Matchday 6 of the UEFA Champions League wrapped up on Wednesday night, in an atmosphere of semi-indifference for the Serie A teams. Indeed, before the matches even started everyone knew that out of the 4 Italian teams in contention 3 were already through to the next round (Milan, Inter, and Roma) and one had been eliminated Tuesday (Lazio). So it was all a matter of bragging rights, especially for Inter which, on top of their qualification ticket, had already earned the mathematical first spot in their group. The boys of Roberto Mancini however, spent little time on thinking how much effort they were going to give out tonight: with a lone goal by Julio “El Jardinero” Cruz, the Nerazzurri defeated PSV and continued their virtually unstoppable march in the 2007-08 season.
The situation was a little more delicate for Roma, who could have potentially grabbed the lead of the group by beating Man Utd at the Stadio Olimpico (and would have therefore avoided other first-ranked teams, in the Round of 16 draw for the playoff stage). Fate had other plans for the Giallorossi though, who were forced to a 1-1 home tie with the Red Devils, courtesy of the goals by Gerard Piqué and Amantino Mançini.
The question that Roberto Mancini and all the Inter fans should be asking themselves at this point, is the following: is the Inter team of this moment good enough to make it all the way to the CL final in Moscow? Can they maintain their absolutely relentless streak of decisive performances, and important victories? Evidence seems to suggest so: the 1-0 away win to PSV Eindhoven is just further proof that Inter’s resources seem to have no limit. When called into action, even the backup players seem to find every ounce of motivation to make it big, and it’s no coincidence the Nerazzurri have only lost 2 games out of 21 so far in the season, utterly dominated Group G of the UEFA Champions League, and are set for a repeat of ther 2006-07 Serie A Scudetto.
Believe it or not, Inter had not fielded a 3-striker formation for over a year (last season’s away game to Cagliari), but tonight coach Roberto Mancini decided to put some faith in his offensive performers, and promoted Julio Cruz to yet another starting role in the team. Pairing him in attack were Hernán Crespo and David Suazo, a perfect combination if you think about it (power and speed) and it was no coincidence that the first chances Inter obtained came from the speedy incursions of the Honduran striker (first a through ball for Santiago Solari deflected by Gomes, then a shot by Cruz saved on the line by Mike Zonneveld).
With Primavera baby Francesco Bolzoni dictating the pace in midfield, Inter were even dominating most of the ball possession. The only thing for the PSV players was to try their luck on free-kicks (through Afellay and Zonneveld), but with little success. Instead, their task got considerably harder in minute 28 when, following a Marco Materazzi long ball to David Suazo, PSV defender Edison Méndez was forced to upend the Honduran striker who had gotten through on goal. The red card was inevitable, and the Dutch players were now forced to play the remaining 60 minutes one man down.
Eventually in the 2nd half, after a series of almost embarassing misses for Julio Cruz, Inter wrapped up the match in a tight package and it was game over for PSV: the Argentine made amends for his previous mistakes and deposited a tap-in goal into the net, following some amazing dribbling work by… once again, David Suazo. 1-0 Inter. For Cruz, this was goal nº4 in the last 5 games, and it also allowed Mancini to rotate his team a little bit (in J.Zanetti, Cambiasso and Puccio for Maxwell, Chivu, and Cruz) before the end of the match.
Inter’s next rendez-vous with European football will be this Friday, for the playoff draw at the UEFA headquarters. The Round of 16 is scheduled for February 19/20.
|GOALSCORERS: 63’ Cruz (I)|
|PSV EINDHOVEN (4-4-2): Gomes – Marcellis, Salcido, Alcides, Zonneveld – Mendez, Simons, Afellay (65’ Aissati), Culina – Farfán (62’ Perez), Lazovic (84’ Jonathan). (bench: Roorda, Rajkovic, Fagner, Bakkal). Coach: Wouters.|
|INTER (4-3-3): Julio Cesar – Córdoba, Rivas, Materazzi, Maxwell (86’ J.Zanetti) – Bolzoni, Chivu (68’ Cambiasso), Solari – Crespo, Cruz (75’ Puccio), Suazo. (bench: Orlandoni, Maicon, Esposito, Federici). Coach: Mancini.|
Roma meanwhile, earned their second draw in their last 2 games (after their unfortunate 1-1 tie to Livorno this week-end) but on this occasion, the medicine will have probably been much easier to swallow for the Giallorossi. The most likely reason was because instead of the Amaranto, facing Roma today was Manchester United which is always a tough nut to crack. Of course, every fan couldn’t help but think about the 7-1 rape the Red Devils inflicted on the Giallorossi last season, but the coaches and players knew better: with the qualification spot already in the bank and both teams having tough matches to prepare for in a few days (Roma will be travelling to Torino and United will have to face Liverpool), this was the opportunity to rotate the squads and try out some new players.
