowd in the stands, and with only a few games before the end of the season, both teams will do everything they can to win. If one doesn’t emerge victorious, Lazio could benefit from the draw by leaping to the top of the standings. The 237th Derby d’Italia will be a thriller; it’s too bad no one with be there to watch in person.