Juventus spent the final seconds of the 2020-21 season huddled around a mobile phone they had borrowed from a journalist. After nine consecutive Serie A titles, the team that hoped to play a leading role in a breakaway European Super League had been reduced to waiting and watching somebody else decide whether they could finish among Italy’s top four.
They had begun the night fifth in the table. “Superleague? You’re not even in the Champions League,” goaded the banner Bologna supporters had hung to greet them outside the Stadio Dall’Ara. Juventus responded by thrashing their hosts 4-1, with goals from Federico Chiesa, Alvaro Morata and Adrien Rabiot. Their efforts would mean nothing, still, unless Milan or Napoli slipped up.
The Rossoneri were supposed to be the easy target. They had blown a chance to seal their own top-four spot the week before, drawing with Cagliari. Now they travelled to face Atalanta, who had beaten them 5-0 in the corresponding fixture last season and 3-0 at San Siro in January. Atalanta were locked into a Champions League berth themselves, but still motivated by a chance to finish second: their greatest-ever league result.
Milan held their nerve. Franck Kessie converted a pair of penalties against his former club, earning a 2-0 win that brings them back to Europe’s top table for the first time in seven years. It was a fitting way to end a campaign in which the Rossoneri have been awarded a record 20 spot-kicks.
Perhaps, in some roundabout way, Atalanta helped Milan reach this point. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has joked about how “the phone calls from the club’s directors got a lot more frequent” after that 5-0 humiliation in December 2019. Within days, he had joined on a six-month contract. His 10 goals helped Milan to finish that season strongly and persuaded the board to stick with Stefano Pioli as manager, instead of hiring Ralf Rangnick.
Ibrahimovic was watching from the stands on Sunday, in a seat not designed for a person of 6ft 5ins. He has contributed much this season – another 15 goals – yet Kessie is the heart of this team, the outfield player with the most minutes: a ball-winner, playmaker and goalscorer rolled into one.
He was unassailable on Sunday, leading his team not only in goals but in touches, interceptions and tackles won. At full-time, Pioli said his midfielder deserved “all the praise in the world”.
So does the manager. Milan have lost ground since becoming Italy’s winter champions but theirs was never truly a squad built to fight for the Scudetto. To finish second, while fielding the youngest starting XIs in Serie A, is laudable. “Zlatan only played 19 games,” Pioli reminded his audience on Sunday. “Let’s take away the champion player from every other team for half the season and let me see how they do.”
Defeat was disappointing for Atalanta – wiped out from Wednesday’s loss in the Coppa Italia final – but hardly a disaster. This was still their third consecutive season finishing in the top four. In the changing rooms of Gewiss Stadium, both teams could throw on the Champions League anthem and celebrate.
Juventus’s last hope was for Napoli to stumble at home to Verona. It hardly seemed plausible. Ivan Juric’s team, 10th in the standings, had taken six points from the preceding 12 games.
Right from kick-off, however, Napoli struggled. Their play was sloppy and sluggish, while Verona snapped and harried. Pawel Dawidowicz got under the feet of Piotr Zielinski, breaking the link from midfield to attack.
Napoli had not mustered a shot on target before they took the lead at the hour mark. They needed a centre-back, Amir Rrahmani, to break the deadlock, sweeping home at a corner. He declined to celebrate against his former club.
That should have been that. Instead, Napoli were undone eight minutes later by a Koray Günter long ball from the edge of his own penalty box. Marco Faraoni beat Esleid Hysaj to it and crashed in off the far post with his second touch.
Verona’s enthusiastic celebrations sat in vivid contrast to Rrahmani’s understated reaction moments before. The two scenes seemed back to front. Napoli had everything to play for, their opponents had been roundly dismissed as lacking in motivation.
That narrative struck a nerve with Juric. His team had already taken points off Juventus, Atalanta and Milan. They were defiant again as they held out for the 1-1 draw, barely yielding another chance to opponents who finished with Victor Osimhen, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Matteo Politano and Andrea Petagna all on the pitch.
When Sky Sport’s Massimo Ugolini began a post-game interview by suggesting that Verona had raised their efforts from recent weeks, Juric interrupted: “Right away a big pile of crap.” He walked off soon afterwards, telling the reporter to go back and watch his team’s games.
Sunday’s draw will go down in lore as another tale of ‘Fatal Verona’, a phrase that entered the Italian football lexicon after Hellas denied Milan the Serie A title with a 5-3 win on the final day of the 1972-73 season. Juventus were the beneficiaries on that occasion, too.
Napoli might not have been in the running for a title but falling short of the top four represents a major failure for a club who spent lavishly over the past two summers, landing not only Osimhen and Hirving Lozano but several more first-team players including Kostas Manolas and Alex Meret. Their wage bill is the third-largest in Serie A.
Gennaro Gattuso appeared to have righted the ship in the second half of this season despite working for an owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, whose intention to replace him has been known for months – and was confirmed with a tweet on Sunday night. How much less attractive will the job seem to prospective successors without the incentive of Champions League football?
Might Napoli’s slip also keep Andrea Pirlo in a job at Juventus? He was watching that mobile phone screen with his players at the Dall’Ara and when the full-time whistle went in Naples, he celebrated on the pitch with them.
A fourth-place finish is far below the expectations that Juventus set for themselves, a club who openly aspired to win the Champions League after splashing out €100m on Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018. Still, Pirlo ends his first season of management with two trophies – the Supercoppa and Coppa Italia – and Juventus’s place at Europe’s top table assured, at least until Uefa decide whether to follow through with a ban of Super League clubs.
And what of Ronaldo, Serie A’s top scorer, but left on the bench against Bologna? Officially, he was just being given a rest in the the last, crucial, game of Juventus’s season. The team’s confident victory without him will lead many to ask whether it might be in the best interests of both parties to move on.
Fresh thinking is required at Juventus after a year in which they have been forced to lower their sights. They were rescued from disaster by a Fatal Verona. But this is not a team that aspires to watch its dreams play out on somebody else’s mobile phone.