After a week submerged in controversy, Francesco Totti answered his critics in the only way possible as he dragged his Roma side back from the brink to set up a final day Scudetto showdown with Inter Milan. After last Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final, Totti had been lambasted on the peninsula’s sporting pages for THAT tackle on Mario Balotelli which led to his dismissal and sent the Italian press into overdrive. Claims and counterclaims were heard from Rome to Milan as the pressure of this most intriguing of seasons started to take its toll. For the Giallorossi’s final home game of the season, the club decided to rename it “Totti day” encouraging all fans to wear shirts with the great man’s name emblazoned across it. In response to this request, 50,000 of his disciples arrived for Sunday’s must-win game against Cagliari in a real show of strength towards their leader and talisman. Totti did not disappoint, he was simply outstanding from the first whistle. He was conducting his orchestra both on and off the field with a classic display that banished all the memories of just four days previous. Has there ever been a player who symbolises his club more than Totti? This season Claudio Ranieri has constructed a squad to adapt to Totti’s absence. Players such as Jeremy Menez and Mirko Vucinic, have been given the chance to take centre stage but when you need a big game player for the big occasion, Totti is in a class of his own. On Sunday afternoon with 15 minutes to go, Roma were down and out. Trailing 0-1 to an Andrea Lazzari free-kick and with Inter Milan putting Chievo to the sword at the San Siro, it seemed the season would end there and then. Luckily for the capital club, Il Capitano writes his own scripts and just 10 minutes later he had scored twice to keep his beloved club in the title race. Even by Totti’s standards this was truly sensational and afterwards he declared that “my goals were for my people”. The dream is still alive thanks to one man’s devotion to his beloved city.
Luigi Del Neri must surely be in the running for manager of the season. Sunday’s point, in what was effectively a Champions League play-off match at the Renzo Barbera, against Palermo has almost sealed Sampdoria’s entry into the qualifying stages of next season’s premier European tournament. If they get over the finishing line next week at home to Napoli it will be a truly stupendous achievement. It is not until you look at the fuller picture that you begin to see the extent of the diligent work undertaken by Del Neri and his president Riccardo Garrone. In Sicily in his starting 11, goalkeeper Marco Storari and defenders Luciano Zauri and Stefano Lucchini arrived on loan deals as did substitute Stefano Guberti. Add to this club captain Angelo Palombo and Antonio Cassano, who were prized away from Fiorentina and Real Madrid respectively, free of charge. Sampdoria’s story is a heart warming tale of how to succeed on a shoestring budget and is surely the blueprint for any club operating within similar financial constraints.
If rumours are to be believed, then it seems Juventus are keeping a watchful eye on the coach from Udine. Whilst on the subject of end of season gongs, Catania coach Sinisa Mihajlovic seems to have made the signing of the season when he took striker Maxi Lopez on loan from Gremio in January. His 10 goals have transformed a side that looked like relegation certainties around Christmas time and ensured Serie A football next season. The former Barcelona striker has pace, power and a deadly eye for goal and has been a true revelation for the islanders. He has made noises about staying in the peninsula and it seems that several clubs are monitoring his progress – Gli Elefanti will be praying he will give them at least one more season of devastating finishing.
Finally, it is a sad farewell to top flight action for Atalanta. After five years at Italy’s top table, the Bergamo club, renowned for its outstanding youth academy, finds itself having to rebuild from the confines of Serie B. A succession of managerial changes over the season totally destabilised the club and one only hopes they can make a swift return to premier competition.