Across Europe a spirit of competitiveness has broken out. Not in England, perhaps, where Manchester City’s excellence looks sure to win out. Nor in Germany, where Bayern Munich remain inviolable. But elsewhere revolution is in the air. Paris Saint-Germain are not top in France, neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona are top in Spain and Juventus are not top in Italy. The elite are being challenged in a way they have not been for almost a decade.
The temptation is to blame the pandemic for this spirit of revolution, to see Covid as the explanation for everything. It is true that the unusual conditions of this season have added an unforeseeable element of randomness, disrupting the usual patterns and forcing clubs and coaches to improvise on the fly. But still, the suspicion must be that Serie A in particular was drifting towards a shake-up even before everything changed last March.
If they win their game in hand, Juventus are five points behind Inter at the top of the table. They have Internazionale and Milan still to play in May. Perhaps they will come back to claim a 10th successive scudetto, but this is by some way the hardest they have been pushed over the past decade, a situation that feels largely self-inflicted. Had they not decided the guaranteed goals of Cristiano Ronaldo were required to carry them to their ultimate goal of the Champions League, perhaps they would not have ended up with such a weirdly incoherent squad.
And if they had not become so obsessed by Europe, perhaps they would not have parted ways with Massimiliano Allegri, who had won five titles in a row, and replaced him with Maurizio Sarri, making the incompatible demand that he should instil his high-pressing football but include an immobile thirtysomething central striker. When that, inevitably, went awry, perhaps they would not have taken a romantic gamble on Andrea Pirlo, who had precisely no coaching experience when he was thrust into the job.
As Juve have stumbled (and so ludicrous are the financial imbalances of modern football that having three defeats and six draws in 21 league games counts as a significant stumble), Inter and Milan have at last begun to rise. So we find ourselves in a situation when Sunday’s Milan derby suddenly matters again to the wider footballing world.
Nobody should think that Italian football is suddenly equitable. The latest Deloitte report into football finance shows Juventus’s income is still around a third higher than that of Inter, Italy’s second wealthiest club by revenue, which in turn is roughly double that of Milan.
Revenue, as demonstrated by Barcelona, who are flirting with bankruptcy despite having the highest income of any club in the world, is not the only measure of wealth and where Milan have taken a huge stride forward recently is in effectively reducing their debt to zero. Juve’s, meanwhile, according to the 2020 Forbes report, is £417m, around 20% more than their annual income, while Inter’s is £405m, around 60% more. Strikingly, Forbes ranks Inter’s debt as a percentage of club value at 50%, higher than any club in the world’s top 20 by value and more than double that of any club other than Roma.
That offers an indication of the difference in approach between Inter and Milan as they look to bridge the gap to Juventus. Inter, as has always been their habit, have seen a problem and thrown money at it. Antonio Conte, as has always been his habit, has raged about a lack of support from his board, but since his arrival at Inter 18 months ago, there has been a net transfer spend of £130m, much of it on established or ageing players with huge wage demands and little resale value: Romelu Lukaku, Christian Eriksen, Ashley Young, Victor Moses and Diego Godín do not come cheap.
There has been progress. Inter finished a point behind Juve and reached the Europa League final last season and are one point clear of Milan at the top of the table, having beaten Juve last month – a victory that felt psychologically important having lost twice to them last season, even if they were subsequently beaten in the Coppa Italia semi-final.
Nobody ever went bust overestimating the willingness of Italian clubs to take on debt, but after losses of €102m for last year and with reports this month suggesting the club is working with Goldman Sachs to raise $200m in emergency financing, cutbacks are surely coming. The sense must be that if Inter do not break the Juve stranglehold now, it may be a long time before they do so (not withstanding Juve’s increasingly whimsical managerial appointments).
Milan have taken a very different approach. The 39-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic, understandably, draws most of the attention, having scored a remarkable 14 goals in 12 league appearances, while the January acquisition of the 34-year‑old Mario Mandzukic prompted jokes about Milan building for the future, but they are exceptions. This is a young and gifted squad, one that has clearly been constructed with a view to developing talent and selling at a profit.
Of the 17 Milan players who have played 10 or more games this season, 10 are aged 24 or under. Perhaps it does represent a fall from grace that the second-most successful side in European history should have a squad profile that resembles that of RB Leipzig, but represents a necessary recognition of economic reality.
But that reality remains bleak. The Milan derby should carry a global resonance beyond local bragging rights. It should matter. These are clubs with 10 European titles between them. It is a sign of how bad things have got that a Milan derby feels consequential in the title race for both sides is greeted with relief and celebration.
It is not much, and to an extent Juve have opened the door, but this perhaps is the beginning of the end of Serie A as a one-club league.