Week 22 kicked off amidst a wave of anger and protest, with the Italian Footballers Association deciding that all matches were to start 15 minutes late in protest at the one year bans handed out to Napoli’s Daniele Mannini and Brescia’s Davide Possanzini. Having been originally handed a two week ban by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), the World Anti-Doping Agency deemed that this was not enough for turning up five minutes late to a drugs test, one where both players subsequently tested negative (both were playing for Brescia at the time of the incident), and after much whingeing the case went before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who this week handed out an extreme one year ban to both players. The FIGC have thrown their full support behind the duo, announcing that they are going to be appealing against the decision.
It was then somewhat fitting that the first Serie A game to be affected by the late start was the one involving Mannini’s current club, Napoli, who having led 2-0 inside the first half hour, were pegged back to 2-2 by half-time by Antonio Di Natale’s Udinese. Fabio Quagliarella’s equalising goal was one of beauty, and for those of you who have not seen it, I recommend you head over to the highlights page and have a look. In many ways, it is a moment that epitomises both the promising, and the problematic aspects of the Zebrette. They have a squad packed with very gifted individuals, but unfortunately they are not in this current moment a talented team. It is no coincidence that a large number of their players have been linked, or are currently being linked, with big clubs both at home and abroad. Marco Motta completed a move to Roma on Sunday, while Samir Handanovic, Cristian Zapata, Gokhan Inler, Felipe, Gaetano D’Agostino and Fabio Quagliarella have all been linked with a move away – and they are not the only ones. This is not a case of exaggerated media reporting either, these individuals, and indeed the club itself, are well and truly on the radar of the Champions League sides.
However, the Friuli outfit are not a feeder club, and the mission that Coach Pasquale Marino faces is to somehow mould the outstanding individual talent into something tangible as a team. Having beaten both Juventus and Roma at the Stadio Friuli this season, it must be incredibly frustrating to also have home defeats to Reggina and Chievo on the results sheet. They have some of the most promising and natural young defenders in the country, yet this means absolutely nothing if you cannot defend as a unit. 35 goals conceded so far this season is a total only exceeded by relegation strugglers Torino and the aforementioned Reggina. As it is, they are nearer to the relegation zone than they are the European places, and if that trend continues then we may well see an exodus of players to clubs that can match their ambition.
The way the clubs occupying the bottom spots in the Serie A table are going, Marino’s men may find themselves a lot closer in a few weeks. The bottom three clubs all picked up points this week, edging themselves that bit closer to those lingering above. Reggina profited from a horrendous error from Roma defender Simone Loria to secure a 2-2 draw. The goalscoring centreback has not enjoyed the best of campaigns, and at times has looked out of his depth at the Giallorossi. The loan capture of Souleymane Diamoutene from Lecce is indicative of how unsure Coach Luciano Spalletti is regarding the former Siena man. I previously mentioned Marco Motta, of Udinese, who became their second signing of January when he arrived on loan on Sunday evening. He may turn out to be a clever addition for i Lupi. A youngster with plenty of talent, he now has the chance to showcase it on a bigger stage, having been included in their Champions League squad. Spalletti has clearly identified his defence as a problem, more specifically the lack of cover. Using Marco Cassetti as a centre-back earlier in the season cost them dearly, and they’ve been fortunate that the clubs chasing European spots haven’t been able to put a run of games together, and so they have successfully placed themselves in the thick of the chase. They still occupy 5th spot, and with the fresh additions to the squad one would think their push for 4th is now right on course.
Chievo’s great run of form continued with a draw at home to Sampdoria. Unbeaten in five games, they are one side that no team in the league will want to face at the moment. The Flying Donkey’s have their defence to thank for their recent revival. Having scored more than once in only three matches this season, goals have been a precious commodity. Opposition teams would have cottoned on to the fact that if you pop more than one in the back of Stefano Sorrentino’s net, chances are you will emerge with victory. Psychologically, there is no doubt the back line will have picked up on the lack of action at the other end. The pressure on them to ensure not more than one goal is conceded is huge, but so far they have coped well. Nevertheless, they are still four points away from safety, by no means insurmountable but a sizeable gap nonetheless, and so it is imperative they keep the momentum with them, especially as the clubs around them are also earning vital points.
The most surprising of which was undoubtedly Torino’s 1-1 draw at the San Siro against current leaders Inter. As Coach Jose Mourinho pointed to in his post-match comments, if the Nerazzurri had played for the whole 90 minutes in the same vein as they did in the last 15, they would have won the match. His players only really started to play when it dawned on them that three points were not a given. They produced more clear cut chances in that final period than they did in the rest of the match, and only a heroic effort from Toro keeper Matteo Sereni prevented Inter from snatching the spoils.
Once again, the choice in midfield has to be under scrutiny. A trio of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Maxwell, all very good workhorses with little-to-no guile or quality going forward. It really does seem a case of giving the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and seeing what he can do, and unfortunately for the Beneamata that does not work all the time. The introduction of Ricardo Quaresma was an attempt to inject something unpredictable into the match, but this simply backfired with the Inter tifosi booing the player. The Portuguese winger is severely lacking in confidence, his effort on goal towards the conclusion of the 90 minutes when put through was utterly woeful. At the moment, he has to go down as a questionable Mourinho signing. Having arrived with a lot of hype, rather too much in fact, he has failed to deliver in the way expected at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Disappointingly, all of this talk about Inter is rendered completely irrelevant when the chasing pack continue to let them off the hook. Juventus are a case in point, falling to their second defeat in a week, one which was even more surprising than their away loss to Udinese last Wednesday. Cagliari’s superb counter-attacking play opened up what is usually a watertight defence. An injury to Giorgio Chiellini, easily their best defender this year, will only add further damage to any remaining Scudetto hopes. Unfortunately, the injuries to squad members are now starting to take their toll. Ageing players are being forced to play every game, when in reality they need a rest. Alessandro Del Piero was rested for the midweek clash against Udinese, and the Bianconeri attack did not look the same. Others such as Pavel Nedvěd are in desperate need of a break, but with all available cover injured Coach Claudio Ranieri does not have that luxury.
Back in Milan, another set of Scudetto-chasing pensioners do not seem to be feeling the strain. Milan’s emphatic 3-0 victory over Lazio could have easily been more had Alexandre Pato and Kaka taken the chances offered to them. The Biancocelesti’s game plan of holding a high defensive line was a strange one, considering the pace that the Brazilian duo possesses. David Beckham had yet another good game in the red and black shirt, setting up two of the goals and taking full advantage of the defence pitching up on the half-way line. He is certainly making the Rossoneri midfield are far more effective force than it was before his arrival. Daniele Bonera’s return from injury is a huge boost to Carlo Ancelotti. By far their most consistent defender before his lay-off, he is back to bolster a back line that had been utilising full-back Giuseppe Favalli in the middle. Alessandro Nesta is reportedly returning within the next month or so, meaning Carletto’s squad options increase, the importance of which cannot be overstated when you have a squad as old as the one currently at his disposal. Sitting six points behind Inter, and with the Derby della Maddonina approaching, we may yet still have a competitive title race.