One team started the evening struggling in both their domestic campaign and Champions League group, the other began off the back of a 5-0 win and claiming that their Rome hotel was so nice that they’d have it for the final as well. An electrical storm, some fan clashes and a sublime performance from a Montenegrin forward later, and Roma have breathed new life into their season.
Much of the UK press coverage of Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat in the Italian capital centred on the poor performance of the Londoners. True, their marking was so bad for the first goal that Christian Panucci made popping up at the back post to score look easy, although granted he has been doing that for most of his career (except in his short, unsuccessful loan spell at Stamford Bridge some eight years ago).
The star of the night though was Mirko Vucinic, who smashed in two second half goals. The first was a stunning strike, the second showing his deceptive pace after embarrassing John Obi Mikel. Twice. Chelsea, no doubt upset that last season’s semi-final-own-goal-hero John Arne Riise was only a substitute, replied through John Terry’s late strike and while Deco’s bizarre red card soured the night somewhat, with a trip to Transylvania with revenge on the mind on the horizon, Luciano Spalletti has much to be confident about on the European stage.
Less happy will be Jose Mourinho, who, while his former charges were in Rome, was thankful to a late strike from Julio Cruz in Cyprus to rescue a 3-3 draw with Anorthosis.
A defensive weakness was exposed for Mourinho, namely Nicolas Burdisso, as the unheralded Cypriots scored three times against an Inter side who were grateful to Mario Balotelli, a suspicious looking Marco Materazzi effort and Cruz, who started the week at odds with the Special One over tactics. What has now become expected of an Inter game struck again as late controversy surrounded Esteban Cambiasso’s effort that came close to crossing the line. The Nerazzurri should qualify in their next game at home to Panathinaikos.
No such problems for Juventus though, as back-to-back wins over the great Real Madrid were achieved with startling ease on Wednesday night, and in front of Diego Maradona no less. While El Diego was in the Bernabeu stands, there was only one star on the pitch. The ageless Alessandro Del Piero, glittering in his gold shirt and arguably in the form of his life, gliding away from the Real defence and dispatching a left foot shot past Iker Casillas.
Real missed chances, notably through Ramos and Van Nistelrooy, but Del Piero, 34 on Sunday, sealed the win and qualification with a trademark free kick, his 41st Champions League goal, midway through the second half. Del Piero was substituted to a standing ovation at the Bernabeu, and Juve now look good bets to finish top of the group.
Wednesday also saw Fiorentina in action, and despite Adrian Mutu’s terrific early finish, the Viola weren’t able to hang on against Bayern Munich, who levelled through an offside-looking Tim Borowski on 78 minutes. The draw now means Fiorentina will have to win their next two to have any chance of qualifying for the next stage, although the UEFA Cup looks more likely.
Speaking of which, Europe’s second tier competition is a ‘big motivation’ for Milan apparently, according to Clarence Seedorf, but things weren’t going well for his side deep into injury time against Portuguese minnows Braga. It was then of course that Ronaldinho, on for Pato, popped up to smash home the only goal of the game, which opens up a three point lead at the top of the group.
Also sitting pretty are Udinese, impressive 2-1 winners in Moscow against Spartak.
Fabio Quagliarella struck them both, the second a penalty, and while a revitalised Tottenham will now provide competition in Group D, the Bianconeri look sure to qualify.
As if to underline a fantastic week for the Italian sides, Sampdoria benefitted without even playing; Sevilla’s 1-0 defeat in Liege keeping Samp top of Group C.
In a week that saw none of the Premier League’s ‘Big Four’ register a win in the Champions League, and no Spanish team win any European tie, perhaps it should be some of Serie A’s stars who are checking out hotels in Rome.