“No more tears, I’ve shed enough already,” insisted Massimiliano Allegri on Saturday. Nobody in the audience was fooled. Juventus had announced one day previously that his time as manager was coming to a close. Allegri could scarcely get through the first sentence of a press conference called to honour his achievements before he had to break off into a hum as he fought to compose himself.
There was no such attempt to hold back the emotion one day later, as he stood and hugged Andrea Barzagli for what felt like an eternity in front of the dugouts at the Allianz Stadium. The player had just completed his final home appearance for Juventus, as he prepares to enter retirement.
Barzagli was already 31 years old when he joined from Wolfsburg for €300,000 plus bonuses. The Juventus team he joined had finished seventh in each of its previous two seasons. In the eight years since, he and they have won eight consecutive Serie A titles. Five of those were with Allegri, as well as a further four Coppa Italia triumphs and two Champions League finals.
But those two were not the only ones weeping on a weekend of fond farewells. At San Siro, Ignazio Abate buried his face in his shirt as fans marked the end of his decade at Milan with a standing ovation. In Verona, the Chievo owner Luca Campedelli announced his plan to offer Sergio Pellissier the club presidency, as the striker retired after 17 seasons with the club.
In among the ‘arrivederci’, there were vital end-of-season games to be played. Not for Chievo, whose relegation was confirmed more than a month ago, or indeed Juventus, whose latest Scudetto was achieved with similar haste. But definitely for Milan, as they pursue a place in next season’s Champions League.
Abate almost signed off in the worst way possible, giving away a penalty against Frosinone. The score was still 0-0 at the start of the second-half, when he brought down Luca Paganini from behind. Gianluigi Donnarumma came to the rescue, producing a fine save from Camillo Ciano’s spot-kick.
Milan went on to win 2-0, Krzysztof Piatek ending a six-game scoring drought before Suso whipped a free-kick in off the underside of the bar. The Rossoneri briefly moved up to fourth, ahead of Atalanta, who were away at Juventus on Sunday evening.
Defeated by Lazio in the final of the Coppa Italia just four days earlier, Atalanta’s players needed to pick themselves up immediately to ensure that one of the best seasons in club history did not end in disappointment. A loss to Juventus would have left their Champions League destiny out of their own hands heading into the final weekend of the season.
They could have been forgiven for a degree of trepidation. And yet, they showed none. Atalanta attacked Juventus from the first minute, and found their reward when Josip Ilicic sidefooted the ball home from a corner in the 33rd. They should have had more goals before the interval.
Juventus never looked especially likely to equalise, before Mario Mandzukic did precisely that with 10 minutes left to play. The Croatian showed determination and incredible body control to meet Juan Cuadrado’s cross at the back post with a volleyed backheel but, even then, there was a degree of fortune as the ball squeezed between the legs of Atalanta’s goalkeeper, Pierluigi Gollini.
That set the stage for a tense final act. Gollini needed to keep out a long-range effort from Federico Bernardeschi, before the Juventus player was sent off for a studs-up challenge. Atalanta held out for a 1-1 draw which moved them up from fifth to third. Inter, playing concurrently, had lost 4-1 away at Napoli.
It was a woeful performance from the Nerazzurri. There is no shame in losing at the Stadio San Paolo, but a team aspiring for a Champions League spot ought at least to put up a fight.
If there was an image to sum up the game, it was that of the 5ft 7in Dries Mertens scoring Napoli’s second goal from a header, despite being marked by two players – Miranda and Danilo D’Ambrosio. The Partenopei, despite having been locked into second place for some weeks now, always looked hungrier than their opponents to get on the ball.
Perhaps Inter have been distracted by the prospect of their own future farewells. It is an open secret that the club is pursuing Antonio Conte to replace Luciano Spalletti as manager. The incumbent suggested at full-time that the rumours “could have caused some players to lose a little bit of concentration, but they are not the reason for the defeat”.
Inter now need to win at home to Empoli in order to be certain of finishing in the top four. That will not be straightforward. The Tuscans are battling to avoid relegation, and have taken maximum points from their last three games. Where Inter lost 4-1 this weekend, Empoli won by the same scoreline against a Torino side competing for a place in Europe, and who previously boasted the second-stingiest defence in the division.
Milan are away at mid-table Spal, and Atalanta at home to Sassuolo. Even that latter fixture, however, is not the straightforward prospect that it might first appear. Atalanta are redeveloping their stadium and opted to start work on the Curva Pisani at the end of April, even though that meant playing their final two games of the season elsewhere.
They have taken up temporary residency at Sassuolo’s Mapei Stadium. To put it plainly, they will be playing their final ‘home’ game at their opponents’ home stadium.
Things are just as tight at the other end of the table. Empoli moved out of the relegation zone with that win over Torino, but remain just one point ahead of Genoa. The latter club end their season at Fiorentina, who have not won a game since 17 February, and who have lost five out of six league matches since bringing back Vincenzo Montella as manager.
The Viola themselves are not safe – an extraordinary situation when one considers the quality of football they displayed during the first part of this season. Genoa would move ahead of them with a victory. If Empoli, Udinese and Bologna (who have an extra game on Monday evening) also picked up points, Fiorentina could be relegated.
Much remains to be decided, then, on the final weekend. One way or another, there are likely to be more tears before the end.
• The most emotional goodbye of all will come next weekend, when Daniele De Rossi plays his final game for Roma. The Giallorossi would require a minor miracle to get into the top four after their 0-0 draw with Sassuolo, but this will be a loaded occasion in any case, given the affection felt towards him by supporters and the shabby way in which his departure has been handled.
• Serie A handed out a freshly conceived set of awards this weekend for the season’s best goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, attacker and overall ‘MVP’. The latter prize went to Ronaldo, but the naming of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as the best midfielder raised eyebrows.