A new year, but hardly the fresh start Italian football was hoping for. Serie A was supposed to return from its winter break with a full round of games on Thursday, but four out of 10 never took place. As Covid cases continue to rise across the country, local health authorities (known in Italy by the acronym ASL) intervened to block teams from attending fixtures.
Bologna, Torino, Salernitana and Udinese were each ordered to quarantine following outbreaks in their respective squads. Their opponents – Internazionale, Atalanta, Venezia and Fiorentina – still each showed up to the relevant stadium and performed the surreal but increasingly familiar ritual of pretending to get ready for football matches that could not happen.
Juventus were the first team to go through this pandemic-era charade, after Napoli were barred from travelling to face them in October 2020. Since then, the story had been repeated for Lazio v Torino in March and Udinese v Salernitana in December.
On each occasion, Serie A’s organisers declined requests to postpone. Last season, the league introduced a protocol which followed the guidelines set by Uefa – stating that teams were obliged to fulfil scheduled fixtures so long as they had at least 13 first-team players available for selection, including a goalkeeper.
In theory, failing to play a match while meeting those criteria should lead to a forfeit. In practice, the sporting justice ruled the opposite for Juventus v Napoli and Lazio v Torino, ordering both games to be rescheduled after an appeals process – accepting the argument that clubs ought not to be punished for deferring to health authorities during a pandemic.
There is growing frustration, however, at the inconsistency with which rules are applied by those authorities in different parts of Italy. Torino were ordered to stay home this week after eight Covid cases were confirmed among their first-team group – six players and two members of staff. Verona were allowed to travel to Spezia despite 10 individuals testing positive.
And then there was Napoli – caught once more in an outbreak before their visit to Juventus. Mário Rui, Kévin Malcuit and the club’s manager, Luciano Spalletti, all tested positive on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the backup goalkeeper Alex Meret joined them, together with a further member of non-playing staff. The ASL for central Naples granted the rest of the team permission to travel. But then a further communication arrived from a different ASL, responsible for a northern section of the city where several players live.
This one ruled that Piotr Zielinski, Amir Rrahmani and Stanislav Lobotka should quarantine immediately due to close contact with a positive case. The decision was based on national legislation introduced at the end of last year, which imposed tighter restrictions on individuals who have not received a booster vaccination and are more than 120 days removed from their second jab.
Napoli named all three players in their starting XI regardless, holding to a belief that the Italian Football Federation’s rules allowed them to do so. Footballers in quarantine had previously been allowed to travel between their homes and work so long as they continued to test negative, but there is ambiguity about how such permissions interact with the new law.
In any case, they played, and it mattered. Napoli’s squad had been thinned out by the Africa Cup of Nations, with Kalidou Koulibaly, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Adam Ounas all departing to represent their respective countries. Victor Osimhen missed out on the tournament but remains unavailable as he recovers from facial fractures and a positive Covid test. Hirving Lozano was another coronavirus absentee and Fabián Ruiz was out injured.
Juventus were missing players of their own – most notably the centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci – but this still ought to have been an opportunity to claw back some ground in the race for a top-four spot. The Bianconeri played like it, too, throwing themselves into a high-tempo opening and almost scoring through a Weston McKennie header.
It was not long, though, before familiar flaws began to show. This Juventus had plenty of energy – an improvement on some games before the winter break – but still no fluency. Like a new year resolutioneer on a poorly planned health kick, they faltered at the first hint of resistance. Lorenzo Insigne chipped the ball into the area for Matteo Politano, who took a touch and laid the ball off for Dries Mertens with the outside of his boot. Mertens crashed his finish into the bottom of the net.
Napoli ought to have buried Juventus before the interval. Their 10 first-half shots were the most any away team has managed at the Allianz Stadium since 2013. Their lack of ruthlessness allowed Juventus back in, Federico Chiesa drilling home an equaliser at the start of the second half after Rrahmani could only head the ball down from a challenge with Álvaro Morata.
The game finished 1-1: a better result for Napoli, in the context of both the standings and their absentee list, but also a missed opportunity. Lobotka and Diego Demme had held the middle of the pitch throughout. Juventus will have their own regret at knowing they ought to have been able to do more. Even including the trio who were ordered to quarantine, Napoli still only had two senior players – Andrea Petagna and Eljif Elmas – left over to fill spots on the bench. Juventus flexed their depth in the second half with Paulo Dybala, Dejan Kulusevski, Moise Kean, Rodrigo Bentancur and Mattia De Sciglio all coming on and Arthur an unused sub.
The real winners on Thursday, however, were Milan, who beat Roma 3-1 at home. Their squad, too, has been stretched, with Franck Kessié and Ismaël Bennacer playing in the Africa Cup of Nations and the combination of Covid and injuries depriving them of three-quarters of a starting defence. A centre-back pairing of Matteo Gabbia and Pierre Kalulu looked like an open invitation for Tammy Abraham and the rest of the Giallorosso attack.
Instead, Milan dominated, taking the lead with an Olivier Giroud penalty and extending it through Junior Messias. Abraham did pull a goal back before half-time but Rafael Leão came off the bench to make it 3-1 in the second half. The Rossoneri should have had a fourth, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic fluffed his lines from the penalty spot.
The win allowed Milan to move back within a point of first-place Inter – pending resolution of their neighbours’ unplayed game against Bologna. Stefano Pioli deflected a question about his team’s Scudetto hopes after, saying: “Tests like this are important but only if we are capable of replicating them next Sunday. We have an objective in our heads which is to improve our points tally from last year and we have started well.”