Once again this week, not many protagonists. Mr. Toni kept quiet in Germany, all the while Bayern couldn’t do better than a draw vs. Nürnberg, so the spotlight shifted to Spain, where a certain Mr. Rossi has been doing pretty good lately. Again…
When not a scorer, he turns provider. Giuseppe Rossi is flying high in La Liga sky this week, as Villareal run over Cristian Abbiati’s Atletico Madrid. 3-0 the final score at Estadio El Madrigal, with Giuseppe Rossi actively involved in all 3 goals and providing the assist for two of them (Cazorla’s opener and Nihat’s 2-0 tally). Currently still maturing in the U21 Azzurrini, one has to wonder if Rossi could turn out to be Donadoni’s wild card come Summer, in a surprise Euro 2008 last-minute call-up to the senior team.
MILAN, 30 March 2008 – Round 31 of the Serie A will be remembered by the umpteenth tragedy in the stands. A Parma fan was hit by a bus and killed in a highway service area. Shortly before the incident, tensions between groups of Juventus and Parma fans were running high and the bus driver left in a hurry, scared of the confrontations. But the incident has not been confirmed yet. In any case, the match between Juventus and Parma has been postponed.
Saturday’s match between Inter and Roma brought negative results for the giallorossi (Totti will not play in the Champions League against Manchester due to a left thigh injury) and Fiorentina and Milan competed for a spot in the Champions League. Udinese celebrated their 3-1 score (with goals by Inler, Di Natale and Quagliarella, while Vieri scored for Fiorentina) and Milan’s 2-1 defeat against Atalanta (Floccari and Langella opened the score, Maldini reduced the gap and Pirlo missed a penalty kick). Udinese is now one of the strongest teams in the race for fourth place, moving ahead of Milan (tied with Samp) in the standings and only three points behind Fiorentina. Torino moves ahead of Catania, Sampdoria ahead of Empoli and Genoa defeats Reggina, tied with Livorno and Siena.
Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik headed home in stoppage time as Stefano Colantuono endured an unhappy return to the Palermo hotseat. The game looked to be heading for stalemate after Federico Balzaretti struck the bar for Palermo with a cracking shot and visiting keeper Alberto Fontana made some top saves. Slovakia’s Hamsik then nodded in after Ezequiel Lavezzi’s clever flick and Napoli even had time to rattle the woodwork through Roberto Sosa.
GOALS of the WEEK
Not many stunners this week, but still entertainment aplenty in the Serie A. We’re back to a ‘Top 5′, just to make our selection a little bit more ‘ruthless’ (alright that might be stretching it a bit, but you get the meaning), and Gokhan Inler gets first spot on the podium.
This week, the goal-of-the-week award goes to Gökhan İnler. The Swiss international (of Turkish descent, for those who are wondering) has the rather useful ability of being ambidextrous: his left foot is as equally fearsome as his right one, and on this occasion Sebastien Frey had to learn it the hard way. Scroll to minute 00:10:
This season’s Scudetto race seems unwilling to pick a clear winner yet. When Inter stutter, Roma are unable to take advantage of the situation and, respectively, when the Giallorossi fail to achieve victory (as their 1-1 draw vs. Cagliari this-week-end demonstrates), it is Inter who perform poorly. Go figure.
Saturday’s Stadio Olimpico match ended 1-1, with Crespo giving Inter the lead in the first half, and Rocchi providing the equalizer for Lazio in the second. For the Biancocelesti, who had racked up 6 consecutive wins at the Olimpico lately, this draw against the title holders is a prestigious result. For the Nerazzurri however, the match represents further proof their end of the season is going uphill. This is Inter’s third match without a win (after the 1-1 draw vs. Genoa and the 1-2 loss vs. Juve) and with 7 matches left in the season, one has to wonder how long Mancini’s men can maintain their lead over Roma, if they continue this level of mediocrity.
Tactically, the Inter coach decided to leave Marco Materazzi on the bench in favor of Nicolas Burdisso (yes, the very same that gifted Trezeguet the assist for the 2-0 goal last week). Dejan Stankovic occupied the midfield position alongside Cristian Chivu and Javier Zanetti, while Maniche occupied the playmaking position behind strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hernan Crespo (with Zlatan placed a few meters behind the Argentine). A 4-3-2-1 of sorts, if you will. On the other end, Delio Rossi stuck to previously tested plans and fielded his usual 3-manned attack, with Goran Pandev supporting Rolando Bianchi/Tommaso Rocchi, and Ousmane Dabo in sort of a free role position.
Inter took little time to take the lead, despite the unfavorable away-game statistics (the Nerazzurri’s last on-the-road win dates back to February 10, 2-0 at Catania): in minute 11, Maicon and Stankovic exchanged passes to send the Brazilian wing-back down the right side, which was followed by a cushy assist for Hernan Crespo, right in front of Ballotta’s goal. 1-0 Inter, and it almost seemed during this short play, as if Inter were back to the brilliance that had made them so fearsome just a few months back.
