Normal service resumed following the Serie A winter break and for many of the league’s sides, the New Year appears to be no more prosperous than the one they left behind.
Week 18’s Roma-Milan clash was undoubtedly where all attention would turn over the returning weekend as David Beckham made his eagerly anticipated Serie A bow. Following a five game winning run ended just before the winter break by Catania, Luciano Spalletti’s Roma had moved clear of the relegation zone they unashamedly flirted with for most of the season so far. Leading Milan 1-0 at the interval due to a Mirko Vucinic opener, a slow Giallorossi start to the second half saw Brazilian Alexandre Pato first draw the visitors level and then put them in front before Vucinic- not to be outdone by Pato’s heroics- too claimed his second. Slightly overshadowed by the hysteria of Beckham’s Serie A debut, to which the former England captain said he felt “very good and in shape, I played better than I believed”, a good point earned by Milan still leaves them nine points adrift of arch-rivals Inter, who had dropped points in a 1-1 home draw with Cagliari.
In a not so unpredictable twist of fate, on-loan Inter player Robert Acquafresca gave a weakened yet stubborn Cagliari side the lead and could have actually won them the game had he not failed to kill off his employers with a gaping goal at his mercy. The alarming rate at which Inter are producing stuttering displays will have the Nerazzurri faithful wondering if Jose Mourinho really is as special as he believes and if this side has enough about them to retain the Scudetto.
The Portuguese Tactician was quick to defend yet another unconvincing display; “It is natural that sometimes players will be suspended and we cannot play with the same line-up two weeks in a row. Many of you may say that shouldn’t be a problem with a squad as large as Inter’s, but once you find your balance, then even one missing can make a difference.”
Based on this showing – to which Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 78th-minute goal ensured an unlikely looking point – many will still remain unconvinced, especially with what not so long ago seemed a gulf of a points margin reduced to just four following another piece of Alessandro Del Piero magic for second place Juventus.
Juve have gone about their business quietly – picking up points and maintaining steady if unspectacular form – unspectacular being the appropriate word to some up this clash with lowly Siena. The visiting Tuscans had failed to register a win in Turin in five previous attempts and kept that record intact despite facing an injury ravaged Bianconeri who counted Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini Mauro Camoranesi, David Trezeguet and Vincenzo Iaquinta amongst their casualties. The Old Lady owe a great deal to the inspirational return to form of Del Piero – whose 33rd minute dead-ball effort was to be the only goal and eventual winner of the game. If Claudio Ranieri’s man can keep within touching distance of leaders Inter, a 28th (in some eyes, a 30th) Scudetto success is a real possibility.
2008’s highly impressive Genoa was the first team to re-start the Serie A action for 2009, welcoming struggling Torino to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. Despite a string of absences – most notably the sought after Diego Milito – Genoa proved far too strong for the Granata and appeared just as good as they did on the back end of last year. 3-0 winners in the corresponding fixture last season, Genoa, following Giuseppe Biava’s 18th-minute punishment of some shocking Toro defending, looked good for a similar result. Just three minutes into the second half, il Grifone had doubled their lead through the impressive Bosko Jankovic who again gratefully accepted the space the defense had allowed him to score his first goal in Genoa colours. Thiago Motta dispelled any slight Torino belief when he headed a third for the home team on 85 minutes, knowing very little about it following a clash of heads with Marco Di Loreto. Whilst Genoa march on, Torino look in real danger of falling through the Serie A trap door.
Napoli are showing no signs of letting up on their threat of gate-crashing a top four finish and Champions League place following a 1-0 victory over eighth-placed Catania in a match full of event. Both sides were weakened by suspension and injury but that made no difference to the action as big calls were made on a chaotic goalmouth sequence that included a handballed goal line clearance, foul and offside decision, before visiting Catania had a Taka Morimoto ‘goal’ ruled out bang on the half time whistle. With Napoli heavily threatening and looking sure to open the scoring, Marek Hamsik was denied from the spot after the home side was awarded a penalty for Christian Terlizzi’s handball. The Slovak’s blushes were spared ten minutes from time when a countering move from the back ended with Christian Maggio claiming all three points for The Partenopei.
Cesare Prandelli will be cursing his Fiorentina side’s luck after defeat at home to relegation candidates Lecce saw them not only fall to sixth – but also lose Romanian talisman Adrian Mutu with another serious elbow injury and his replacement Daniel Pablo Osvaldo dismissed for dissent in stoppage time. Despite early Viola chances falling to Alberto Gilardino and Mario Alberto Santana, it was Lecce who, having failed to win in four months prior to this game, took the lead when Guillermo Giacomazzi coolly finished after springing the offside trap. Pressing on, the home side fought back with a looping Felipe Melo header in the 24th minute before just moments later, Lecce had again sprung the Fiorentina backline with Javier Castillo this time confidently finishing. Wiley Viola Tactician Prandelli will now consider his transfer window options as a result of Mutu’s predicted long absence with Giampaolo Pazzini possibly forced to stay at the club; “Mutu’s situation could change our plans for the transfer window. If players believe they can stay and work hard to earn a place then they are welcome to remain with us, if not, they can leave.”
The remaining hour of the game failed to see the home side salvage anything from the fixture that – regardless of Mutu’s loss – should have boosted their 4th-place aspirations.
Stadio Friuli saw the league’s most out-of-form side Udinese, play host to not-so-in-form-themselves Sampdoria. Thumped 5-1 by Milan in their last game of 2008, the home side would still have felt confident of a win against the under-performing Blucerchiati, who have scored just four goals away from home all season. Initially, fortune favoured neither side as firstly Samp lost Hugo Campagnaro to injury and were forced into a tactical reshuffle before Udinese were also forced into a change as Aleksandar Lukovic was injured. To compound the Zebrette’s misery further, Pasquale Marino’s men had a reasonable penalty appeal turned down in first-half stoppage time. The second half saw Simone Pepe fail to capitalise on the small slice of luck he was given before Gennaro Delvecchio was found unmarked to head Samp into the lead. Just as Udinese would have been cursing their luck, no sooner had a little more been received as a series of ricochets allowed Maurizio Domizzi – once of Sampdoria – to equalise and gain his side a point.
In spectacular form, Palermo moved back up to eighth and managed to save some face after they surrendered a two goal lead to Atalanta before running out eventual winners in the first of two five goal thrillers over the weekend. Fabrizio Miccoli and Mark Bresciano had put the home side two up in the opening half before a brave second-half fightback saw Sergio Floccari and Adriano Ferreira Pinto seemingly earn the visitors a point. The Orobici recovery appeared to rouse Palermo, who on the 80th minute had Edison Cavani’s well-executed volley to thank for eventually taking the win.
Similarly, Lazio will have Goran Pandev to thank for ensuring they didn’t face further league disappointment. After starting the campaign so well, even topping the table at one stage, the Biancocelesti were trailing within the first three minutes to Reggina due to former striker Bernardo Corradi’s controversial penalty. Pandev had hauled his side into the lead by the 22nd minute before Reggina substitute Francesco Cozza brought the home side back on level terms. The winner came from great link up play from Lazio’s two front-men Pandev and Mauro Zarate – the latter providing a simple chance for the Macedonian to claim his hat-trick and all three points for the visitors. Reggina will rue their luck as they missed the chance to close the gap on Sinisa Mihajlovic’s 17th-placed Bologna, who were held to a 1-1 draw at home by fellow strugglers Chievo in a relegation six-pointer.