By Mark Doyle
Ahead of this weekend's meeting with Catania, Juventus coach Antonio Conte was doing his utmost to guard against complacency. With title rivals Napoli facing what looked like a far easier assignment against struggling Chievo, the Bianconeri boss warned his troops: "Dropping points could be lethal."
And so it proved. Just not for his men.
Napoli's faltering Scudetto challenge finally broke down in Verona, with Walter Mazzarri's overstretched squad slumping to a dismal 2-0 defeat at the Marc'Antonio Bentegodi that left them nine points adrift of the now runaway leaders. Had Catania secured a draw in Turin, one could have argued that there was still a flicker of life left in the title race. However, Emanuele Giaccherini's last-gasp winner in Turin has effectively extinguished it.
Mazzarri unsurprisingly refused to admit as much. "I think the glass is half full and we cannot admit defeat yet," he said defiantly. Conte also refused to entertain the idea that Juve are out of sight. "We cannot make calculations right now, so [we'll] take it one game at a time," the former Italy international insisted.
|MATCH FACTS | Juventus 1-0 Catania
The Bianconeri boss is right, of course. Mathematically speaking, anything is still possible. There are, after all, still 10 rounds remaining. However, Juve's matchwinner, Giaccherini, merely said what everyone else is now thinking when he mused: "Of course now that we are nine points up on Napoli, we might have to close the [Scudetto] discussion."
The harsh reality of the situation is that Napoli, who are without a win in eight games in all competitions, should be more concerned with holding on to second, than overhauling Juve. Indeed, even if Edinson Cavani does start scoring again; even if the Partenopei do start winning again; even if the San Paolo surface suddenly becomes playable; is it really conceivable that Juve will throw away what is, in light of their superior head-to-head record over their nearest title rivals, effectively a 10-point lead?
There is nothing about this current crop of Bianconeri to suggest that a collapse is even remotely possible. They are in form, have no major injury concerns and, most importantly of all, have been here before. Indeed, Juve not only managed to fend off a far greater title challenge from AC Milan last season, they also kept their unbeaten record intact while doing so. Bottle is not a concern. This is a side for whom winning truly has become a habit.
The Old Lady laboured for 91 minutes against the Rossazzurri on Sunday but still managed to find a way to secure three most precious points. As per usual. True, Juve have had the occasional wobble this term, but then, that's primarily because this season, unlike last, they have been burdened by participation in the Champions League. Viewed in that light, the serene nature of their march towards a second successive Scudetto seems a far more impressive feat, even accounting for the dearth of genuine pretenders to their throne.
That they have all but clinched the title with 10 rounds remaining is not only a terrific achievement, it is also a massive boost for their hopes of European glory. With the league virtually in the bag, Conte is now in the very enviable position of being able to rest key players ahead of and in between the Champions League quarter-finals, just like a number of their prospective opponents, including Real Madrid, who have all but given up on holding onto their La Liga crown.
As things stood before his weekend, Juventus represented a very dangerous opponent for any side in the last eight. With the Scudetto now all but taken care of, they look lethal.
- Milan are hoping to deliver a death blow of their own on Tuesday night, against Barcelona at Camp Nou. However, while they will arrive in Catalunya on the back of another domestic success, having triumphed 2-0 over Genoa on Friday evening, all did not go according to plan for the resurgent Rossoneri. Not only did Milan perform poorly against relegation-threatened opponents, Massimiliano Allegri also pointed out that they senselessly expended more energy than they should have done following Kevin Constant's needless red card midway through the second half. Most worryingly of all, though, the Diavolo will travel to Barcelona without in-form forward Giampaolo Pazzini, who was forced off through injury just moments after opening the scoring at the Luigi Ferraris.
- Still, Andrea Stramaccioni would gladly trade places with Allegri right now. After an embarrassingly tame capitulation at White Hart Lane on Thursday, Inter were humbled by Bologna at San Siro on Sunday evening. The most disturbing thing about the Nerazzurri's 1-0 reversal against the Rossoblu was that it was not in the least bit surprising. The one saving grace for Stramaccioni is that the supporters at least acknowledge that he is working with a horribly substandard squad of players. "Let us have a go," implored one of the banners at the Giuseppe Meazza, "one of us is bound to be good and at least we’d be Interisti."
- Unlike Inter, Lazio actually enjoyed their Europa League endeavours, winning away to Stuttgart. However, the effects of their midweek excursion were there for all to see in a disappointing defeat at home to Fiorentina, who, after their alarming mid-season slump, have seemingly rediscovered the form which prompted giddy talk of a Champions League place for the Viola. As if Napoli did not have enough to worry about with Milan now breathing down their necks ...