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Euro Trip

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Perhaps the silver lining of only two Italian clubs taking part in the Champions League group stage for the first time since 1998-1999 is that more focus than ever will be paid to the domestic game, especially if AC Milan makes a quick exit from Europe, which seems a distinct possibility. Giampaolo Pazzini’s hat-trick in Bologna proved a temporary respite, as the Rossoneri suffered another humiliating home defeat on Saturday, this time to Atalanta.

Not even CEO Adriano Galliani can seriously think the current squad is good enough to compete at the highest level, as Milan was unable to break down the Orobici defense, while Atalanta striker, German Denis caused all sorts of problems at the other end. It was Denis who rolled back for Luca Cigarini to fire home the only goal midway through the second half, capitalizing on a defensive lapse by Nigel de Jong who also showed all his limitations with the ball at his feet.  

Indeed, with Riccardo Montolivo, Alexandre Pato and Robinho all sidelined, and Pazzini at less than 100 percent after picking up a knee injury in training last week, there was no way back for the Rossoneri who relied almost exclusively on Kevin-Prince Boateng for inspiration. Atalanta nearly doubled its lead in stoppage time, and Massimo Allegri’s side was predictably jeered off the field at the final whistle.  

The outlook is much different in Turin, of course, as Juventus will head into the midweek showdown with Chelsea brimming with confidence after maintaining its 100 percent record thanks to a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Genoa on Sunday. The Old Lady showcased its strength in numbers with substitutes Mirko Vucinic  and Kwadwo Asamoah both ending up on the scoresheet.

Even Real Madrid manager, Jose Mourinho, acknowledged recently Juventus could be a very difficult opponent this season, and Giorgio Chiellini’s return to health only makes the back line tougher to break down, though youngster Ciro Immobile, still owned by Juventus, did find the back of the net early in the first half. Emanuele Giaccherini provided the equalizer before the introductions of Vucinic and Asamoah turned the tide, as caretaker Massimo Carrera continues to live a charmed life.

It remains to be seen how much emphasis Italy’s four representatives – Udinese, Napoli, Lazio and Inter-Milan – place on the Europa League this season, but the last three picked up victories this weekend with the Biancocelesti benefitting from a stunning performance by Hernanes in the 3-1 win over Chievo. The Brazilian scored two goals and played a part in the third with his shot from close range parried by Stefano Sorrentino directly into the path of Miroslav Klose for an easy finish.

Klose actually gave away a penalty late in the second half, as Lazio conceded for the first time this season, but all is right with the capital club, as Vladimir Petkovic became only the second Lazio manager to open a season with three consecutive victories. The Biancocelesi are level on points with Juventus and Napoli atop the standings, and already comfortably ahead of crosstown rivals Roma.

Napoli struggled at the San Paolo against a plucky Parma, but Walter Mazzarri’s side has had no trouble scoring with Goran Pandev proving an ideal strike partner for Edinson Cavani, and both players were on target in the 3-1 victory. Pandev also provided an assist for substitute Lorenzo Insigne’s late goal, which sealed the three points and a perfect start to the campaign.

Another impressive forward combination developing is that of Diego Milito and Antonio Cassano who helped lead Inter to a comfortable 2-0 win over previously unbeaten Torino. Samir Handanovic finally made his debut and Andrea Stramaccioni was visibly relieved following the match, though Wesley Sneijder’s angry reaction at being substituted has created a minor controversy for the young coach.

Udinese, meanwhile, has yet to recover emotionally from its Champions League elimination at the hands of Braga, and had to settle for a 2-2 draw at Siena. Francesco Guidolin was sent off for dissent before halftime, and the Zebrette lost Andrea Lazzari to a red card after the break, but Antonio Di Natale, scorer of 80 Serie A goals the past 3 seasons, did finally open his account.

Elsewhere, Zdenek Zeman’s Roma should be fun to watch this season, but a shaky back line will be difficult to overcome. Any momentum generated by the victory over Inter-Milan last time out has quickly evaporated after a shock 3-2 defeat to Bologna at the Olimpico. Roma even trails both Fiorentina and Sampdoria, who continued their strong starts with victories this weekend.

Some Other Thoughts:

*It seems every gifted, diminutive attacking player in the world is now labeled the “insert nationality Messi”, when the truth is at the rate the Barcelona star is going, even comparing Pele or Maradona to him is becoming a stretch. But 21-year-old Napoli striker Lorenzo Insigne, dubbed the “Italian Messi”, has flashed some impressive potential early on this season.

Insigne came on late in the second half against Parma, and scored his first Serie A goal with a well-taken finish in stoppage time. The expected emergence of the youngster, who made his debut with the national team last week against Malta, prompted the Partenopei to part with Ezequiel Lavezzi in the summer, and it seems only a matter of time before Insigne assumes an even larger role.

*Palermo President Maurizio Zamparini further cemented his reputation as one of the craziest men in European football with the decision to sack first-year manager Giuseppe Sannino after three league games in charge. It has been a disappointing start to the campaign for the Rosanero with comprehensive defeats to Napoli and Lazio followed by Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Cagliari, but Sannino wasn’t exactly blessed with a sparkling squad and deserved a bit more time.   

*Luca Toni made a dream return to Italian football, finding the back of the net just 60 second after coming on in the second half of Fiorentina’s 2-0 win over Catania on Sunday. The 35-year-old enjoyed one of his finest seasons with the Viola, scoring 31 league goals back in 2005-2006, and now will be counted on to take some of the pressure off the sensational Stevan Jovetic.