Last weekend was the Grand National in Britain, and – to steal a racing metaphor to link the famous horse race to the Serie A title battle – Inter are in serious danger of doing a Devon Loch. Well clear of the chasing pack at one point during the 1956 national, the Queen Mother’s horse inexplicably collapsed down the home straight, letting in another mount to pass and steal the glory. From that day on, the moniker of the stricken equine has been used to summarise self inflicted failure so close to the winning post.
The Nerazzurri have rarely been at full throttle throughout the whole of this campaign, but thanks to a ruthless efficiency to grind out results, combined with the inability of their competitors to do likewise, the Scudetto has for large parts appeared to be a one horse race. After stumbling out of the traps, Milan and Roma stabilised themselves to catch up, Mourinho’s men occasionally easing up for air, but as the chase continued, these lapses became more frequent, panicky, and as the Giallorossi galloped up alongside, last week’s fall at Fiorentina could well prove terminal for il Biscione.
That of course would be doing an enormous disservice to Roma, and Claudio Ranieri in particular who has lifted the team from its haunches to deliver a brilliantly timed ride that even Tony McCoy would have been proud of. A fifth win on the spin against Atalanta last week saw il Lupi get their noses in front for the first time, and with the finishing line in sight, momentum is with the Romans. For large parts Jose Mourinho’s side held a seemingly unassailable lead over the chasing pack, yet Inter’s weak haul of just 14 points from their last possible 30 – ten less than their Roman rivals – means a fifth successive crown is slipping from their clutches. It is also easy to forget that when the Tinkerman arrived at the Olimpico, they had lost their opening two matches. Therefore, after overtaking Mourinho, Ranieri has effectively overseen a five point shift over the Special One – in just 31 outings. With only five games left, round 34 represents the most dangerous hurdle for both clubs to fall short. Two games, two derbies, two sides intent on the same prize, this is a pivotal weekend for the destination of the Serie A title.
First up is the Derby d’Italia as Juventus travel to the San Siro. Hardly wishing success on their bitterest rivals at the best of times, the Bianconeri come into the fixture amidst the ongoing Calciopoli trial in Naples, where Luciano Moggi and co are frantically trying to implicate a host of other clubs – namely Inter – into the mire, suggesting that the Nerazzurri were in fact as guilty in the whole affair as those previously charged. Such allegations could have massive ramifications for la Benemeata, who could not only see their 2005/06 Scudetto stripped away, but more substantially, could have huge retrospective punishments handed down which would vastly undermine the domestic dynasty they have garnered since the original Calciopoli scandal. Juventus would love nothing more than to savagely wound the side that have assumed their superiority, on Friday night, and over the coming weeks, their on and off-field actions could bring Inter to its knees.
It takes something substantial to put the Derby della Capitale into the shade, but that is not to say that the meeting of the Eternal City’s two clubs will be a mundane affair. After enduring a horrible season, Lazio are almost safe from the drop – one more win should do it – and the added incentive of wrecking Roma’s title dreams should provide them with sufficient motivation. Both clubs are enjoying strong form coming into the fixture, with Roma on this long unbeaten 23 game run which has seen them catch and pass Inter, whilst Lazio have been rejuvenated by Edy Reja – unbeaten in the last five to all but end any lingering relegation doubts. The unofficial motto of il Lupi’s unlikely burst up the table has been, “It’ll never happen, but if it happens…” another win at the Olimpico on Sunday, and it might just happen. How different may the top of the table look after two very different, but equally dramatic derbies?