Now, were this match played back in the Fall, you’d expect the Nerazzurri to fortify their defense, comfortably hold the lead, and then strike their opponents with their pants down and win 2-0 on a counter-attack. The latest versions of the Mancini’s team however, have been quite far from the über-giants dominating the Serie A back in October. Indeed, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic mistake gifting the ball to Dabo in minute 13, is just another testament to the fact Inter’s gas tank is running dangerously low. Fortunately for Mancini, there’s still someone on his team with unlimited energy reserves, and on that particular occasion the Inter manager can thank his keeper Julio Cesar, author of a brilliant save on the Frenchman’s long-range piledriver.
After the Dabo effort, Lazio continued their efforts and came close to the equalizer through Pandev (minute 44, triple dribble on the edge before being blocked by Burdisso) and once again through the French midfielder (Julio Cesar vigilant once again). As for Inter, Ibrahimovic did have a good chance in minute 27, but his effort was saved by Marco Ballotta. The half ended with the Nerazzurri in the lead, despite Lazio slowly but continuously increasing their pressure to shift the match in their favor.
The rising efforts of the Biancocelesti materialized in the second half, precisely in minute 59, when a long pass forward by Cristian Ledesma found Tommaso Rocchi completely in the clear. On the occasion, the Lazio striker was perhaps offside by a few inches; at the same time, the Inter backline was a little too over-confident with their offside trap, leaving Rocchi with almost 20 yards of space in front of Julio Cesar. Needless to say that even with the Brazilian keeper’s best efforts, Rocchimade no mistakes and pulled his team level. 1-1, and goal nº16 in the season for the Biancocelesti captain.
At this point, it became painstankingly obvious that Inter were just not there physically. In their defense, this is a team who has been absolutely persecuted by injuries the entire season, but surely that can serve as an excuse only a few times. After a while, if your players are constantly getting injured week in week out, there must be something wrong with your fitness program! The latest addition to Inter’s injury list: Cristian Chivu, yet again!
Mancini was thus forced to substitute his Romanian center-back with Patrick Vieira, which ironically seemed to give Inter better organization in midfield. Only for a moment. Valon Behrami found the crossbar after a double deflection by Rivas and Julio Cesar (the Inter keeper’s jump was once again imperial), and Rocchi came very close to Inter’s right post in minute 77. Before the match ended Dabo had time, once again, to slam the ball onto Julio Cesar’s woodwork with yet another long-range scorcher. Sweating time for Roberto Mancini, all the way till the end of the 90th minute.
There undoubtedly will be even more sweating for the Inter coach later in the season but for now, the Nerazzurri’s lead over 2nd-ranked Roma remains 4. For how long?
Coming a little late this week, my “Italian Players Around the World” segment has the advantage there’s not a lot worth mentioning, save for Mr. Toni getting back to his usual in the Bundesliga.
In Germany last week-end, Bayern Munich were battling out at home against Bayer Leverkusen, a match-up between two former Champions League finalists and 1st vs. 3rd in the Bundesliga. Quite some time has passed since those glorious days, although if Bayern keep up their current form, they are certainly destined for more European glory in the near future (perhaps starting this year in the UEFA Cup?). Anyways, the match ended 2-1, courtesy of two goals by… who else? Luca Toni. For the first, the ex-Fiorentina striker exploited a good Ribéry-Klose combination to finish off with his foot, while for the second, the Italian giant connected a good Phillip Lahm cross with an accurate header, sending it out of the Leverkusen keeper’s reach. Toni has now 16 goals in the German league, leading the topscoring charts.
A small mention for the rather unfortunate Enzo Maresca. The ex-Juve and Fiorentina midfielder has been seeing moderate playing time at Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán this season, and things aren’t bound to improve over the next few matches. This time however, it won’t be the manager’s fault. Last week-end, Sevilla were hosting Atletico Madrid (featuring our gloved friend Christian Abbiati), and once again Maresca failed to start the match. In the 53rd minute with the score tied 1-1, Enzo came off the bench for Poulsen, but his match didn’t last very long. 4 minutes after the substitution, Atletico took the lead, and just two minutes after that, Maresca reacted to an Agüero clip from behind by headbutting the Argentine striker. Straight red, and probably a long suspension to follow. Odds are Maresca won’t be sticking at Sevilla for very long now.
Spain won their prestigious friendly vs. the World Champions Wednesday night, much to the delight of the 35,000 spectators of Elche stadium (despite the chants calling for Raúl’s name during the match). In truth, the biggest victor among Spanish ranks was little man David Villa: in minute 77, the Valencia striker invented a marvelous strike from the edge of the box that not even Superman (with Gigi Buffon, that’s not a big stretch) would have been able to save. Till then, the match had been played out evenly among the two teams with Spain coming close through Fernando Torres, and Italy seeing a seemingly valid goal by Luca Toni called off in the first half, and Mauro Camoranesi hitting the crossbar in the second.
