It would not be a “normal” week in Serie A if there was not a controversy surrounding Inter. Whether it is their outspoken Coach, their equally vocal President, or a refereeing decision, the Nerazzurri cannot seem to keep away from the front pages. They were, once more, at the centre of the debate this weekend due to a winning goal in their game at Siena by right-back Maicon, who was at least two yards offside when the ball was played. It is not the first time the club have profited from refereeing decisions this season, and is unlikely to be the last.
Unfortunately, the incident does little to calm the paranoia that Inter has rather suspiciously, profited the most from Calciopoli in 2006, despite also having loose links with the scandal. There were complaints from various quarters last year that the champions received some favourable decisions from match officials – a trend that has continued into this campaign. The latest has to be up there with some of the most dubious. A shot that got caught in Maxwell’s feet was then played through to the Brazilian Maicon, standing a minimum of two yards offside with two other Inter players, the linesman in perfect position but failing to raise his flag. It is incredibly difficult to understand how a paid professional can fail to see this when it is so obvious to the rest of the stadium.
The incident should not detract from Inter’s eighth consecutive Serie A victory, one which demonstrates the players’ remarkable concentration and will to win, a hallmark of Coach José Mourinho’s teams. They are crowned winter champions, clear of Juventus in second place by six points, a huge gap even at this stage. What is even more daunting for their Scudetto rivals is that there seems to be something missing from this Nerazzurri side. Saturday evening’s game was yet another in a long line of performances that highlighted a distinct lack of ideas and nous in attack, belied by their status as the league’s highest goal scorers. They were second best for large periods of the match – even the usually bullish Inter Tactician admitted they did not deserve to win. It speaks volumes when you consider the side has Zlatan Ibrahimović in their ranks yet their best attacking player so far this season has arguably been their Brazilian right-back, and that is not simply because he is their second highest scorer in all competitions to date.
Those looking for hope that the title race may yet become interesting can cling to Juventus’s effortless win over Atalanta. Despite their injury problems, the Bianconeri has been the side that has looked most likely to pose a threat to Inter this year. With Buffon, Camoranesi, Trézéguet, Tiago and Poulsen to all return at various points after the winter break, their squad will receive a significant boost – one that is needed to cope with a twin assault on the league and in Europe. Their strength this season has been their defence. In Nicola Legrottaglie and the outstanding Giorgio Chiellini they have possibly the finest central defensive partnership in Italy, ably protected by Mohamed Sissoko in midfield. Seven clean sheets at the halfway stage is testament to this, and Coach Claudio Ranieri will be hoping injuries do not hit his valuable trio.
With the rest of the chasing pack a minimum of three points behind the Bianconeri and unable to put together anything resembling a winning run of games, it does appear that they are going to be left fighting for the remaining two Champions League spots. With three points separating Milan, Fiorentina and Napoli, this particular race is becoming the most likely source of excitement at the top end of the table in this year’s competition. La Viola securing a 1-0 victory away to Sampdoria meant the pressure was on Milan to follow suit if they wanted to spend Christmas in the top four. Carlo Ancelotti’s men responded with an emphatic 5-1 defeat of Udinese in front of a watching David Beckham, with a display of some of the finest attacking football seen at the San Siro for some time. The Zebrette, not the best of sides defensively, were struggling to deal with the link up play between Alexandre Pato and Kaká. Having complained recently that he was not playing as close to the striker as he prefers, Milan’s No. 22 was clearly deployed much closer than he has been in previous games this season. Ronaldinho was, by and large, where he has been for the majority of the campaign, loitering towards the left side of the striker. Though there was more responsibility on his shoulders to drop slightly deeper to collect the ball from midfield.
Whether this signals a turnaround for the Rossoneri remains to be seen, as their own defensive frailties were exposed on more than one occasion by Pasquale Marino’s men. The better teams will no doubt continue to expose these unless Milan tactician Carlo Ancelotti finds a solution to a problem that has now become a major issue for il Diavolo.
By far and away the most enthralling game of the weekend took place in Sicily, where Catania coasted to a 3-0 lead over Roma, only to be pegged back to 3-2 with 10 minutes remaining. The Elefanti have Stefan Okaka to thank for their victory, who in the 93rd minute managed to miss from four yards after he failed to connect his head to the ball from a corner kick, the ball instead coming off his shoulder.
The defeat ended a five game winning streak for the capital club and saw them lose to the Sicilian outfit for the first time since the 1965. Credit must go to Catania Coach Walter Zenga, whose tactical approach to the game was perfect. As predicted last week, the former Azzurri ‘keeper decided to ensure the Giallorossi had no space for their fine central midfielders to work. Baptista, Totti and Perrotta were all stifled by the endeavour and sheer number of Zenga’s midfield quartet. When not in possession, Giuseppe Mascara also tracked back to help bolster the defensive effort in the middle of the park. The loss of Francesco Totti to injury did not help, but the Roman’s struggled to find the necessary space to create an opening. Only when Catania started to relax, having taken the three goal lead, did they find it easier to create chances. Other teams would do well to take note of the Zenga approach when facing Luciano Spalletti’s men, as no team has been able to deal with this “new” Roma since the tactical switch. Their defence will always give opposing team’s chances during a match, it is simply a case of ensuring their array of attacking midfielders and strikers are not afforded the same opportunities.
It is as you were at the bottom, a worrying plight for those currently occupying the bottom five positions in the table – Bologna, Torino, Lecce, Reggina and Chievo. There is an ever increasing danger that they will become cut-off from the rest of the league, with Bologna, who lead this group, four points away from Siena who are placed above this quintet. With the latter losing to Inter on Saturday, it was a great opportunity for Lecce or the Rossoblu to close that gap and make their Christmas slightly more comfortable. Unfortunately, the two teams could only play out a drab 0-0 draw at the Via del Mare, leaving the Salentini in the relegation zone, and Emilia-Romagna outfit still trying break away from the pack. However, in Capocannoniere candidate Marco Di Vaio, they have a striker who can provide a constant source of goals that the other teams around them sorely lack.
Chievo could certainly do with a striker of his pedigree, having drawn a blank for the tenth time already this season in their 0-1 home defeat to Genoa. They occupy bottom position, four points away from 19th-placed Reggina, and a further two points away from actually escaping the relegation zone. While making early predictions can often come back to make us all look foolish, it is safe to say that Chievo are going to take one of the spots back to Serie B. With only two wins to their name all season, it is difficult to see where the Flying Donkey’s are going to accumulate the necessary points to beat the drop.
Italian football now takes its annual three week sabbatical, with the ritorno starting on Saturday 10th January. It is an opportunity for teams to take stock of their position, and evaluate the improvements needed to make the campaign a relatively successful one. It is also a time for wine, food, and panettone!