x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Juventus need wise heads now in the Serie A title race

Gianluigi Buffon's error against Lecce shows that even the most experienced players can be affected by the pressure.

Gianluigi Buffon cost Juventus two points on Wednesday with his error against Lecce. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP PHOTO
Gianluigi Buffon cost Juventus two points on Wednesday with his error against Lecce. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP PHOTO

The edginess of a title-chase can affect even the most experienced men. There are not many players left in the current Juventus squad who were at the club the last time they finished a season at the top of Serie A, six years ago.

The goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is one. Yet it was he, the veteran of many scudetto run-ins, of World Cup and Uefa Champions League final penalty shootouts, who, with the finish line in sight, betrayed Juve's nerves.

Buffon's error against Lecce last Wednesday night, a lapse of concentration that turned a routine back-pass late in the game into a Lecce goal and two dropped points, has left the leadership of Italy's Serie A looking far more intriguing with two matches to go.

Juventus's lead at the top over the champions AC Milan now stands at a single point, though the advantage is still clearly with the Old Lady. Juve's last fixtures are against Cagliari (14th) and Atalanta (11th). Milan have the small matter of a derby against Inter (sixth) tomorrow, and then a meeting with Novara (already relegated).

That a team can go undefeated through 36 matches, as Juve have, and still be facing the possibility that the title will be decided on the last day of their spotlessly unbeaten campaign is a curiosity.

But the fact is no team in the division has drawn more matches than the leaders, Buffon's slip-up having led to their 15th.

"We have had a few messy draws," said Antonio Conte, the manager, "which shows we still need to mature as a team, but we will, whether we win this league or not."

If Juve do, it will feel like a watershed event, their first title since the calciopoli scandal, and subsequent relegation to Serie B, because their directors had been found to have systematically manipulated referees.

It has been a long journey back to the top for the likes of Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, who is likely, next month, to say good-bye to the club he has served for nearly two decades.

Milan still hope for a Juve setback, perhaps two more "messy draws", while Inter find themselves in a peculiar situation: whatever the outcome of tomorrow's derby, there will be pain even if there is gain.

If Inter win, they may just preserve their ambition of a top-three finish, and entry to the Champions League, though it remains a long shot that they, trailing third-placed Napoli by three points, might force themselves up to the top the thicket of teams - Napoli, Lazio, Udinese - vying to finish immediately below Juventus and Milan.

Beat Milan, and Inter would hurt, perhaps terminally, their neighbours' scudetto dreams. But they would also steer Juve closer to the title. And Inter and Juventus's enmity is scorching hot right now, especially as Juve have threatened to stitch a third star on their jersey if they finish on the top.

The significance of the third star? Traditionally, each star above an Italian club's crest on the jersey stands for 10 league titles.

Officially, Juventus have 27, given that two of their scudetti were stripped - the 2005 and 2006 first-place finishes - from them as a result of calciopoli, and the 2006 title was retrospectively awarded to Inter.

Those decisions have always been contested by Juve, who would regard the 2012 Serie A title as their 30th - the 2006 being, in their minds, their 29th and not Inter's at all.

The Italian league, meanwhile, says it has no sway over how any club embroiders their shirts.

It is a row that will rumble on well beyond an engrossing climax to the campaign.

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