“We thought that we had already won the Scudetto, but that is not the case,” shrugged Max Allegri a few weeks ago after Juventus fell to their first defeat of the season. That 2-0 loss at Genoa may take the gloss off their season but nobody is fooled. The title, for an eighth year running, is heading to Turin. With eight games to play, Juve are 18 points above their nearest rival, although the term “rival” is definitely pushing it at this stage.
When did it all become so predictable? This, after all, is the same league that gave Gabriel Batistuta just one Scudetto in a decade of domination; the competition that denied Giuseppe Signori, Antonio Di Natale and even Ronaldo a single league trophy. In better days, this was a battle fought gamely between footballing titans. It was the most exciting league in the world and here are five great run-ins to prove it.
Sampdoria’s ascent to the Scudetto in 1991 is still celebrated at the Luigi Ferrari to this day. Paolo Mantovani’s millions had made the club a force in Serie A and propelled them to victory in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1990, but the oil man wanted more. Vujadin Boskov, the meticulous Serb who had assumed the coaching role four years earlier, was there to deliver a league trophy.
The competition was stiff – Milan had the Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullitt and Frank Rijkaard, while Inter boasted West Germany’s recently crowned World Cup winners Lothar Matthäus, Andreas Brehme and Jürgen Klinsmann – but Sampdoria were rampant, losing just three league games all season. Gianluca Vialli banged in 19 goals in 26 games, while Gianluca Pagliuca and Pietro Vierchowod kept things tight at the back as the club won their first, and so far only, league title.
Having lost out to Milan on the final day of the 1998-99 season, Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti decided to throw any remaining caution to the wind. Juan Sebastián Verón and Néstor Sensini arrived from Parma in the summer, joining shrewd acquisitions such as Simone Inzaghi and Diego Simeone. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side was now peppered with genuine quality and bite.
Juventus, however, were the team to beat. On the last day of the season, they only needed to beat Perugia to secure yet another Scudetto. They couldn’t manage it, Pippo Inzaghi fluffing a handful of decent opportunities in heavy Umbrian rain. With the pressure mounting on Juventus, Alessandro Calori capitalised on some slack defending and cannoned a loose volley into the bottom corner. In Rome, meanwhile, Lazio trounced a tepid Reggina 3-0. For just the second time in their history, they were champions.
“I never thought it would be this beautiful,” beamed Eriksson at the final whistle. “The other titles I won elsewhere in Europe cannot compare to this.”
Renaissance painter Giotto called Rome “the city of echoes, the city of illusions and the city of yearning.” On 17 June 2001, Fabio Capello knew exactly what he meant. With just five minutes to go in the final game of the season, his Roma side were on the verge of becoming champions. Fans were running on to the pitch in celebration, but Capello had learned the hard way that patience is a virtue.
The Roma manager had always been averse to frivolity. Three months earlier he had watched Gabriel Batistuta and Vincenzo Montella pummel an average Verona side 3-1 to give Roma a nine-point lead in the title race. Pundits were already declaring Roma champions. Yet, despite their imperious attack and an impervious rearguard that put Emerson in front of that half-man, half-bulldog-chewing-a-wasp Walter Samuel, they so nearly failed.
They lost to Fiorentina in their next game and stuttered throughout the run-in, allowing Juventus to cut their lead to just two points before the final day of the campaign. Carlo Ancelotti’s side were always likely to swat aside Atalanta at home on the last day, so Roma’s task was clear: beat Parma at the Stadio Olimpico to be crowned champions.
Not for the first or last time, Francesco Totti came to the rescue. With 19 minutes gone, the 24-year-old latched on to Vincent Candela’s cut-back to fire an effort straight through Gianluigi Buffon and into the roof of the net. Goals from Montella and Batistuta calmed the nerves. Roma, despite their best efforts, were champions.
What do you do when you lose Zinedine Zidane? Sign Pavel Nedved and Gianluigi Buffon, of course. Zidane’s record transfer to Real Madrid robbed Juventus of their brightest star, but Marcello Lippi would not countenance a fourth year without the Scudetto. Brought in to replace the ailing Ancelotti, Lippi chain-smoked his way to the final game of the season where, with just 90 minutes left to play, his side were a single point behind Inter.
It seemed as if Héctor Cúper had obliterated the Inter’s inferiority complex, but poor results during the run-in against Atalanta and Chievo opened the door to Juventus and Roma. Only an away win against on the final day Lazio would do. Goals from Christian Vieri and Luigi Di Biagio gave Inter the lead twice and should have been enough but Lazio scored four. Juventus fans, having watched their team win 2-0 at Udinese, were free to enjoy the sight of Ronaldo sobbing helplessly on the Inter bench. “I wept because of that defeat,” said Ronaldo. “It hurts even more because we had the title within our reach.”
Serie A’s lustre faded considerably after the Calciopoli scandal but the 2007-08 campaign proved that Italy could still rustle up a title race. With Juventus still reeling after their relegation, Inter were the undisputed favourites. But Roma were a side reborn under Luciano Spalletti. They beat Real Madrid home and away that season and also snared both the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa that year.
Inter set up home at the top of the table in September and built an 11-point lead, but Roma were relentless in the run-in, scything that advantage down to a single point by the final day of the campaign. It looked as if Inter would have win away at Parma to retain their title.
“We were bloody worried,” recalls Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his autobiography. “If we lost or drew against Parma and Roma beat Catania – which they definitely would do because Catania were at the bottom of the table – we’d fall at the finishing line and lose everything we thought we’d had sewn up.”
Ibrahimovic hadn’t played since 29 March but, with Inter desperately in need of a goal, Roberto Mancini brought him on early in the second half. Just 11 minutes later, he rifled a low shot past Nicola Pavarini’s outstretched glove and into the bottom corner. Cue pandemonium. By the time Ibrahimovic swept in a second, the title race was over. Roma had become yet another victim in Serie A’s merciless game of thrones. Those were the days.
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