“We thought that we’d already won the Scudetto, but that is not the case” shrugged Max Allegri after presiding over Juventus’ first defeat of the season.
Sunday’s 2-0 loss at Genoa may take the gloss off a monumental week, but nobody is fooled. The title, for an eighth year in succession, is heading to Turin.
That much was confirmed a week ago, as the Bianconeri strolled to a 4-1 win over Udinese. With 10 games to play, 15 points separate the Old Lady from her nearest rival, although the term ‘rival’ is definitely pushing it at this stage.
But when did it all get so predictable? This, after all, is the same competition that gave Gabriel Batistuta one Scudetto in exchange for a decade of dominance. The same competition that denied Giuseppe Signori, Antonio Di Natalie and even Ronaldo a league trophy.
In better days, this was a battle fought gamely between footballing titans. In better days, it was the most exciting league in the world; and here are just five examples to prove it.
1990/91 – Sampdoria
Some say it was the arrival of Renzo Ullivieri as coach. Others swear it was the capture of Roberto Mancini from Bologna. Either way, Sampdoria’s ascent to the Scudetto in 1991 is still celebrated at the Luigi Ferrari today.
Paolo Mantovani’s millions had seen I Blucerchiati become a respected Serie A force by 1990. His investments had propelled them to an historic win in the Cup Winners Cup, but the gregarious oil man wanted more. Vujadin Boškov, the meticulous Serb who’d assumed the coaching role four years earlier, was the man tasked with delivering a coveted league trophy.
Despite competing against Marco van Basten’s Milan and Lothar Matthäus ’ Inter, Sampdoria were rampant, losing just three games in a campaign set ablaze by Gianluca Vialli. Ably assisted by a spine of Gianluca Pagliuca and Pietro Vierchowod, the Genoese side swept to their first and so far only league honour.
1999/00 – Lazio
Having lost out to Milan on the final day of the 1998/99 season, Lazio president Sergio Cragnotti threw any remaining caution to the wind. The twin captures of Juan Sebastián Verón and Néstor Sensini from Parma, coupled with shrewd acquisitions like Simone Inzaghi and Diego Simeone, peppered Sven Goran Eriksson’s side with genuine quality and bite.
Juventus, however, were stubbornly judicious in their defence of top spot. On the last day of the season, they needed only to beat bottom feeders Perugia to secure yet another Scudetto.
They couldn’t manage it, Pippo Inzaghi fluffing a handful of decent opportunities in the Umbrian rain. With the pressure mounting, Alessandro Calori capitalised on some slack Juventus defending to cannon a loose volley into the bottom corner. In Rome, meanwhile, Lazio rolled over 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 Sven Goran Eriksson at the final whistle. “The other titles I won elsewhere in Europe cannot compare to this.”
2000/01 – Roma
According to the Renaissance painter Giotto Di Bondone, Rome is “the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.”
On June 17, 2001, Fabio Capello knew it more than anyone. With barely five minutes to go of the last game of the season, his Roma side were on the verge of becoming champions. Fans were running onto the pitch in celebration, but Capello had learned the hard way that Patience was a virtue.
Roma’s acerbic manager had always been averse to frivolity. Three months before that day, he’d watched Gabriel Batistuta and Vincenzo Montella pummel an average Verona side 3-1. Pundits were already declaring the Giallorossi as title winners. Yet despite their imperious form; despite an imperious rearguard of Emerson and that half-man, half-bulldog-chewing-a-wasp Walter Samuel; they so nearly failed.
Losing their next game against Fiorentina, Capello watched aghast as his hapless charges surrendered a nine-point lead over Juventus. On the last day of the season, just two points separated them from Carlo Ancelotti’s side. The Torinese were widely expected to roll over Atalanta, but Roma still needed to overcome Matiás Almeyda and Lilian Thuram’s Parma in a fraught afternoon at the Stadio Olimpico.
Not for the first or last time, Totti came to his teammates’ rescue. With 19 febrile 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. Only subsequent strikes from Montella and Batistuta calmed the nerves. Roma, despite their best efforts, were crowned champions as supporters swarmed onto the pitch.
2001/02 – Juventus
What do you do when you lose Zinedine Zidane? Sign Pavel Nedvěd and Gianluigi Buffon, of course.
The Frenchman’s record transfer to Real Madrid may have 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 rested a point behind Héctor Cúper’s Internazionale.
For so long, it seemed like the Argentine coach had obliterated the Nerazzurri’s inferiority complex, but poor results against Atalanta and Chievo opened the door to Juventus and Roma. Only an away win against Lazio would do.
Goals from Christian Vieri and Luigi Di Biagio should have been enough. They might have been, too, had Vratislav Greško not headed straight into the path of Karel Poborsky for the Czech’s second goal on 45-minutes.
The Slovak never played for the club again, buried in a miserable memory that was plagued by further strikes from Simeone and Simone Inzaghi. Juventus fans, having watched their team dispatch Udinese 2-0 at Friuli, were free to enjoy the sight of Ronaldo sobbing helplessly on the Inter bench.
2007/08 – Internazionale
Serie A’s lustre faded considerably in the mid-2000s, abetted by the taint of Calciopoli and the monied avarice of the Premier League. The 2007/08 campaign, however, proved that Italy could still rustle up a title race.
Internazionale were the undisputed favorites, profiting from the humiliations of Juventus and Milan to become the premier force on the peninsula. Roma, however, were a side reborn under Luciano Spalletti. Twice the conqueror of Real Madrid in Europe, the Giallorossi would go on to snare both the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa that year.
For many though, it is a season ruined by yet another final-day disaster. Roma cut Internazionale’s lead relentlessly, scything an 11-point cushion to just one before they travelled to face Catania on the final day. The Nerazzurri, meanwhile, needed to beat Parma to retain the league title.
“We were bloody worried!” recalls Zlatan Ibrahimović in his autobiography I am Zlatan.
“The fact was that 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.”
The Swede hadn’t played since March 29. Roma fans were relieved, then, to see Roberto Mancini persist with Mario Balotelli and Julio Cruz up front. They were less relieved, though, to see Ibrahimović barrelling onto the pitch early in the second half.
Just 11 minutes later, a low shot rifled from his right boot, past Nicola Pavarini’s outstretched glove and into the bottom corner. Cue pandemonium. By the time Ibra-Cadabra swept a Maicon cross in at the far post, the title race was over. Roma had become yet another victim in Serie A’s merciless game of thrones.