By the end of the night at the Stadio Olimpico, we had seen it all: six goals, two penalties, a red card given and another that probably should. A cup final edition of the Derby d’Italia, played out over 120 messy but captivating minutes and followed up with immediate breaking news. Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus’s captain, announced he was leaving the club. Ivan Perisic, the match-winner for Internazionale, suggested he could soon be moving on too.
The stakes had been cleared before kick-off. For Juventus this was a last chance to salvage a disappointing season. The rehiring of Massimiliano Allegri as manager last summer was supposed to represent a return to the club’s core ethos, the famous Giampiero Boniperti line that “winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts”. Instead they were in danger of finishing without any trophies for the first time in 11 years.
Inter have had a more positive campaign, but still the sense of progress under Simone Inzaghi felt precarious. They had beaten Juventus to win the Super Cup in January but let Serie A leadership slip through their fingers, provoking an unfavorable comparison with the side that ground their way ruthlessly to the Scudetto under Antonio Conte last season.
Inzaghi was accused of allowing his team to slide back into their previous identity as “Crazy Inter” – Crazy Inter – a reference to a line in the club’s anthem. Conte had made it his mission to end those days, saying his team would be “regular and strong.”
Whether the comparison is even fair is open for debate. Conte had Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi as pillars of his Inter side, both of whom followed him out the exit door. It is also true that Inter can still win this season’s title, sitting two points behind Milan with two games to play. Before Inzaghi, furthermore, this team went a decade without playing a Champions League knockout game, and 11 years without a Coppa Italia final.
Still, the possibility of finishing this season with only the Super Cup could not have appealed to him. Inter’s best football this season has been a class apart from most of Serie A and certainly easier on the eye than anything Juventus have produced lately.
For a moment on Wednesday night, it looked as though Inter might win at a canter. Nicolò Barella opened the scoring in the seventh minute, scything in from the left and bending a shot around Mattia Perin from the edge of the box. Inter were dominant, first to claim the ball and eager to keep it moving once they had it. Juventus, as too often, were plodding.
But the game turned on an injury and a goalkeeping calamity. Danilo, who started on the right of defense for Juventus, strained a muscle and was replaced in the 41st minute by a forward, Álvaro Morata. The Spaniard had a hand in his team’s equalizer just after half-time, jabbing his boot at a shot from Alex Sandro as it went past him on the edge of the six-yard box.
It was not clear how much contact Morata made, if any, but his gesture was enough to deceive Samir Handanovic. The Inter keeper was in the right position to make a straightforward save at his near post but allowed the ball to deflect in off his thigh.
Within two minutes, Juventus took the lead, Dusan Vlahovic forcing the ball in after Handanovic blocked his initial attempt at the end of a counter. Inter’s players had been caught too high up the pitch at a corner.
With another referee they might have imploded. Marcelo Brozovic picked the ball up and booted it away in response to being booked for a foul on Paulo Dybala. The referee, Paolo Valeri, chose to be lenient. Then, in the 78th minute, he awarded Inter a contentious penalty.
Leonardo Bonucci certainly made contact with Lautaro Martinez as the striker sought to tame a knockdown inside the box, placing a hand on his shoulder and pressuring him from behind. Matthijs de Ligt was also close by, and it was hard to see whether he clipped Lautaro’s standing leg.
What did seem clear, on the slow-motion replays, was that Lautaro had hooked his other leg through Bonucci’s as he fell, making it look as though he had been impeded in a more dramatic way. The VAR booth did not see a clear-and-obvious error. Hakan Calhanoglu equalized with a brilliant penalty, aimed so far into the top right corner that it brushed the post on its way in.
Juventus’s sense of injustice threatened to boil over. Allegri was shown a yellow card for excessive protests – and would later see red – but his substitutions had played a part in ceding the initiative at 2-1, Bonucci and Manuel Locatelli replacing Denis Zakaria and Federico Bernardeschi as his team retreated into a 5- 4-1.
Once they had surrendered their lead Juventus struggled to adapt to a different type of game. Inter won another penalty at the start of extra-time, when De Ligt brought down Stefan De Vrij. Calhanoglu had been withdrawn in the meantime, but Perisic converted with similar aplomb.
The Croatian completed the scoring three minutes later, showing the range of his talent with a beautiful strike off his other boot. He has been Inter’s standout performer through the last part of this season, and supporters were encouraged before kick-off to hear the chief executive, Beppe Marotta, say that the club were ready to sign him to a new deal beyond the one that expires next month.
Perisic gave a very different answer within seconds of the final whistle. “This is not how you talk to important players,” he said when asked about the negotiations on the domestic TV broadcast for Channel 5. “You don’t leave it to the last moment.”
He ended the interview abruptly, leaving that answer hanging in the air. It did not seem to put a dampener on his night, as he went to join teammates celebrating under the Curve, but the loss of a player who has contributed four goals and four assists in the past five weeks alone will not be easy to swallow.
Still, it is always easier to find the bright side with a winners’ medal around your neck. A few minutes later, it was Chiellini’s turn to face the cameras. “I’m not used to this,” he confessed, when his interviewer asked how it felt to finish the season empty-handed. The defender has won 20 trophies in his 17 years with the Bianconeri, though he and his teammates from the 2005-06 team docked a Scudetto as a result of the Calciopoli scandal would put the count at 21.
Chiellini confirmed that this would be his last season playing at Juventus, but said he is still undecided on whether to retire or seek one last adventure on the pitch. “It’s my choice 100%,” he said. “Now the baton passes to others. I stayed on the pitch and battled for as long as I could, but I don’t like the idea of not being able to play matches at a high level. ”
A cup final against Juventus’s great rivals was a worthy stage on which to bid farewell. But doing it while Inter’s players danced and took turns to lead supporters’ chants through a megaphone was probably not how he imagined the scene.