Six goals, a red card, two penalties and an early contender for miss of the century. Not bad for the warm-up act. Wednesday’s main event in Serie A was Atalanta-Lazio, a meeting of two teams that have produced some of the finest footballing symphonies on the peninsula. But first on stage, in the ‘early’ 7.30pm slot, were the chaotic chords of Inter-Sassuolo.
It was the sort of tune that Antonio Conte never wanted to hear at San Siro. After becoming the Inter manager last summer, one of his first acts was to stop the club’s anthem, Amala, from being played before home games. The song is an ode to “Pazza Inter” – Crazy Inter. “Enough talk of craziness,” he said. “Inter will be regular and strong.”
Easier said than done. Inter have produced some of their best football in years, but they have interspersed it with familiar follies – throwing away games that looked won. They did it twice on Wednesday, surrendering a lead in the 81st minute, then doing it again in the 89th. This after coming from behind to lead at the half.
Conte gambled with his team selection, leaving out five of 11 starters from Sunday’s win over Sampdoria. A slow-motion midfield of Roberto Gagliardini and Borja Valero looked like a mistake from the outset, Filip Djuricic accelerating away to set up Francesco Caputo for Sassuolo’s fourth-minute opener.
Inter had shown little sign of coming back into the game, before Jeremie Boga lost track of Milan Skriniar, swiping a boot into his opponent without even knowing they were there. Romelu Lukaku converted the penalty. Five minutes later, Cristiano Biraghi exchanged a one-two with Alexis Sánchez and ran through to make it 2-1.
Even Conte must have wondered how his team was ahead. All of Italy, though, would be left flummoxed by Gagliardini’s failure to extend Inter’s lead once play resumed.
Lukaku fed Lautaro Martínez down the left channel to launch an Inter counterattack. The Argentinian returned the ball to his strike partner near the penalty spot. Lukaku’s first-time effort was parried straight into the path of Gagliardini, five yards from goal. All he had to do was nudge it over the line. Somehow, he thwacked it on to the bar.
It was an astonishing miss – right up there with Edin Dzeko against Palermo in 2016 and Mattia Destro for Bologna against SPAL. At least this was not the fourth minute of added time of a derby. Gagliardini’s gaffe is unlikely to be commemorated, as Destro’s was, with its own choreography, but it did cost Inter a chance to put this game to bed.
Instead, they shook it awake. Ashley Young, on as a sub in the 75th minute, was lucky not to give away a penalty in the 77th when the ball struck his arm in the area. He allowed no such room for interpretation in the 80th, when he went through the back of Mert Müldür. “I never touched him, mate,” protested Young. Reality begged to differ.
Domenico Berardi scored the penalty. Five minutes later, Inter were back in front, Valero arriving unmarked at the back post to help Antonio Candreva’s free-kick across the line.
It could have been an ending that spoke to the resilience of Conte’s team: evidence they were ready to fight for the Scudetto. But it wasn’t. Müldür had already drawn another good save from Samir Handanovic before Giangiacomo Magnani swept home a deflected cross to make it 3-3.
There was barely time to breathe before Atalanta and Lazio filled up a nation’s TV screens. For the second time in four days, kick-off at the Gewiss Stadium was preceded by a moment’s reflection to a soundtrack of Roby Facchinetti’s Rinascerò, Rinascerai (I will be reborn, you will be reborn). The game that followed could have served as an extended metaphor.
Atalanta were two goals down inside 11 minutes. Marten de Roon smashed the ball into his own net from a similar range to where Gagliardini had missed from. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic casually picked out the corner of Pierluigi Gollini’s goal from 25 yards.
At the time, it felt like a statement of intent. Juventus had moved four points clear of Lazio at the top of Serie A when they beat Bologna on Monday. That was already their third game back since the coronavirus interruption, with the previous two coming in the Coppa Italia. Likewise Inter, this season’s other aspiring title contender, had played three times between league and cup.
Lazio had been left kicking their heels, itching to get out there and remind everyone what they were capable of. Before the pause, they had gone 21 league games without defeat. Now they were 2-0 up away to the team that sat fourth; opponents who had demolished Sassuolo 4-1 on Sunday.
Like Inter, though, they failed to press home their advantage. Ciro Immobile missed a pair of chances to make it 3-0, before Robin Gosens halved the deficit instead. Atalanta never looked back.
It took a spectacular finish from Ruslan Malinovskyi to get them level, belted with such violence from the edge of the area that the cameraman could scarcely react in time to catch it hitting the net. Atalanta, though, were already dominating the play by that point. José Luis Palomino finally headed them in front in the 80th minute, but the outcome had long felt inevitable.
Lazio’s manager, Simone Inzaghi, could not hide his disappointment, acknowledging that his team’s path to the title had become “more complicated”. That four-point lead for Juventus over Lazio, as well as the eight-point advantage they hold over Inter, was enough for some to declare the race was already at an end.
It is easy for such fatalism to take hold when the team in first place has won the past eight titles. Juventus were already the favourites and their position has strengthened. On the other hand, there is still almost a third of the season to go. They have games against Atalanta, Roma and Milan in July, as well as a head-to-head with Lazio.
What is true is that the fixtures have fallen kindly for Juventus in this initial phase of restart. Although the Coppa Italia ended badly, it allowed them to shake off any rust before resuming their league campaign against a spirited, but modest, Bologna. Lazio looked tired in the second-half against Atalanta – as you would expect for a group of players thrown into such a high-intensity encounter without any competitive action in their legs.
None of which should be used to diminish Atalanta’s efforts. It is worth remembering they led 3-0 at Lazio in October, too, before the home side pulled off an extraordinary comeback of their own to rescue a point.
Atalanta were the top scorers last season with 77 goals. They have reached the same tally this time around with 11 games to spare. Twelve points behind Juventus, they are unlikely to challenge for the title, but not even the craziest Inter can truly claim to put on a more entertaining show.