A sliver of hope has been spotted somewhere over the Gulf of Naples. The almost invincibles of Italian football felt the rare sting of defeat to trim their lead at the top of the table to a still substantial 11 points. It seems unlikely to change the destination of this season’s Scudetto but it at least gave hope to Juve’s domestic rivals for campaigns to come.
Rafa Benitez’s men were well worth their win against a Bianconeri side which - shorn of top scorer Carlitos Tevez through suspension - played its first half in rope-a-dope mode. That defensive counter-punching approach has worked in the past but it failed to do the job at the Stadio San Paolo. A precise through ball from Lorenzo Insigne saw Jose Callejón grab a touch-and-go offside opener which was just reward for the Partenopei’s enterprising approach. Then, when the visitors attacked more in the second half, Dries Mertens produced a sweet finish from a Goran Pandev assist to complete the job.
If there is an Achilles Heel to La Vecchia Signora’s dominance, it might be her away form against the very best sides. Outside the Juventus Stadium in Serie A, they have managed to beat just two of the current top nine teams in the Division - Parma and Atalanta - with Roma still to play at the Olimpico. Meanwhile, in the Champions League, they failed to win a single game when they travelled from the comforts of Turin. It’s not a huge sample of games, of course, but it still suggests that an away trip to a top level team can prove a poser for Antonio Conte.
Before anyone gets their hopes up, however, it’s worth pointing out how relentless Juve have been against everyone else and at their own ground. They haven’t dropped a single point at home nor have they against a side in the bottom half of the table. It’s a ruthless streak which no rival has come close to matching. And that form line would be more than enough to get them home to a third Scudetto in a row.
Elsewhere, the action felt a bit like a showreel of talents trying to provide delight or dilemmas for Cesare Prandelli as he draws up his squad for Brazil this summer. One by one the would-be participants or racing certainties queued up to show off their skills. The final few weeks of Serie A action might well give him more headaches than a boy band album your teenage daughter plays for hours without a break.
First to give the Italy boss a boost was Mario Balotelli, who found the net for the second game running as Milan gunned down Chievo with ease. It speaks volumes about the Rossoneri’s troubled season that three games without defeat is seen as a significant revival. A couple of goals from Kaka in his 300th match for the club completed a morale-boosting triumph. Clarence Seedorf still looks like a tightrope walker teetering over shark-infested waters but, at least until next weekend, he appears to have got his balance back.
Next to submit his CV for examination was Roma’s Mattia Destro, who has hit a rich vein of form which must have seen him rise up the World Cup rankings. He hit the opener in a competent 2-0 away win over Sassuolo which also saw Francesco Totti provide Michel Bastos with an assist for the goal which clinched the game. There seems, however, more chance of the young Giallorossi striker making the trip to South America this summer rather than his evergreen teammate.
Another Calcio veteran giving Prandelli food for thought was big Luca Toni who helped himself to a double in Verona’s home win over Genoa after fellow ex-Viola Marco Donadel had opened the scoring. The fact that Hellas played half the match with 10 men after Michelangelo Albertazzi had been given his marching orders was all the more admirable. They were two tap-ins, to be sure, but the hero of Berlin is now second only to Ciro Immobile among the League’s Italian marksmen.
And how there must have been pangs of regret among the Fiorentina ranks about letting him go as they were playing out a goalless draw at Sampdoria. With Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Gomez once again missing through injury, it was up to Alessandro Matri to lead the line with disappointing results, including a spurned chance in the closing stages. It’s safe to say the ex-Milan and Juve striker will not be seeing the Azzurri boss’s number flashing up on his mobile phone any time soon.
That’s not the case for Alessio Cerci who strengthened his already convincing case for continuing international duty with another sumptuous display for Torino. He set up one and scored the other in a 2-1 victory over Cagliari which got the Granata’s season back on track. In the process, they helped to make the Europa League fight more congested than the streets around the San Paolo stadium on matchday. With Inter still to play on Monday night, eight teams are within seven points of the fifth-placed Nerazzurri.
Their number include Lazio and Parma who fought out the most dramatic clash of the weekend. The Biancocelesti twice lost a lead before Antonio Candreva - another with high hopes of Brazil - clinched the match with its fifth goal. After 17 games without suffering a loss in Serie A, it meant back-to-back defeats for Roberto Donadoni’s men.
Oddly enough, their title as the Division’s form team has probably been taken by a side who have turned their season around after a 4-0 thumping by the Ducali. After a draw with Udinese, Stefano Colantuono’s Atalanta have now managed a superb six-win streak which has made them another contender for Europe. In-form Giuseppe De Luca, nicknamed La Zanzara - The Mosquito - stung poor Bologna with a goal and an assist in their latest triumph. It left the Rossoblu hovering just above the drop zone but - with Livorno and Catania still to play this week - that position might yet be under a lot more pressure by the time next week’s action rolls around.
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