Not too long ago, the Coppa Italia had begun to slip into irrelevancy. Desperate to either clinch the Serie A title or claim European glory, the peninsula’s biggest clubs routinely fielded weakened sides in the knockout competition, rarely giving it anything close to their full attention.
The height of that indifference arguably came between 1996 and 2006, a decade which saw AC Milan and Juventus share nine of the 11 league titles and contest no fewer than five Champions League finals. Despite the obvious quality needed to accomplish that level of dominance, it is telling that the duo combined to make just three appearances in the Coppa Italia final and lifted the trophy just once during that same period, often looking to be eliminated as quickly as possible in order to concentrate on other objectives.
After taking charge of Juve in 2011, Antonio Conte continued that same approach, losing in the final in his first season only to exit early in the following two campaigns. His departure in 2014 brought a swift change of tack, however, as Max Allegri insisted from the outset that – with the club having not won the tournament since 1995 – winning the Coppa Italia was long overdue.
He would, of course, do just that, clinching only the third league-and-cup double in the club’s history; the former Milan boss has now repeated that feat in each of the subsequent three seasons, the secondary competition only serving to underscore just how dominant this current version of the Bianconeri has become.
Yet it would be unfair and inaccurate to claim that the Old Lady has been the one to restore some of the cup’s lost luster. The truth is that the two finals before her 2015 triumph were equally important as four of Italy’s other big clubs delivered some memorable clashes that pushed the Coppa Italia back to the forefront.
The first of those came in 2013, when the tie arguably became the most significant edition of the Rome derby ever. Lazio reveled in knocking off their crosstown rivals, Senad Lulic’s solitary goal making him a player the Biancocelesti will never forget while also leaving Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi in tears.
Lazio’s Swiss manager Vladimir Petkovic – with the club’s eagle Olympia perched on his arm – gleefully celebrated with fans in the Curva Nord, while a group of around 200 Roma supporters instead pelted their own team’s bus with eggs and stones as it returned to the training ground.
Twelve months later it was Napoli and Fiorentina taking part in the showpiece event, and for the first 30 minutes, it seemed the latter would be overrun. Already 2-0 down, the Viola looked lost only for Juan Manuel Vargas to smash home a trademark strike from the edge of the box and instantly transform the match.
From there Fiorentina dominated possession, had an equalizer ruled out for offside, and created a number of other good chances to score. They failed to do so and were caught out by Dries Mertens on a late counter-attack, but it was a game that was everything a cup final should be as the two teams went toe-to-toe in search of victory.
While the late 1990s saw Milan and Juve all but ignore the Coppa Italia, they have met in the final twice in the last three years with the 2016 edition seeing the Bianconeri only seal their win in extra time. Alvaro Morata’s strike was all that separated them on that occasion, but last season saw the Old Lady ease their way to a 4-0 triumph in a game that was one-sided from the outset.
Kept apart by the draw, the duo could once again meet in Rome, but there will be no shortage of sides looking to replace one of them along the way. Napoli, led by cup specialist Carlo Ancelotti, would love to secure some silverware, as would Roma, Inter, Lazio, and Fiorentina as they all await their round of 16 ties.
Few are expected to rest their star players, recognizing that – with Juve already nine points clear at the top of Serie A – the Coppa Italia represents their best chance of lifting a trophy this season.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.