Choreography, Chiellini and I Granata: My first Derby della Mole, by Ju Ralph

The 9am Freciarossa from Stazione Centrale, Milano  to Torino’s Porta Nuova station on Sunday February 18 was a fast way to start the build up to the Derby della Mole. After spending the Saturday in Milano with four friends, visiting the San Siro for a tour felt quite alien to me – I had taken in many games at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, one as recently as December, where I witnessed Milan losing to a well-organised Atalanta. The tour showed this magnificent stadium in a different light and the coldness of the concrete structure gave way to the warmth and excitement of sitting in the players’ seats in both Milan and Inter dressing rooms.

With the tour done and sights of the city taken in all thoughts turned to the Turin Derby. I was looking forward to seeing Torino take the field; it had been a mixed season for the Granata and, having recently changed manager, this was a real test against their illustrious neighbours.

Arriving at Porta Nuova there was a quick purchase of tram tickets to catch the number four, along with a smattering of Torino supporters, down via Sacchi and Corso Filippo Turati with two hours still left until kick off. A brisk walk on a bitterly cold morning across Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto Park led us to huge gatherings of Torino fans outside the ground. Torino merchandise sales were in full swing despite the early kick off as fans haggled for scarves and hats to keep out the cold. Food vans were serving the hoardes of maroon clad tifosi as renditions of (not very nice) chants about Juventus filled the air.

Juventus had been pegged back by a confident and attacking Tottenham Hotspur team in the Champions League in midweek, an unfamiliar scenario with Juve losing a two-goal lead much to the delight of the travelling fans. Massimiliano Allegri’s men turned their attention to this match having previously contributed to the January sacking of Siniša Mihajlović following their victory in the quarter-final of the Coppa Italia. Walter Mazzarri was appointed as a replacement and gained steady results for Il Toro, remaining unbeaten in the league since late December. The Bianconeri themselves had not been beaten since their defeat at Sampdoria on November 19, stretching their undefeated streak to 11 matches. We expected a tense game as we bought our souvenir scarves to mark our attendance at the match.

Passing through the usual ticket and identification checks, we climbed the steps of the Distini Est with just over an hour until kick off. The Curva Maratona was already building itself up to roar its heroes on.

What struck me about the stadium, with its bowl-like shape, was the noise created when only half-full. Juventus fans to our left unfurled banners and greeted Wojciech Szczęsny for his warm up, which in turn was met with a chorus of deafening boos, jeers and whistles from all Torino tifosi. The entrance of the home team to rapturous applause switched the attentions of the home support and, as the teams warmed up, the Curva and their opposition counterparts took turns showing their choreographed flair.

We settled down for the match, our disappointment in not seeing Gianluigi Buffon in the Juventus line-up slightly softened by the battle between Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Belotti.  The Torino forward had struggled to regain the form of past seasons due to injuries in October and December, curtailing his appearances and goals. Belotti’s scoring influence was sorely missed with 10 drawn matches in the first half of the season contributing to Mihajlović’s dismissal.

Early exchanges were even with Torino confident to play from goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and left-back Cristian Molinaro starting attacks against a compact and disciplined Juventus. A scooped through ball towards goal saw Gonzalo Higuaín collide with Sirigu, Higuaín couldn’t shake off the resulting knock and was replaced by Federico Bernardeschi after 15 minutes. A slight change of formation by Allegri appeared to give Juventus more impetus going forward with Douglas Costa more threatening in an advanced role and Bernardeschi operating from the right side. Either side of the substitution, Torino wasted chances, firstly with a poor pass to Belotti to force him wide for a shot on goal, and then a lofted pass by the impressive Iago Falque towards Belotti whose first-time volley hit the side netting.

As the first half entered the remaining quarter of an hour, the introduction of Bernardeschi at Higuaín’s expense brought about the goal Juventus wanted. Torino pleas for a foul were ignored and Sandro’s pass to Bernardeschi on the right saw the substitute beat Molinaro and fizz a ball across goal for Sandro to finish high into the net. The opening goal did nothing to dampen the Curva Maratona and they took their vocal support to a new level to drive their team forward. As the half drew to a close, both Chiellini and the assured Daniele Rugani snuffed out any further advances from the home side.

