Champions League football this week meant that three Serie A games, instead of the regular two, took place on Saturday in Week 25. All of Italy’s representatives in Europe’s top competition were given a helping hand by the Lega Calcio and assigned these earlier slots.
The fact that a key tie against Manchester Utd looms just days away did not seem to bother Inter Coach Jose Mourinho, who picked a full strength side for the trip to Bologna. The Rossoblu ensured his decision was fully justified, and can consider themselves rather unlucky to be on the end of a defeat. Although neither team seemed that bothered in the first 45 minutes, both realised that the other team was there for the taking after the break.
In truth, Inter once again has keeper Julio Cesar to thank for ensuring Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side were kept at bay, as the Brazilian pulled off several top-class saves. It seems we are here every week talking about the frailties of the Nerazzurri and you can be assured the other teams in Serie A are more than aware that if you have the fortitude to attack, the potential for reward is there. What does not help are opposing teams inability to hold on when they have managed to claw their way back into games, almost as if they become consciously aware that they could take something away from the champions-elect and develop a mental block to seeing the 90 minutes out like they normally would. Mario Balotelli, with only his second goal (in all competitions) of the season, must be given credit for the wicked delivery which confused everyone and managed to creep inside the far post. All that was needed, however, was one Rossoblu player to take control and make contact with the ball.
Siena’s Daniele Galloppa managed just that at the Stadio Olimpico, but he only succeeded in directing it towards Rodrigo Taddei, who finished beautifully, earning Roma the three points. Luciano Spalletti was forced to deviate from the Mourinho approach to Champions League midweek games, with several of his best players conveniently missing through injury or suspension. While it does ensure freshness for their match with Arsenal, it meant a couple of youth players found their way onto the Giallorossi bench early on Saturday evening. Strangely, we also witnessed a return to the 4-2-3-1 that proved so unsuccessful at the start of the campaign. The result was a performance that unsurprisingly lacked quality in attack, epitomised by a subdued Francesco Totti performance. If anything, it will have confirmed in Spalletti’s mind that the days where this system was rewarded with success and high level performances are long gone. Things improved with the introduction of young Brazilian Filipe Gomes, who brightened proceedings with quick and incisive passing. Nevertheless, their quest for Champions League football next season was kept on track with the victory, and with the added bonus of rests for important players for the continuation of their current European journey.
Other results meant that the Giallorossi’s win was vital, too. Juventus, who rested both Amauri and Alessandro Del Piero, Milan, Genoa and Fiorentina completed the clean sweep of victories for the top six, ensuring the status quo remains. The latter are benefitting from an on-fire Adrian Mutu, who since returning from injury has hit six goals in his last four games, including late goals last week against Genoa to save a point and this week against embattled Chievo to steal all three. He is massively important to Claudio Prandelli’s outfit, and his presence does wonders for Alberto Gilardino. Together, they have hit 25 of la Viola’s 37 league goals, making them by far the most potent partnership in the league.
The change to a 4-3-1-2, from a 4-3-3 where the Romanian was more towards the left flank, with Mario Santana on the right, has centralised much of the i Gigliati’s play. The width is predominantly provided by the full-backs, but by nature of how the system is set up, it also leaves these two rather exposed. This is fine against teams who play in a similar way (fortunately for Prandelli, the number of teams who play 4-3-1-2, or a variation of that, in Serie A is remarkably high), but against a side with width we have seen on a number of occasions the team struggling to cope. They have only lost at home four times in all competitions, yet each of the four opponents played with wide players that have caused problems for the two-time Scudetto winners. You only have to go back to last Thursday’s UEFA Cup tie against Ajax to view an example of this, thanks to goalscorer Kennedy Bakircioglu, who floated in unmarked from the right-wing to hammer home from 18 yards. Yet the main damage was caused just before this, by Luis Suarez, who was able to attack the right-back far too easily and cut inside. The other teams to have left the Artemio Franchi the victors so far this season are Lyon (4-3-3), Torino (4-4-2) and Lecce (4-3-3), all playing with wide players that helped create the downfall of la Viola.
Chievo, despite not using wide players, are one of those who also use 4-3-1-2 and deserved at least a point from the game. Their new-found resolve, discovered since the Christmas break, is lasting longer than many would perhaps have predicted. Coach Mimmo Di Carlo complained that Mutu had fouled Davide Mandelli in the build up to the 94th minute winner, and while he may have a point, it was one of those decisions that seem to be 50-50 as to whether it goes your way or not. What is important is that the Flying Donkey’s do not allow this defeat to affect them in future matches. This defeat, combined with Torino’s 1-0 victory over Udinese, means they have slipped a further point back from escaping relegation. Having seen a two month unbeaten run ended, it is imperative they get back amongst the points next week at Atalanta, even more so when you look beyond this fixture to the games ahead. Whilst this and the following week’s game at home to Cagliari appear to be opportunities to add to their total, it gets considerably tougher from then on. With visits to Lazio, Juventus, Roma, unbeaten-at-home Genoa and finally Napoli – they have lost a grand total of nine home games between them – chances for further additions to the points tally look few and far between.
If that gets too much for the loyal Volanti tifosi, they can take solace in Lecce’s remaining fixtures, who still have to travel to the current 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th placed teams in the league. Indeed, this year’s relegation battle could well be decided simply by how many times the strugglers have to set foot in the territory of those clubs chasing Europe. As daunting as it may sound, the Champions League or UEFA Cup carrot dangled in front of those clubs might just prove enough of a distraction to take the attention away from those games deemed less important by the respective managers. Hope yet, for those at the foot of the table.