Do footballing rivalries still matter, without fans to sustain them? Marco Giampaolo is hardly the first to have pondered that question in 2020, but the Torino manager expressed the thought eloquently at a press conference before his team faced Juventus.
Asked how a Turin derby compared to others he had coached in Genoa and Milan, he replied: “I have no means by which to measure it … The derby is something you breathe from the Monday morning right through to the game on Sunday: you perceive it through the interactions you have with people in your daily life. Right now, that is impossible.”
The absence of those daily connections might have felt especially vivid to Giampaolo, who only returned to the training ground on Thursday after 20 days of self-isolation brought on by a positive coronavirus diagnosis. Yet this was also a derby that needed its supporters more than most. Without them, it was tempting to ask if a footballing rivalry even still exists in the city of Turin. Since the turn of the century, Torino had faced Juventus 27 times in official competitions and come away with a single win. A further five games ended in draws. The remaining 21 were all defeats.
Hired in the summer to replace Moreno Longo, Giampaolo’s results hardly suggested a man ready to reverse those trends. Torino sat 18th, with one win from nine games. The 22 goals they had conceded were the most of any team in Serie A. And yet, Torino had produced patches of brilliant football. Andrea Belotti was playing as well as he had at any point in his career, keeping pace with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku in the scoring charts and staking a claim to replace Ciro Immobile as Italy’s first-choice centre-forward. The teenage wing-back Wilfried Singo was tormenting opponents with his nimble dribbles and furious energy.
Torino had scored three times against both Lazio and high-flying Sassuolo. They went 2-0 up with more than an hour played at Inter, despite Belotti injuring himself during pre-game warmups. The problem was, they still didn’t win. Torino conceded twice in 60 seconds against Sassuolo, three times in 10 minutes against Lazio and four times in less than half an hour against Inter, each implosion somehow even more spectacular than the last. If every Serie A game were called at half-time, they would have been second in the table; instead, they had slipped into a relegation scrap.
Optimistic observers saw the game against Juventus as an opportunity. Although undefeated, the Bianconeri were vulnerable: still working out their identity under Andrea Pirlo, and dropping plenty of points along the way. They had drawn with newly-promoted Benevento and Crotone, and were missing the suspended Álvaro Morata, author of six goals and three assists in his last seven outings.
Giampaolo said he hoped that his team could overcome any gulf in technical ability with “organisation, emotion, heart and personality”. For more than an hour, at the Allianz Stadium on Saturday night, Torino had those qualities in spades.
They took the lead through Nicolas Nkoulou after just nine minutes, the defender poking the ball home from close range after it ricocheted to him from a corner. It was a fortuitous goal, but there was nothing undeserved about Torino’s advantage. Although they had yielded possession to their hosts, sitting deep and compact in a 3-5-2, Giampaolo’s side remained far more effective at carving out chances. If Simone Zaza had kept his nerve when clean through on goal against his former club, Torino could have been 2-0 up inside a quarter of an hour. Belotti flashed a scissor-kick just over the bar not long afterward.
Juventus reached half-time with only a single shot on target: a tame outside-the-box effort from Dybala that went straight into the arms of Salvatore Sirigu. Juan Cuadrado had a goal correctly disallowed for offside after the interval, but otherwise the Torino goalkeeper did not have another save to make until the 77th minute, when he pushed Federico Chiesa’s effort behind comfortably enough at his near post.
If Torino could only have maintained their levels for another quarter of an hour, they would have had their first win at Juventus in a quarter of a century. Instead, they went to pieces.
The corner was worked back to Cuadrado, positioned a few yards outside the top right-hand corner of the box. From there, he looped a cross over to the back post where four Juventus players were being tracked by two defenders – only one of whom was goal-side. Weston McKennie got to the ball first, heading in for the equaliser.
The ending, from there, felt inevitable. Another Cuadrado cross, another unmarked mob of black-and-white shirts waiting to apply the final touch. Perhaps it was fitting that Leonardo Bonucci should do the honours this time. The derby will never feel meaningless in his household, since the centre-back’s oldest son, Lorenzo, is a Torino fan.
To analyse the details of Torino’s collapse almost felt futile. Had Giampaolo made a tactical error by withdrawing Zaza shortly before Juventus’s equaliser, adding an extra midfielder in Sasa Lukic but diminishing his team’s threat on the break? The striker certainly seemed unhappy with the decision, exchanging words with his manager before heading straight down the tunnel, yet he had struggled to get on the ball in the second half.
On the Juventus bench, Pirlo could feel pleased with his decision to send on McKennie, whose line-breaking ability is certainly a strength. In truth, though, his was a goal that could just as easily have been scored by any of the other teammates that Torino had failed to mark on the same set-piece.
Giampaolo insisted that this was a defeat all about “small details, particulars”, and most certainly not an “emotional collapse”. In either case, though, it is the repetition of such outcomes that feels damning. Torino have thrown away 19 points from winning positions this season – comfortably the most of any team in Europe’s top five leagues. Ten of those have come within the final 15 minutes of matches.
Perhaps it was too much for fans to hope that this might be the game where they turned the tide. Juventus were breaking Torino hearts in the dying moments of matches before it was fashionable – even Pirlo himself, who scored a 94th-minute winner in this fixture six years ago.
Still, even in a year when Torino supporters will find it easier than normal to avoid Juventus-supporting neighbours and co-workers, this defeat will sting more than most. The stands were empty at Juventus’s Allianz Stadium on Saturday night, but a banner would later be hung from a fence outside Torino’s beloved former home at the Stadio Filadelfia. It read simply: “You have broken our dick.”
• Nicky will post her Serie A talking points in the comments section below