So much for easing in gently. Serie A returned from its summer break with eight games, 31 goals and seven red cards. Pick a city, pick a story. In Milan, Simone Inzaghi opened his Inter tenure with a 4-0 victory to match Antonio Conte’s start two years before. In Rome, José Mourinho released Tammy Abraham from quarantine for a swaggering debut. In Udine, Massimiliano Allegri named a Juventus starting XI without Cristiano Ronaldo.
Let us start there. Allegri’s return to Juventus after two years away could have commanded front-page headlines on its own, but the decision to bench Ronaldo guaranteed them. The Portuguese forward’s future has been the subject of intense speculation as he enters the final season of his contract at 36 years old. An Instagram post railing against “disrespectful” reporting failed to dampen suggestions that he would prefer to be elsewhere.
The financial realities, however, are likely to hold him in place. There is no queue of suitors lining up to take over a contract worth more than €30m a year. With a week left to go in this transfer window, the most likely scenario seems that he will stay.
This creates a conundrum for Allegri, seeking to relaunch Juventus after they failed to lift the Scudetto for the first time in nine years. Ronaldo’s enduring ability is not in doubt – he has scored 81 goals in three Serie A seasons – but he is accustomed to having teams built around him. That is not an approach the manager can take while laying foundations for a future beyond.
Allegri explained the decision to leave Ronaldo out of the starting XI on Sunday as a question of physical condition but there were devils in the detail. “I told him to come sit on the bench and that in the second-half we would need him,” explained the manager. “I was imagining a match in which, in the first half, I would need a player who could get in behind.”
This sounded as much like a tactical justification as a physical one. Allegri wanted a different set of tools to unlock Udinese, and perhaps he wanted to offer Paulo Dybala a fresh start too. The Argentinian had his best-ever season under Allegri in 2017-18, scoring 22 league goals, but has not hit that figure in three years combined since Ronaldo arrived.
Dybala wore the captain’s armband on Sunday and opened the scoring after two minutes and six seconds. Juan Cuadrado released Rodrigo Bentancur, whose square ball was met with an outside-of-the-boot flick into the corner of the goal.
It was a silky-smooth finish and Dybala stayed in that mode. His half-court pass sent Cuadrado through to make it 2-0 before half-time. Udinese never found a way to contain the Argentinian as he glided from the wing, to centre-forward and back into midfield. Corriere dello Sport defined his football as “erotic”.
Yet Wojciech Szczesny gifted the hosts a way back into the game. First, he threw himself into the legs of Tolgay Arslan after spilling a shot in the area and then, once Roberto Pereyra had converted the Udinese penalty, Juve’s goalkeeper conceded an even cheaper equaliser, losing possession as he sought to dribble away from two opponents a yard from his goal.
The stage was set for Ronaldo, introduced as a substitute while the score was still 2-1. In the 94th minute, he thumped home what would have been a winning header and ripped off his shirt in celebration. The referee showed him a yellow card, and the VAR disallowed his goal.
Allegri offered perspective at full-time, but his frustration was plain. “Technical mistakes can happen but today our heads were the issue,” he said. “At 2-1, that ball needs to go into the stands or out of the stadium.”
Juventus were widely installed as favourites following summer departures at Inter but this was a timely reminder that they did not slide to fourth place last term by chance. Allegri must look forward to having Manuel Locatelli available to bring some control to midfield.
Still, it is the Ronaldo story that will dominate. Allegri will have weighed up many factors in choosing his team, but that decision reads as an early marker. This is the same manager who sent Leonardo Bonucci to the stands for a crucial Champions League tie – and then let him leave, briefly, to Milan – rather than accept questions to his authority.
Mourinho made a bold choice, too, with his team selection for Roma’s opener. Tammy Abraham had not yet been able to train with his new team-mates as he observed a five-day quarantine following his move from England, yet went straight into the team to face Fiorentina on Sunday night.
It was a move that called to mind Mourinho’s first stint in Italy, when Wesley Sneijder arrived in Milan on Friday and starred in Inter’s 4-0 derby win the following day. Roma had to settle for 3-1 on this occasion, but Abraham’s impact was immediate.
His 17th-minute run behind the defence brought Bartlomiej Dragowski scrambling out of his area and ended with the keeper being shown a red card. The decision looked soft, with contact minimal and the striker’s touch leading him away from goal, yet undeniable was how Abraham’s movement sparked panic in the Viola back-line. It has been many years since Roma had a centre-forward so willing to play on the shoulder of the last man.
Abraham did not score but he did hit the woodwork and provided assists on Roma’s opening two goals. Not bad for a player who, as Mourinho put it, had spent “five days training only with a computer screen”.
Roma’s performance was uneven. They took the lead through Henrikh Mkhitaryan – another twist in the script for a player who fell out with Mourinho in Manchester – but found themselves on the back foot for a period even before Nicolò Zaniolo was sent off and Nikola Milenkovic equalised. They recovered to win with a pair of goals from a former Fiorentina player, Jordan Veretout.
There was plenty to like, though, and most of all the result. Victory made Mourinho the fastest-ever manager to reach 50 wins in Serie A in the three-points era – a record he already held in La Liga and the Premier League.
It is too soon to know where his journey in Rome will lead. The Abraham signing, paired with other additions made by the Giallorossi this summer, have led pundits to wonder whether they might even contend for the title, but fellow dark horses Napoli, Lazio and Atalanta also began with wins this weekend. Milan kick off their campaign on Monday night.
The champions, Inter, set the bar highest of all with their thrashing of Genoa. Any analysis of this match should be prefaced by stressing that their opponents were beyond dreadful, but we can say that the Inter team already looks different under Inzaghi, pressing higher and building sustained attacks as a contrast to Conte’s quick strikes.
Edin Dzeko, signed from Roma, performed brilliantly as a target-man and attacking pivot even before he claimed the last of Inter’s four goals. His link-ups with another new signing Hakan Calahanoglu, were startlingly smooth.
In the stands of San Siro, more than one supporter was spotted wearing a No 9 shirt amended with masking tape to show the name of their new centre-forward. It will be a little while yet before anyone could forget Romelu Lukaku. But a few more wins like this would certainly help.