Torino channel their Invincibles in unlikely quest for Champions League

Inter v Juventus drew the focus but the cities’ other teams – Milan and Torino – played a more significant match

Torino’s players celebrate the victory over Milan that puts them in the hunt for a Champions League place. Photograph: Di Marco/EPA

Game over.” The words stretched out across the second tier of San Siro’s northern stand on Saturday night in an epic display of schadenfreude. Juventus are champions of Italy for the eighth year running, yet their quest to conquer Europe for the first time since 1996 remains unfulfilled. No club’s supporters enjoy that truth more than those of Inter: the last Serie A team to lift the Champions League.

Still, the mockery cut both ways. If the game is over for Juventus in Europe, then domestically it never even began. Inter, in their second season under Luciano Spalletti, were supposed to be building towards a title challenge. When the fixtures were first published, this one leapt off the page. A Derby d’Italia in late April ought to have something riding on it for both teams.

Instead, the gap between them was 26 points before kick-off, and still the same at full-time. The game had its moments: from Radja Nainggolan’s gorgeous volleyed opener through to the inevitable equaliser from Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet the first half, in particular, lacked urgency. A 1-1 draw keeps Inter on course for third place but they are hardly sprinting towards the finish line.

For all the taunts and grand choreographies, the truth is that this was not even the most important fixture contested over the weekend between teams from Milan and Turin. On Sunday, Torino hosted Milan in a fixture that would blow the race for Champions League places wide open.

The Rossoneri began the weekend in fourth place, though they do not look comfortable in that spot. Knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Lazio on Wednesday, they had won just one of their last seven games across all competitions. Only the indifferent form of the teams immediately behind them had allowed them to hold on to a Champions League berth for so long.

Roma finally overtook them on Saturday, with a 3-0 win over Cagliari. It was their third victory – and third clean sheet – in four games: results that suggested Claudio Ranieri was getting to grips with the situation he inherited when he returned as manager in early March. The pressure was on Milan to respond.

Andrea Belotti scores from the penalty spot. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/EPA

Torino, however, had also been eyeing the top four with interest. While the traditional contenders struggled, their own form had been exceptional. Only Juventus and Atalanta had collected more points so far in 2019.

The credit belonged above all to Walter Mazzarri. Discarded by Inter after a rough start in 2014, and then sacked by Watford, he returned to Serie A last year with a canyon-sized chip on his shoulder. Had football forgotten already his achievements at Napoli, finishing third in 2011 and second two years later – with Champions League wins over Manchester City and Chelsea (over 90 minutes, at least) in between?

He has constructed a team along similar lines in Turin: defensively meticulous and ruthless on the counter, with a back three and a muscular No 9. Andrea Belotti is not as prolific as Edinson Cavani – nor even as much as he himself appeared to be during a breakout 2016-17 campaign – but he hit his 13th goal of the season on Sunday, opening the scoring against Milan with a penalty struck straight down the middle.

The spot-kick award was hotly disputed. Franck Kessié had placed a hand on Armando Izzo’s back but was that really enough to send the Torino player tumbling? It was an eventful occasion for referee Marco Guida, who had already sent Mazzarri off for excessive sideline grumbling and would later dismiss Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli for sarcastic applause.

In any case, though, Torino’s lead was fully merited. They doubled it soon afterwards, Álex Berenguer curling home after Mateo Musacchio could only head a clearance straight to him inside the penalty area. The game finished 2-0, with Milan’s only real chances coming from set-pieces, most notably when Tiemoué Bakayoko crashed a header against the crossbar.

Torino had suffocated Milan’s midfield with an aggressive press and man marking. Tomás Rincón, in particular, seemed to overwhelm Lucas Paquetá, depriving the Rossoneri of their only real creative outlet in midfield.

Tiemoué Bakayoko reacts after his header hits the bar. Photograph: Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

It is these battles within a battle in which Mazzarri’s team so often excels. Speaking to the website Il Napolista this February, Carlo Ancelotti cited Torino in evidence of the greater tactical challenge that a manager faces preparing for a game in Serie A.

His Napoli team had beaten Torino 3-1 away from home in September, but could only draw with them 0-0 at home. The Granata changed formation in-between, in Ancelotti’s analysis from a 5-3-2 to a 5-4-1. More than that, though, individual player assignments were tweaked – Rincón dropping between the lines on Napoli’s left to disrupt a specific attacking movement even though doing so rendered Torino’s midfield asymmetrical.

“This stuff almost never happens abroad,” observed Ancelotti. “You might find [Pep] Guardiola, who is a manager who really studies opposing teams, but in general you don’t get this level of detail.”

Such meticulousness, paired with a fine season from Salvatore Sirigu between the sticks, has helped Torino to maintain one of the tightest defences in Serie A. The clean sheet against Milan was their 14th of the season.

The path to the Champions League remains challenging. Torino sit fifth for now, and hold the head-to-head tie-breaker with Milan, but their next game is the derby at Juventus. A similarly overachieving Atalanta side have the chance to jump ahead of them on Monday night, and Roma, on present form, may yet be tough to catch.

Mazzarri insisted on Sunday that he is not thinking about the Champions League, though that much seems hard to believe. This was Torino’s first league win over Milan in 18 years, and their 56 points are the most ever achieved by the club in the era of three points for a win. The manager dedicated the win to the great Torino team of the 1940s whose era of dominance was cut short by the tragic plane crash at Superga.

“We are giving everything we have,” said Mazzari. “In the hope to get as close to The Invincibles as we can.”

Talking points

 As a counter-point to praise for Mazzarri above, I will add: Sunday was the sixth time this season he’s been dismissed from the dugout. Extraordinary.

 Juventus might be playing out the string but that didn’t stop Massimiliano Allegri from getting into a blazing row with Daniele Adani during a post-game interview on Sky Sports. Impatient with questions over his team’s lack of verve, Allegri lamented that “in Italy everyone is becoming a theorist”, before accusing his interviewer – a former centre-back who made a handful of friendly appearances for Italy – of being “the first example of someone who reads a bunch of books and doesn’t know a thing about football”.

 Dries Mertens scored his 81st Serie A goal for Napoli – drawing level with Diego Maradona. Still another 21 required to match the club record set by Antonio Vojak. (The club record for all competitions is held by Marek Hamsik, with 121).

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