At the end of a rare bad week, it must have been something of a tonic. Juventus might have been singularly second best in their European tussle with Bayern Munich, but their closest rivals at home gave them some consolation. On the latest evidence, Milan and Napoli are still a bit short of challenging Antonio Conte’s men’s domestic dominance.
The first half at San Siro confirmed the good and bad qualities of both of Serie A’s other occupants of the Champions League places. Walter Mazzarri’s side started off in sluggish fashion and a low, sweeping Mathieu Flamini shot made them pay for their lack of focus. But then the Rossoneri left the back-door open and allowed Goran Pandev to celebrate an equaliser in bug-eyed Toto’ Schillaci style.
That sparkling opening period should have been the aperitivo before cracking open some valuable vintage from the Calcio wine cellar. Instead, with a lunging-tackle red card for Flamini and few clear chances, the second period had connoisseurs turning up their noses. It was more vino da tavola than breathtaking Barolo.
In the end, maybe the point was all either side deserved and it will certainly have pleased the Partenopei more, leaving their four-point lead in second place intact. But Milan, too, had some consolation in getting a draw without suspended Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy who was controversially “rested” for most of the game. Boss Max Allegri was convinced that second spot – and avoiding the Champions League play-offs – would still not be out of the question.
“This is an important point and it keeps us in with a chance of automatic qualification,” he said. “We keep Fiorentina four points back and we’re two games through this tough run of three matches. The team is young and improving, we have to be patient. Even third place would be a great achievement.”
“There are still 18 points left to play for and we can’t let our guard down,” responded his opposite number Mazzarri. “After going 1-0 down, we started playing well and pressed them back and I thought we could win the game. We are still not clinical enough to take home the points from games like this.”
With Lazio and Juventus still to play, there was a chance for others to enhance their European claims but not everybody took that chance. Fiorentina did seize their opportunity to stretch away from the Biancocelesti in fourth with an improved second half – and a sweet Marcelo Larrondo strike – to see off Atalanta. Last week’s hero for the Bergamaschi, German Denis, fell from grace with a red card for a scything tackle on David Pizarro.
Roma, too, were able to move up the table with a hard-fought win over Torino. South American stars, and great dressing-room chums, Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela were the goal getters – the latter’s a particularly spectacular effort. A typical piece of Rolando Bianchi perseverance was not enough to pick up a precious point for the Granata, despite the constant threat of a truly inspired Alessio Cerci.
The side to blow their chance to pressurise Lazio were, perhaps unsurprisingly, Inter. They were once again the victims of a pretty dubious penalty in the farcical surroundings of Trieste for a supposed away trip to face Cagliari. Credit, however, to Andrea Stramaccioni for not fanning the flames of conspiracy theory but accepting it was simply an honest mistake from the match officials.
The loss allowed Udinese – impressive 3-0 winners against a Parma side which clearly reckons it is already safe in Serie A – to close to within two points of Inter. Their classic late season rush might yet be enough to sweep the boys from Friuli back into Europe. Hands up all of you who think that would be a good thing for Italian football’s coefficient when they dismantle their team again this summer.
In the lower reaches, it was baseball caps off to Beppe Iachini. The former battling midfielder of Fiorentina, Verona and Venezia has worked a little miracle with his Siena side. A pulsating 3-2 win over Pescara – sealed by the impressive Innocent Emeghara – took them clear of the drop zone. Without their six-point penalty they would be flying clear of trouble like a top jockey at the local Palio celebrations.
Things were more grim for Palermo and Genoa who both ended up getting a point from matches they really needed to win. The Derby della Lanterna was a typically bitter affair with all the goodwill of Ebenezer Scrooge before his visits from the Christmas ghosts. A nasty tackle from Matuzalem in the opening stages set the tone of a grouchy encounter. At the final whistle Samp fans celebrated the draw by taunting their local rivals with chants of “Serie B! Serie B!”.
In Sicily, the recent revival under the 48th different manager of the season – that may be a slight exaggeration – hit the buffers against Bologna. Josip Ilicic opened the scoring early to raise hopes of a Rosanero victory with a strike worthy of winning any match. Unfortunately for Giuseppe Sannino, a calamitous error from the normally dependable Stefano Sorrentino in goal cost his side a couple of points. It would be truly cruel on the outstanding netminder if that blunder was to end up costing his team its survival in the top flight.