Pippo Inzaghi put his arm around Andrea Pirlo’s shoulder before kick-off at the Allianz Stadium. It was an instinctive moment of reconnection between two men, who played together for a decade at Milan. They were brought to San Siro by the same agent, Tullio Tinti, in the summer of 2001 and shared more than 200 matches side by side.
As players, they achieved some of football’s highest highs. On the footage of Milan’s 2007 Champions League final win over Liverpool, you can see them in an identical pose, Inzaghi pulling his friend close as they head for the changing rooms at half-time. He had scored the game’s opening goal moments earlier, deflecting Pirlo’s free-kick beyond Pepe Reina.
The stakes over the weekend were different. Lesser, in the most obvious sense, but perhaps higher in others. There was no trophy awaiting the victor in Turin, but Pirlo needed a win to keep Juventus’s Scudetto hopes alive and to save his first season of management from being remembered as a catastrophic failure. After nine consecutive Serie A titles, the Bianconeri trailed Inter by 10 points in the standings. This was their one game in hand.
Inzaghi faced a different kind of pressure as he sought to break an 11-game winless run. Benevento, playing in Serie A for only the second time in their history, had far exceeded expectations during the first half of this season but now found themselves sliding back towards the relegation zone.
They were without their highest-paid player, the centre-back Kamil Glik, as well as the central midfielder Pasquale Schiattarella. Inzaghi would later confess that he had prepared the statement he would give in defeat, “in part for superstition, but [mostly] because I need to be rational.”
Defeat did seem like the most probable outcome. Juventus, for all their disappointments, had won 10 out of 13 league games so far in 2021. They could call on a squad of world-class players, led by the man who just overtook Pelé in the all-time scoring chart. Cristiano Ronaldo was presented with a commemorative shirt before kick-off, emblazoned with the acronym GOAT (Greatest of All Time).
Perhaps those truths made Juventus complacent. They dominated possession and the shot count on Sunday, yet there was a lack of intensity, a presumption that a goal would eventually come. Instead, in the 69th minute, Arthur played an unnecessary, underhit pass across his own penalty area. Benevento’s Adolfo Gaich intercepted and blasted a shot beyond Wojciech Szczesny.
Too late, Juventus discovered their urgency. Federico Chiesa was denied a penalty and Cristiano Ronaldo sent an overhead kick wide. The champions piled up the expected goals, but could not find an actual one and fell to a 1-0 defeat. Continue reading