Despite the loss however, it’s become clear this Azzurri team has a few established certainties that not even the strong winds of Elche were able to blow away. This is a serene group playing a “ripe” football, and who unburdened by the presence of ‘Prima Donnas’ makes of teamwork its strongest asset. Yes, post-World Cup euphoria has perhaps taken away a bit of their “hunger”, but these Azzurri have a great squad mentality and can still achieve many great things together (on that topic, read the excellent “Italy’s World Cup Spirit” article on Gazzetta in English). Few times before (and players will agree) was a 1-0 loss to a World football giant so easy to digest.
Tactically, Roberto Donadoni made a slight change to predicted formations of Tuesday night, by reverting is 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1. The Don confirmed Marco Materazzi in his usual position at the heart of the Azzurri defense (alongside Fabio Cannavaro), while throwing a bone to Fabio Grosso in the left-back position (over Gianluca Zambrotta). No choice would ever be wiser, as the Lyon man (not particularly brilliant with his club so far, but who always did well with the Azzurri) turned out to be the best player on the field Wednesday night. In front of the back-line, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi took charge, right behind playmaker Simone Perrotta and wingers Antonio Di Natale and Mauro Camoranesi. Up front (unsurprisingly): the lone Luca Toni.
On the other end, Luis Aragonés stuck to his plans, and fielded a 4-1-4-1 formation lead by Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila on the wings, and a very solid/technical midfield line. When you have players of the caliber of Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva, odds are strikers like Fernando Torres are going to be well-supplied.
Speaking of technique, the ball control of Aragonés’s men would be the recurring leitmotiv of Wednesday’s match, with the much-advertised Spanish ‘tiqui-taca’ taking its full effect on home soil. The short passing game of La Furia Roja would however be well-controlled by the Azzurri defense, then ready to feed the front line with quick and dangerous counter-attacks. Pirlo got to work with his distribution magic, Di Natale used his speed & agility as his main wepon, Grosso multiplied his presence on the left wing: every Azzurro was doing their part. Everyone save perhaps Simone Perrotta, not in his usual game-battling form.
The first highlight of the half was the 14th minute Luca Toni goal, called off for a very doubtful Cannavaro foul, to which Spain replied with sporadic stabs at the Azzurri defense. One minute after Toni’s “goal”, a Silva-Torres combination set up the Liverpool striker for a good shot, wide of Buffon’s post. Iniesta had no better luck 5 minutes later, but then the home team would really get to work.
In minute 37, the best of Buffon’s reflexes were necessary to deny Torres from short-range, then Fàbregas on the ensuing rebound. Those still doubting the Azzurri have the best goalkeeper in the world (yes, I’m pointing the finger at you Real Madrid fans) were probably further convinced in minute 45, as the Juve nº1 deflected yet another long-range Fàbregas effort to safety. The half thus ended 0-0, with Carles Puyol picking up a knock shortly after the quarter hour, and being forced off to the benefit or Raul Albiol.
In the second period, time for changes (as expected in a friendly match): Materazzi, Pirlo, and Toni made way for Barzagli, Gattuso, and Borriello, while David Villa substituted Torres in the Spanish ranks. The insertion of Gennaro Gattuso notably, re-established the Azzurri’s tactical equilibrium missing in the first half (De Rossi and Pirlo were stepping a bit over each other’s toes), allowing the rest of his teammates to focus on the defensive efforts. In minute 51, some good work by Fabio Grosso on the left wing cleared space for the backpass to Mauro Camoranesi: the Juve midfielder armed his left foot and took a swinging one-time shot straight onto Iker Casillas’s crossbar.
7 minutes later the Italo-Argentine went for a repeat, and exploiting a Borriello backpass slammed a howitzer on which the intervention of Capdevila was capital, deflecting into corner. By then it became clear that, much like Spain in the first half, it was now the Azzurri who were dominating play, a fact further enhanced by the addition of Aquilani (for Perrotta) and Zambrotta (for Panucci) which added speed and penetration power in Donadoni’s ranks. Camoranesi obtained yet another golden chance in minute 76, receiving from De Rossi and slaloming through the Spanish defense, only to see his finishing touch saved by Casillas rushing out. A ‘Buffon-style’ save some might say…
That was essential the last ‘big’ highlight of the match, because with
15 minutes left to play neither team came anywhere close to the Villa goal quality. In the end, this victory will come as a welcome relief to Aragonés, who with the score still tied 0-0, once again had to endure fans chanting the name of Real Madrid’s captain. One has to wonder whether Raùl’s absence will eventually bite the Furia Roja manager in the ass, but for now Spain can savor their victory over the World Champions. As for Italy, as I mentioned before this loss creates very little sting amongst their ranks: the Azzurri will now be waiting for their next fixture against Belgium, the last one before the Euro 2008 Swissaustria adventure begins.