Despite the first week of the ritorno adding further intrigue to Serie A, at both ends of the table, all eyes were on the late kick-off on Sunday, where Roma entertained a Milan side fresh from their jolly to Dubai (or media circus, if you are Uli Hoeness) with David Beckham in tow.
The former England captain somehow managed to gain a place in the starting line-up, despite having only played 45 minutes of the friendly match against Hamburg, with Coach Carlo Ancelotti even claiming it would be “very difficult” to start the player in their first league game since December. We could all come up with our own theories as to why he started the game. Silvio Berlusconi’s comments before the match, hinting that he believed Beckham should start if fit, would doubtless feature in many of them. The Milan Tactician conveniently explained Beckham’s start as a rouse, claiming he had always intended to play him but that he wanted to keep it at a “low profile”. Regardless of all this, the Englishman played more or less the entirety of the 2-2 draw, brought off in the 89th minute to be replaced by Mathieu Flamini, who arguably should have started in his place.
His performance was patchy to say the least. Being deployed on the right side of a central midfield alongside Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, it is difficult to see what he offered the team. He is clearly not 100% fit (which brings us back to the previous question, why did he start the game?) and so that must be accounted for, but nevertheless he cannot tackle like Flamini or the injured Gennaro Gattuso, and his attacking play is not as effective as Seedorf’s. In his defence, he made himself available for the ball at every opportunity and worked hard to support the front three, but Beckham has never been a renowned attacking midfielder in the mould of current stars like Andres Iniesta, Wesley Sneijder or Frank Lampard. His presence only deprived the Rossoneri of a more defensive minded player, one who is needed against a young Roma side brimming with quality attacking players, and with a Milan backline that are struggling to defend properly at this current moment.
Having come from 1-0 down at half-time to take a 2-1 lead, Ancelotti’s men will be disappointed to have conceded such a soft equaliser. To leave a player the quality of Mirko Vucinic unmarked is unforgivable, and he duly made them pay. They will see this as a missed opportunity to start clawing back the nine point gap between themselves and Inter, who were held to a surprise 1-1 draw at home to Cagliari. José Mourinho’s team are still showing signs of being heavily reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimović, with a midfield that offers more functionality than flair. In truth, they should really have lost the game, and had Roberto Acquafresca not missed an open goal from four yards in the dying moments of normal time, we could be sitting here contemplating a surprise defeat for the Nerazzurri.
As it is, Juventus were the big winners of the weekend. Still missing a host of players, they managed to grind out another victory at home to Siena, with an Alessandro Del Piero free-kick proving the difference. Their stranglehold on second place became tighter, and their status as Inter’s main challengers this season enhanced. With the Champions League not restarting until February, the Bianconeri should be looking to win all of their Serie A fixtures to that point to apply the pressure to a vulnerable looking Beneamata.
Performance of the weekend belongs to lowly Lecce, currently embroiled in a relegation battle, who came away from the Artemio Franchi with a fantastic 2-1 victory over a Fiorentina side who were defending an unbeaten home record. Having not won away from home all season, it was an unexpected yet welcome three points. As with any relegation candidate though, it will be the games against those around them that will prove most decisive, and in two weeks time the Lupi enter a double header of key games against Torino and bottom club Chievo. The importance of two positive results from those fixtures is heightened by the fact that relegation rivals Reggina also play the same two clubs and over the same two weekends as the Via del Mare outfit. Essentially, it is a chance for Mario Beretta’s men to ensure that the bottom three clubs do not ensnare another victim into the battle. This result will undoubtedly give them confidence – they thoroughly deserved their victory – and it is important that the momentum is maintained.
Elsewhere at the foot of the table, Bologna and Chievo went head-to-head in a relegation six-pointer. The Flying Donkey’s had only mustered four points on the road all season, unfortunately the Rossoblu managed to add a further point to that total, as they could only play out a 1-1 draw at the Renato Dall’Ara. Needless to say, Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic would have been hoping for all three against the worst side in the league. Marco Di Vaio added to his tally from the penalty spot, taking his total to 13 for the season. He will prove to be vital during the second half of this campaign, but so too will the repeatedly missed opportunities against their rival teams.
Their last four games have been against the teams below and directly above them in the table, but only one win – at home to Torino – may prove costly come the end of the season. Too often the team look content with not losing the game, instead of going forward and taking the match by the scruff of the neck. The weekend’s game is a perfect case in point. Having equalised through the Di Vaio penalty, the attitude was one of settling for the draw, which, judging by the second half performance, they appeared to do at half-time. When you are at home to the league’s bottom club, this is simply throwing a golden chance of three points away. Seven draws from 18 games so far (including a run of five consecutive stalemates before Christmas), a figure only beaten by Lecce, suggest a different approach is needed if Bologna are to attempt to pull away from the relegation zone. They currently sit one point above Torino, who are in 18th, that gap could have been much wider had more “bottle” been demonstrated at the appropriate moments.
Next week brings two standout clashes – Juventus travel to Stadio Olimpico to face Lazio, whilst Milan welcome former striker Alberto Gilardino and Fiorentina. Criticised, perhaps unfairly, for his poor performances and scoring record at San Siro, who would bet against the 12-goal hitman scoring now?