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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Twenty years after 'The Great Theft' Inter Milan can sabotage Juventus' scudetto hopes

Juve widely deemed to have unfairly denied Inter Milan a league title in 1998 Derby d'Italia

<p>Inter Milan&#39;s Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic&nbsp;and his teammates harbour top-four ambitions in Serie&nbsp;A. They next face leaders Juventus at the San Siro. Miguel Medina / AFP</p>
Inter Milan's Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic and his teammates harbour top-four ambitions in Serie A. They next face leaders Juventus at the San Siro. Miguel Medina / AFP

Revenge, the phrase goes, is a dish best served cold. The notion came to mind on Thursday, on the 20th anniversary of probably the most contentious Derby d’Italia in the age of televised football. On that spring day in 1998, Juventus were widely deemed to have unfairly denied Inter Milan a league title.

Two decades on, Inter have a chance if not for full payback, for a sweet sabotage. In truth, most interisti, fans of a club whose rivalry with Juventus is an intense as any in Italy, could produce a very long list, with precedents stretching back well over 20 years, of reasons why seizing their opportunity to erode Juve’s slender advantage at the top of Serie A would generate immense satisfaction, even if the biggest beneficiaries this time would not be Inter but second-placed Napoli.

The past spats that make the Derby d’Italia so intense are many, the grudges specific and detailed, and they will all form part of the baggage carried into Saturday’s collision at San Siro.

First, the maths. Juventus, dramatically defeated at home by a late Napoli goal last weekend, have seen their pursuit of a record sixth successive scudetto turn from an apparent canter to a nervous, edgy chase in the space of barely 180 minutes of football. At one point in the 33rd matchday of the season, they led Napoli by nine points; now, with four fixtures left of the 38-game campaign, the gap is down to one. The remaining schedule for Juventus includes Saturday's trip to Inter, and a match at Roma, who are third.

Both of those opponents nurse a very real resentment of Juventus, and, quite apart from that, an immediate motivation for all the points they can garner. Four Serie A clubs will gain entry to the Uefa Champions League next season, and with Juventus and Napoli guaranteed two of those places, the next pair of tickets are subject to a fierce battle between Roma, currently third on the same points as fourth-placed Lazio, and Inter, fifth and a point behind the two clubs from the capital.

Napoli, meanwhile, go to Fiorentina, ninth in the table, on Sunday. By which time the 223rd Derby D’Italia may have opened a Napoli route to top spot and will certainly have reopened its own set of old wounds. Among them, the scars of the notorious 1998 title decider. On that day, at the Stadio delle Alpi, the Juventus defender Mark Iuliano hurled himself at Inter’s brilliant Brazilian Ronaldo, whereupon referee Piero Ceccarini not only dismissed appeals for a penalty but awarded Juventus one 20 seconds later at the other end. It was saved, but Juventus went on to hold their 1-0 lead, enough to signpost their way towards the scudetto at the expense of Inter, the one club in a position to have overtaken them in the race.

That day remains infamous, the Iuliano bodycheck on Ronaldo endlessly replayed. Its aftermath would reach the Italian parliament, where one politician had to be restrained from confronting another, the former Juve footballer Massimo Mauro, as Mauro’s antagonist shouted: “They are all robbers!” The match became known to interisti as "The Great Theft" and, after Juventus were in 2006 demoted to Serie B when their executives were found to have systematically influenced match officials, "The Mother of Calciopoli", calciopoli being the name of that scandal.

Calciopoli itself deepened the Juve-Inter rancour. The 2006 Serie A title was awarded by the Italian league to Inter; fans of Juventus, who had finished top of the table, still claim it, tauntingly, among the 35 they believe the club has won. Officially, the figure is 33. The 2006 and 2005 titles were stripped from the club, the 2005 title awarded to nobody.

As for Napoli, they have won the Italian league just twice, the last time in 1990 with Diego Maradona as their totem, and they have twice finished second to Juventus in the last five seasons. They would be popular breakers of the Juve stranglehold on the title. “Napoli have been doing fantastic things,” acknowledged Juve’s manager Max Allegri.

“We always knew the title was going to be close and tough this season,” Allegri added. “We still have that point in our favour, so we need to keep calm in all the games we have left.”

An estimated 10,000 Juve supporters are expected at San Siro. “What we are focussed on is our ambitions, to gain the Champions League spot,” said Luciano Spalletti, the Inter manager, who looks back over the season in which he can distantly recall that his club were briefly top of the table themselves, back in December, when they drew 0-0 at the Juventus Stadium. It is an outcome that, repeated tomorrow, would suit neither of the contestants in this most portentous Derby d’Italia.