Miccoli 60, Budan 81
The bianconeri bonfire that greeted the closing stages of this game was perhaps a belated attempt by the tifosi to raise the temperature of a sub-zero performance by their team.
Since taking over on January 29, Alberto Zaccheroni has attempted to breathe some life back into a side that was dying on its feet. While successes have come in the league against Genoa and Bologna and in Europe (somewhat fortuitously) against Ajax, there has been ample evidence that the old frailties remain. This performance was a reminder that while Ciro Ferrara may have lost the confidence of his players, Zaccheroni’s predecessor was not the only weak link in the Turin giants’ chain. With their opponents showing unnecessary caution in the first 45 minutes, Juve had sufficient possession and territory to make the Rossonero goalkeeper, Salvatore Siriqu, at least earn his corn.
Zaccheroni’s refusal to use advanced wide players saw home attacks follow a predictable pattern. Endless sideways passes would lead to either Di Ceglie or Candreva offering token support out on the flanks. However, they were isolated, with none of the front three of Trezeguet, Del Piero or Diego breaking out wide to support. This would have at least dragged one or two pink shirts out of position and created some space to work in. As it was, with the Juve forward line static to the point of inertia and all of the play in front of them, Palermo had no problem hoovering up at the back. Deep crosses pumped into the box became the default option, and with Juve low on confidence, thinking outside the box seemed off-limits. Fellipe Melo and Mohammed Sissoko are both good at the defensive job they do, but two players who are so similar in mindset do not make a partnership that can unlock defences from deep. With Palermo having conceded eight goals in their previous two away games, they are clearly a side that can be exposed if you attack them with urgency. That they walked off at half time thinking ‘is that all you have got?’ was an indictment of Juve as an attacking force and a foreboding of the much worse that was to come.
Palermo started the second half with a change of mentality. Actually winning the game seemed to have entered their collective equation as the self-imposed shackles of the first 45 minutes were loosened. Their sense of purpose was evident, so much so that when Fabrizzio Miccoli curled a 25-yarder into the top corner past a helpless Alex Manninger, it was with the neutral’s acknowledgement that it had been coming. One hopes Juventus are honest with themselves and that Zaccheroni is too smart to write it off as an ‘out of nothing’ stroke of brilliance. Though the strike was sublime and out of character with a dour game, it followed a prolonged spell of pressure that had not been convincingly dealt with. Had a disallowed equaliser been allowed to stand a few minutes later, it would have represented something of a get-out-of-jail-free card. The visitors allowed Juve to have the ball almost knowing that home attacks were becoming something like groundhog day in their repetitiveness. Indeed, it was noted that as the home defence began to make freestyle surges into enemy lines, there were gaps being left on the break. A killer second for the Rossonero seemed far more likely than an equaliser from a rigid Juve that barely had a Plan A, let alone anything beyond that. The ending was fitting in that Zdenek Grygera’s back-pass was the rotten cherry on a cake Zaccheroni will have some difficulty digesting. The way in which Igor Budan walked the ball carried the scent of Schaenfreude. A simple tap-in from the first clear sight of an empty net would have been so much more merciful. It did seem like he enjoyed rubbing Juve’s noses in it somewhat. The almost immediate replacement of Diego with Jonathan Zerbina was an admission from Zaccheroni that the game was lost and all that remained was the chance to register his dissatisfaction with the peripheral playmaker. As the game ended a chorus of whistles drowned out the ecstatic minority who had made the trip from Sicily. Budan would have realised at that point that Grygera and his team-mates did not need opposing players to tell them how abject their performance was. Their own fans’ foray into small-scale pyromania was all the evidence they needed.