A quick beer and queue at the non-existent toilet facilities by the group brought us together to discuss the half and what the second 45 minutes might bring. It was apparent that a lack of incisive passing and movement from Torino stagnated their progress against a solid defence. Juventus were happy to sit in a solid formation, suffocating the space and pounce on mislaid passes and possession to then set Costa, Sandro and Bernardeschi free. Torino’s Falque and Joel Obi were bright and industrious lights, but they really needed others around them to play with confidence to have a chance of getting back into the game.

With the teams reappearing an ominous statistic loomed – Juventus had won 17 of the last 23 league derbies. I was then distracted to my right by a beautiful sight that I had never before been fortunate enough to see at a football match. In front of the Curva Maratona, oblivious to the devotion of their parents, family members and friends, a group of children played out their own Derby della Mole under the watchful eyes of the passionate support. Their ‘derby’ continued into the second half, with children dribbling around discarded maroon choreographed card that had displayed TORINO across the Curva for all to see. It was genuinely a heart-warming moment amongst the bad press football often gets.

Juventus controlled the early part of the second half as Il Toro’s energy couldn’t match their first half efforts. M’Baye Niang, on loan from Milan, was introduced by Mazzarri with 35 minutes left and he instantly brought speed and direction to the home team’s play. He caused difficulties between the Juve defence and, but for a foul on Chiellini, would have been through on goal.

Niang’s presence reinvigorated Torino’s play and the vocals of the home support, spurred on by the attacking threat of the loanee. A settled Juventus team reacted by introducing their own threat in the form of Pablo Dybala. Returning from an injury picked up versus Cagliari in early January, Dybala almost scored within a minute of taking the field, firing into the side netting from another pass from Bernardeschi. Another Dybala chance from a Sandro pass was a worrying sign for Torino as the game entered the last 20 minutes. They lacked confidence going forward but needed a goal; getting back into the match was going to be a true test of their resolve.

Niang, Falque and Belotti, for all their attacking efforts, could not carve out a clear opportunity to test Szczęsny. As a fan of defending, and specifically Chiellini’s rugged and measured approach to the art of keeping the score at zero, his marshalling and blossoming relationship with Rugani was impressive. He displayed all the attributes to instil confidence in the travelling Juventini that he can replace the more senior mainstays of the Juventus backline.

With Juve using Dybala and the energy of Sandro to stretch the game into the final minutes they saw the match out with substitute Bernardeschi subbed for Stephan Lichtsteiner. Daniele Orsato blew for full time and Juventus celebrated win 18 of the last 24 Serie A derbies. Their victory confirmed it was up to Napoli later that day, against SPAL, to maintain what has been a fascinating season so far.

We exited the ground amongst the disappointed but proud Granata supporters; the bitterly cold day did nothing to lift their spirits as we made our way back to the tram for the start of our journey back to Milan Malpensa. Waiting for the tram, un signore engaged me in conversation about all things related to public transport. In my broken Italian, accompanied by many gestures, we communicated about the approaching tram and his instant disbelief that five English lads had come to watch the derby instead of Juventus’ Champions League game the previous Tuesday. With a swift warning to remove our souvenir scarves for the trip back, we adhered to his local knowledge and stuffed them in our coats, safely making it back to Porta Nuova to grab our luggage and head home.

On our journey home we relayed the stories of a football-filled weekend. From Milano to Torino and back; the experience of the derby from in and around the stadium; the pre-game build-up and the announcement of the home team; the sheer enthusiasm and appreciation of the Curva towards this game and their team even in defeat. It really was a tale of two halves on and off the field and a weekend the five of us refer to daily – Granata tifosi for the day and a derby to remember.

Words by Ju Ralph @juralph