At the start of this match Roma were, as dubbed by Gazzetta‘s Riccardo Pratesi, like a “Sleeping Beauty”. While Sir Alex Ferguson had left his entire starting defensive line-up off the gamesheet, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo, those that did step on the field tonight had every intention of demonstrating what they were made of. So the first 10 minutes bore witness to an almost asphyixiating Red Devil domination, who tried to send their strikers through with penetrating passes.
Soon enough though, Roma woke up. It took a little disallowed goal for Francesco Totti (offside on Mançini’s through ball) to shake up the Giallorossi, but after that Luciano Spalletti’s boys were much more alert. In particular, they kept a tight defensive block and were ready to exploit their speed on the ensuing counter-attacks, which forced the Man Utd rear-guard to remain vigilant. Nevertheless, it was Manchester who maintained most of the ball possession, and repeatedly went near to score with John O’Shea (save by Doni) and Wayne Rooney (wide shot from 20 yards).
Eventually United’s efforts were going to get repaid, because on minute 34 Nani delivered a corner-kick right to the Gerard Piqué‘s noggin, and the Spanish defender (given way too much space) adjusted his header past Doni. 1-0 Man Utd.
The Red Devil goal had at least the merit to give the Roma players a serious shake, and the Giallorossi immediately replied with back-to-back opportunities to score: Mançini exploited a Francesco Totti pass and slammed a left-footer onto the crossbar, Francesco Esposito arrived for an open-net header but sent the ball over! Then minutes later, Mançini was once again dangerous and forced Tomasz Kuszczak (back-up for Edwin Van der Sar) to parry away into corner. Worth mentioning that Esposito had missed a similarly (seemingly) easy header, on a perfect Cicinho cross with the score still tied. 1-0 Man Utd at the break.
In the 2nd half, Spalletti inserted Daniele De Rossi for Rodrigo Taddei (who picked up a knock), and moved David Pizarro to a more offensive position in the center. Roma tried to continue their assault onto Manchester’s goal, but it would be the visitors who once again would have the first chance of the half: on a corner-kick delivery, Michael Carrick and Cicinho went for the challenge, the ball looped up in the air and would have entered the net, had it not been for Doni’s prompt deflection into corner.
Roma replied a few minutes later with a powerful 22m shot by Ahmed Barusso (narrowly wide), imitated by Chris Eagles 3 minutes later (instep shot on the run exploiting Nani’s pass, wide from 10m out). Then Manchester blew away their chance to make it 2-0, as Rooney sent a delightful ball through to Louis Saha, but the Frenchman’s 12m one-on-one duel with Doni ended to the advantage of the Roma keeper.
Eventually, Roma found the tying goal in the 71st, exploiting yet another counter-attack: Mirko Vucinic (who had come on for Esposito) directed the orchestra on this one, as he moved forward with great pace, put the ball back for Mançini, and allowed the Brazilian winger to control, and place an accurate shot past Kuszczak’s arms into the net. 1-1.
Nani could have won it for Red Devils, but his attempt at a chipped shot didn’t catch Doni by surprise. But speaking about Vucinic, the Montenegrin was decidedly on form tonight: hitting the post 1 minute after the Roma goal, and otherwise running everywhere up and down the field. Precisely the kind of performance from someone you’d think would NOT put into orbit a chance from 2m out in the 90th minute, but I guess life is full of mysteries.
The match thus ended 1-1 with a very entertaining half, leaving Roma at 2nd rank spot of Group F. The Giallorossi will now be hoping to avoid some of the European powerhouses, when the playoffs draw takes place on Friday afternoon.
|GOALSCORERS: 34’ Piqué (M), 71’ Mançini (R)|
|ROMA (4-2-3-1): Doni – Cicinho, Mexès, Ferrari, Antunes – D.Pizarro, Barusso (61’ Giuly) – Mançini, Esposito (61’ Vucinic), Taddei (46’ De Rossi) – Totti. (bench: Julio Sergio, Panucci, Juan, Pit). Coach: Spalletti.|
|MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): Kuszczak – Simpson, Piqué, Evans, O’Shea (53’ Brown) – Eagles, Fletcher, Carrick, Nani – Rooney (72’ Dong), Saha. (bench: Heaton, Lee, Hewson, Brandy, Eckersley). Coach: Ferguson.|