A goalless first-half in the Supercoppa Italiana started and finished with Cristiano Ronaldo thumping speculative efforts into the deserted stand behind the goal as he chased a record. Or was it a record?
The most notable Juventus contribution in between was Wojciech Szczesny’s incredible point-blank save to stop Hirving Lozano giving Napoli the lead with a flying header.
It was far from the rousing response to Sunday’s sound 2-0 defeat at Inter that Andrea Pirlo would have hoped for, even if the same scoreline eventually fell in his favour for the first silverware of a fledgling coaching career.
Gennaro Gattuso, manning the other technical area with his typical demeanour of an overworked nightclub bouncer (remember nightclubs?), is famously firm friends with Pirlo.
After falling short as the overmatched apprentice against a masterful Antonio Conte at the weekend, the hirsute Juve boss would probably have preferred to pit his wits against anyone but the man who arguably knows him better than anyone in football.
They were an irresistible combination of silk and steel in the midfield as Italy won the 2006 World Cup and Milan lifted major prizes at home and abroad, while Pirlo’s often cerebral autobiography is peppered with stories of juvenile practical jokes played at the expense of an easily riled Gattuso.
The playmaker was infamously allowed to joined Juventus on a free transfer in 2011, launching a dynasty alongside Conte that he is now charged with preserving,
Pirlo’s glorious autumn of his playing career led Gattuso to play down his own influence upon his mate’s earlier success in inimitably forthright terms.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” he baulked in a 2017 interview when asked if he helped to make Pirlo a better player. “Let’s not confuse Nutella with s***”
Wednesday’s encounter in Reggio Emilia was frequently closer to the undesirable end of that Gattuso spectrum, although any goalkeeper would gladly smear Szczesny’s intervention to deny Lozano all over their pancakes.
Too often, Pirlo’s Juve look like they’re wading through a giant tube of chocolate and hazelnut spread. The are stodgy and lack flow – the notion that this team is more attractive than Massimilano Allegri’s all-conquering side is fairly laughable.
But after half-time, they rolled up their sleeves in a manner in which Gattuso would have grudgingly approved.
Federico Bernardeschi, on for the ineffective Federico Chiesa, nearly scrambled home untidily shortly after the restart.
Kostas Manolas almost put through his own goal in the 64th minute and, from the resulting corner, Napoli played a crueller prank on their coach than anything Pirlo ever subjected him to. They failed to mark Ronaldo in the six-yard box.
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Of course, the master marksman made no mistake and rammed home left footed for the 760th goal of his career. That puts him ahead of the great Josef Bican in some all-time rankings, although FIFA say the Austria and Czechoslovakia great has an “estimated” 805 to his name.
By most observers’ best estimates, Lorenzo Insigne was surely going to send the game into extra time by converting an 80th-minute penalty after Weston McKennie’s clumsy bundle into substitute Dries Mertens.
Insigne was one of the bright sparks in a drab a game and faced up to his own landmark of 100 Napoli goals. But, in another act worthy of the Pirlo-Gattuso slapstick scrapbook, he scuffed a woeful spot kick wide.
Further Szczesny heroics were required before Juan Cuadrado streaked clear to tee up Alvaro Morata to make it 2-0 win the final kick of the game.
Juventus are not playing beautiful football in their coach’s image, far from it. But they celebrated with gusto at full-time having banished the end-of-empire stench that accompanied their efforts against Inter.
Have they turned the corner? Will this spark them into a convincing title defence in Sere A? Much like whether or not Ronaldo has broken another record, plenty of questions remain.
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