Italy head coach Marcello Lippi recently said: “Inter Milan will have to sweat for the Scudetto this year."
Who will be the team that will cause Jose Mourinho and his Inter squad to possibly put on a little more deodorant?
Inter’s arch-rival, Juventus.
Sure Inter have a four-point lead, but there is still half of the season to go and Juve have been one of the most consistent teams in Serie A this season.
Considering the injuries that have plagued Juve for the majority of the season, basically keeping pace and having a legitimate chance to claim the Scudetto is remarkable.
Despite what people have said about him—including yours truly—Sporting Director Alessio Secco has put together a pretty damn good squad in only Juve’s second season back from Serie B.
At times, Juve have played the season with two-thirds of the starting lineup consisting of players that would normally be on the bench. That doesn’t mean the players on the bench are slouches, a lot of them would start on other teams.
Because of the injuries, everybody has had to contribute in their own separate way. Everybody has gotten into the act and a lot of players that weren’t expected to make any kind of impact, have.
People thought that Juve would be hurt and would be in serious jeopardy when David Trezeguet and Gianluigi Buffon went down with their respective injuries.
However, that hasn’t been the case.
Alex Manninger has proven that he was maybe their best signing, and a signing nobody paid attention to. There was seemingly no transition period from the time Buffon was declared out until the return from the winter break to when Manninger took over.
Buffon has since returned to the starting XI, recording the shutout in Wednesday’s 3-0 win against Catania in the Coppa Italia. He looked like he has no lingering effects and with Manninger doing so well during Buffon’s absence, a day of rest won’t be out of the question against the lower level competition.
On the opposite end of the pitch, if Trezeguet hadn’t gone down after the season opener, the pairing of Alessandro Del Piero and Amauri might have never clicked and become one of the top scoring tandems in Serie A, combining to find the back of the net 18 times in league play and 25 times in all competitions.
When Trezeguet returns to full fitness at the end of January, manager Claudio Ranieri will have his full stable of options that will give him the ability to tinker like he has done so many times before.
The injuries to Cristiano Zanetti, Cristian Poulsen, and Tiago in the center of the midfield have allowed 22-year-old Claudio Marchisio to be the most notable youth product to come in and make a significant impact. He has formed a formidable combination with Momo Sissoko and quickly proven that a creative reinforcement midfielder might not be needed.
And as Ranieri will soon have with his strikers, his choices of midfielders will also grow in the upcoming weeks. The Tinkerman will obviously go with the hot hand, like any manager would, but showing faith in Marchisio and Sissoko will only add to a team that relies so much on chemistry and determination.
Catching Inter in the second half of the season will be quite a daunting task, when you consider who Juve have on their schedule before they host Inter at the Stadio Olimpico in April. Away games against Lazio, Udinese, Palermo, and Roma are all still on the docket.
Add that to facing Chelsea in the Champions League on Feb. 25 and Mar. 10, and Juve’s depth will again be tested.
But this Juventus team has a blue-collar mentality that will help them get through the daily grind of a busy season. In previous seasons, the team was absolutely stacked and could just rely solely on their talent to beat teams.
However, since Ranieri took over as manager two years ago, they buckle down and just get the job done. Much like Inter has done this season under Mourinho, no matter if it’s a good game or bad, getting the full three points is usually the outcome.
Yet Ranieri will have to prove that he can handle this kind of championship race. He has one a lot of people over with how he led his team out of its injury crisis in October, but if he folds under the pressure of the Champions League and Scudetto race, the media and fans will start to question if he is the right man for the job.
He doesn’t have the luxury of pulling out the resume that Mourinho does. And Ranieri will be certain to get some type of revenge on the man who replaced him at Chelsea in 2004.
If the first 18 games of the season is any indication of what is to come down the stretch of the season, then Lippi’s words will most certainly be true.