All it would take for Juventus to allow A.C. Milan right back into the title race on a whim was one false step, and it occured when Lecce’s Andrea Bertolacci was allowed to capitalize on the rarest of errors from Juventus custodian Gianluigi Buffon to score the equalizer and earn his relegation-battling side a gutsy 1-1 draw with the league leaders at the Juventus Stadium in Turin.
That goal has cut Juventus’ lead over Milan to just one point in Serie A, as the title race cumulates in its final two fixtures. Scorer Bertolacci has now joined numerous other players who have played for the minnows, or teams from provincial areas in Italy, and affected how the title race pans out for their more glamorous and established club counterparts. Regardless of how crucial this Sunday’s Milan derby could turn out to be, one can’t help but harbour the feeling the Scudetto’s fate has already been decided by either contender’s record against Italy’s smaller sides.
This season, Juventus, patient as ever, have sat back to capitalise on Milan’s slip-ups and go within touching distance of their first title since returning from relegation following Calciopoli, standing to wrest the trophy from their opponent’s grip if they win their remaining two encounters. Should they drop further points and surrender the lead to their rivals however, they will be left to rue an incredible 15 draws, consisting of dropped points and missed opportunities, as their unbeaten record weighs on their shoulders without counting for anything.
Indeed, this season is not without precedent as history proves nothing is impossible in a league as unpredictable and competitive as Serie A.
Backtrack to the season 1999/2000, and Juventus were leading the table, again by one point, as they looked a cinch to clinch the title amidst a comfortable away tie to mid-table Perugia, who had nothing left to play for. A win for Lazio, who were in second place, against Reggina would count for nothing if the former decisive act played out.
A look at the table on 7th May 2000, one fixture before the last of the season: Juventus were on hand to clinch the Scudetto.
The matches went on as expected on the 14th of May, but nature then turned up to Juve that winning the championship was not cast in iron till after a referee’s final whistle; torrential spring rain opened up on the pitch at Perugia, prompting referee Pierluigi Collina to halt the match for a good 82 minutes before opting against calling it off. The damage was done nevertheless; playing in terrible conditions, Juventus were to suffer an Alessandro Calori sucker-punch, going down 1-0 as Lazio comfortably beat their guests 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Juventus had painfully lost the Scudetto just as it was about to enter their hands.
Fate was to smile more kindly on Juventus heading into her final fixtures in the 2001/2002 Scudetto edition, but this time round, they were to be the ones to clinch the title from behind, having to depend on any favourable results of their opponents that fell into their hands, as the season progressed and cumulated in a final day three-horse race comprising the Bianconeri, Inter Milan and A.S. Roma.
Hope was present amongst the Juve tifosi as they made the trip east to Udinese, given that the side that had ousted them from top spot two seasons ago, Lazio, were due to host the Nerazzurri in Rome. Anticipation of an upset was present in the air as David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero eased the away side’s nerves as they absorbed wave after wave of Udinese attack.
The atmosphere amongst the traveling Juventus fans was to dip and spike during the match when Inter’s Christian Vieri gifted Inter the lead before Luigi Di Biagio renewed it. Then arrived the moment all Bianconeri fans were waiting for. Inter, capped off by a horror show from Vratislav Gresko when he ‘assisted’ Lazio’s Karel Poborsky’s goal, capitulated to lose the match 4-2, while Roma’s victory against Torino had little effect on Juventus’ march to the title. The players and fans looked jubilant; they had erased the memory of their Scudetto suicide two years back by taking advantage of Inter’s this time round.
Past case studies present a worthy trip back to see how players not used to being under the spotlight could influence proceedings as much as their more illustrious peers could, for better or for worse, as how smaller, less supported clubs likewise played a role in the greater scheme of things. Now into the final two games, these two scenarios from a good decade ago, portray excellent contrasts to the situation Juventus now find themselves in, and how possible a scenario it is for league leaders to be overhauled in the final stretch; maximum concentration, and a fair bit of luck, is necessary as both Juventus and Milan prepare to have their fates decided, in a season that has already proven to be anything but straightforward.