Football is a team game, of course, but individuals can make all the difference. Juventus, Roma and Napoli are well-oiled units with many interchangeable parts. But Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Gonzalo Higuain showed why they are harder to replace than most during Italy’s latest long weekend.
In truth, there should be kudos to the clubs’ goalkeepers as well. Gigi Buffon, Morgan De Sanctis and Pepe Reina all made precious interventions to help ensure their respective sides picked up three more points. If this Serie A season was a mountain stage of the Tour de France, the tempo they are tapping out would have even Chris Froome gasping for breath.
Nobody is pushing the points pedal harder than the Bianconeri, of course. In any other year, the Giallorossi and Partenopei would probably be locked in a Scudetto fight with the points totals they have. Instead, they have only been able to watch in disbelief as Antonio Conte’s men have undertaken the uphill struggle for a third consecutive Scudetto as if it was a doddle of a descent.
On Sunday night, however, La Vecchia Signora had her resolve tested to the full by a gutsy Griffin. Genoa had their chance to put the brakes on Juve’s breakaway but Buffon parried away an Emanuele Calaio penalty. Then Pirlo did what he has done more than 40 times in his career and produced a prodigious free-kick to decide the game in its closing stages.
“It wasn’t one of my best goals, I’ve scored a lot,” he said afterwards. From anyone else that would sound either incredible or arrogant but, in the case of Italy’s midfield maestro, it happens to be factually correct. Nonetheless, his goal was the kind of exquisite finish which even the losing team has to permit a kind of bittersweet admiration.
There could be no such appreciation of Higuain’s equally late effort by vanquished Torino on Monday night. The Granata were understandably indignant after El Pepita sent Kamil Glik sprawling in the build-up to his goal. The match officials must have considered the contact accidental and then the striker did what he does best and thumped home another vital strike. Poor old Giampiero Ventura described the decision to allow the goal to stand as ‘embarrassing’ and, if it had come against your team, you’d probably find it hard to disagree.
Totti’s goal was also a tonic for a Roma side still reeling at news that Kevin Strootman is out for the season. Er Pupone opened the scoring and played his part in the build-up to Mattia Destro’s second in a gripping 3-2 triumph. Udinese struck back twice through Giampiero Pinzi and Dusan Basta but a Vasilis Torosidis goal in between times saw Rudi Garcia’s men home.
Further down the table, things are starting to look decidedly cramped around the fourth place spot. First to stake their claim to a place just outside the Champions League slots were Inter with an away win which simultaneously dented Verona’s European hopes on Saturday night. Walter Mazzarri’s sense of vindication is starting to swell like the River Po after a sudden downpour.
“It has taken a bit of time for the players to understand what I was asking of them,” he said. “At such a successful club, it’s when things get difficult that you see how experienced a Coach is, how he stays focussed and works with his players to get things back on track.”
Then, on Sunday afternoon, Parma made their case for a top four slot with a 4-2 win at Milan, which plunged the Rossoneri deeper into crisis. Roberto Donadoni’s men never looked back after Christian Abbiati was sent off after just a few minutes and Antonio Cassano converted the resultant penalty. Everything good about the Emilia-Romagna side seems like a mirror image of all that is wrong with the giants from Lombardy.
The club from the Ennio Tardini is tactically organised, has a clear transfer strategy and vision and has brilliantly harnessed the skills of one of Serie A’s most infamous hotheads in the shape of Fantantonio. You could say almost the exact opposite of the side they beat on Sunday. Clarence Seedorf seemed to squirm when he was asked, post-match, if it was time to admit that the players at his disposal constituted no better than a mid-table outfit.
The supporters, clearly, could not accept that verdict. They were not slow to vent their rage, with the architect of many of their greatest successes of the last 25 years, Adriano Galliani, and the man who played a huge part in dragging them to third spot last season, Mario Balotelli, particularly under fire. Memories at San Siro are clearly shorter than Atalanta’s Maxi Moralez at the moment and gratitude as rare as Robinho shots on target. Wasn’t getting shot of Max Allegri meant to sort everything out?
The final fourth place competitors in action were Fiorentina who sneaked past Chievo 3-1 but not without the odd scare. The Viola were two goals to the good by half-time thanks to Juan Cuadrado and Alessandro Matri but their minds drifted to Thursday’s Europa League clash with Juve and Alberto Paloschi made them pay. It took an offside goal from Mario Gomez to clinch the game but not before David Pizarro had a penalty saved by Michael Agazzi.
Elsewhere, Atalanta just about guaranteed their Serie A spot next year with a convincing 3-0 win over Sampdoria which meant the Blucerchiati will have to sweat just a little longer. While Lazio pushed themselves onto the fringes of the European debate with a 2-0 away win at Cagliari. And, in the bottom of the table battles, Sassuolo got a first win since their famous defeat of Milan to see off Catania while Livorno beat Bologna to drag their opponents right into the relegation debate. Indeed, since sending Alessandro Diamanti to China the Rossoblu are also finding out just how vital outstanding individuals can be.
Think you know your Italian football? Share your knowledge, tips and comments to win cash prizes in OLBG's tipster competition - £5,000 monthly.