The Derby d’Italia is seen by many as the premier occasion on the Italian football calendar. The infamous journalist Gianni Brera came up with the name in the sixties, as they were the two most successful football clubs on the Italian domestic scene, and up until the Calciopoli scandal, they were the only two sides to have never been relegated. There have been some classic matches over the years, often tinged with more than a hint of controversy, such as the 1961 league decider where an Inter win was overturned on appeal, for a replay that Juventus would win 9-1 against the youth team that the Nerazzurri sent out – thus securing them the league title over their rivals. It is contentious incidents like this that have led to their fierce rivalry that is played out on the pitch, and on more than one occasion has led to violence between players.
The aforementioned match in 1961 is seen as the first of many controversial games between the two. However, the one most frequently referred to in recent years is their clash at the Stadio Delle Alpi in the 1997/98 season. On April 26 1998, Inter came to Turin just one point short of league leaders Juventus, and with only three games remaining. Both sides came in on the back of winning streaks, but it was Gigi Simoni’s side who looked to be firing on all cylinders. Whilst the Nerazzurri, and in particular, Ronaldo, had been devastating in beating the likes of Sampdoria, Roma and Udinese in recent weeks, Juve had squeaked out results against Lazio, Piacenza and Empoli, looking unconvincing in the process. They were often relying solely on individual moments of class from Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane or Filippo Inzaghi, and there had been accusations that they had been benefiting from refereeing decisions throughout the season. Inter hoped it would be a game to turn the title race firmly in their favour, however they would remember it for all the wrong reasons.
Much of the early stages of the match were characterized by both sides not trying to commit too much forward in fear of getting caught on the break. Then, in the 21st minute, Del Piero set off on a run into the Inter penalty area, before cleverly checking back inside Salvatore Fresi and clipping the ball into the far corner beyond Gianluca Pagliuca. Now that the Nerazzurri were chasing the game, Juve were finding themselves more firmly on the back foot. First, a Ronaldo free-kick went close, and then both Youri Djorkaeef and the buck-toothed Brazilian saw chances flash just wide when through on goal – the Bianconeri must have been relieved to hear the half-time whistle.
However, as the second half got underway, it seemed that Inter were determined to pick up where they left off. Ronaldo curled a free-kick on goal, only for Juve to be saved by the crossbar, before first Fresi, and then Taribo West went close with headers. Antonio Conte then had a volley from the edge of the area saved well by Pagliuca shortly prior to the incident that would define this game. As Ivan Zamorano ran into the box, Alessandro Birindelli tackled the ball away from him into the path of Ronaldo, who moved the ball away from the Juve defenders only to be taken out by Mark Iuliano with a challenge that would look better suited in the NFL. Some players seemed to stop in expectation of referee Piero Ceccarini, only for the official to signal that play was to continue. By which time Torricelli had cleared the ball to Edgar Davids, who in turn found Zidane out on the left wing, who effortlessly played the ball into the Inter box for Del Piero, who was bundled over by West. This time Ceccarini did point to the spot. Simoni and his players were apoplectic, especially as all this happened in the space of 20 seconds. The Inter Coach would find himself sent to the stands, meaning that he may have missed Pagliuca saving Del Piero’s penalty with his legs.
He was not the only member of the Inter staff to be dismissed as Ze Elias saw red for jumping with an elbow – another controversial decision considering Davids had escaped punishment for kicking out at Diego Simeone earlier in the game. Simeone would later have the ball in the net only for it to be rightly ruled out for a foul on the keeper. There were some spectacular saves from by both Peruzzi and Pagliuca before the game was out, but Juventus held firm to take the match, and within two games of the title. The Nerazzurri struggled to regain composure after the game and would not win again until the final match of the season. This game remains one of the most contentious in Serie A history, and would even see the Italian Parliament suspended after fighting between members about the match.
Another important past meeting took place in Round 23 of the 2002/03 season. The two sides came into the game level on points at the top of the table, and again there was speculation that the winners would get the momentum to push them towards the title. Inter were now spearheaded by Christian Vieri, whilst Juve were lead by the talents of Del Piero and that year’s Ballon d’Or winner, Pavel Nedved. It was he who would prove instrumental, as after just four minutes Juventus won a free-kick out wide on the left. Nedved swung the ball in at the keeper, and Francesco Toldo parried it out, although unfortunately for him it was onto the legs of his own player, Guly, and the ball rebounded into the net. Juve continued to dominate with Nedved and Marco Di Vaio frequently bamboozling the Inter backline. Inter would only briefly threaten through long shots from Gabriel Batistuta and the enigmatic Alvaro Recoba.
Then, just past the half hour mark, Nedved showed why he was arguably the best player in the world at that time, as a quick turn and a left foot shot from 25 yards went into Toldo’s bottom left-hand corner like a bullet. In truth from this point on Hector Cuper’s side ceased to be in the game, as the Bianconeri – led by the Czech playmaker, continued to run rings around them, and but for some good saves from Toldo could have gone into the break three or four goals to the good. The second half had a much more muted pace to it initially, although Christian Vieri did appear to be trying to force something – but to no avail. After Marco Di Vaio came off for Pessotto, it appeared that Marcelo Lippi had accepted that the game was safe. However, there was to be one more moment of magic from Nedved, as he broke into the box in a dribble reminiscent of the one that brought Del Piero’s goal in the 1998 fixture. However, in contrast to the diminutive number 10, Nedved played the ball across the box and Mauro Camoranesi was on hand to slam the ball home – securing the win.
Following this victory, Juve never really looked back, and would go on to win the league by seven points ahead of the Nerazzurri. In all subsequent games the gap between the clubs would only get wider as Inter struggled to put together anything even resembling consistent form, and failed to take advantage of any slip-ups by Lippi’s side. It is unlikely that this weekend’s game will have as dramatic an effect on the direction of the title, however, the Turin giants will have to replicate the result of these two matches if they are to have any hope of taking the championship away from Jose Mourinho’s men.