By David Mosse
In a weekend featuring the Rome Derby, it would take an awful lot for any other match to overshadow the proceedings at the Olimpico, but Fiorentina and AC Milan engaged in an absolute thriller on Sunday in a battle between two clubs fighting to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
The Rossoneri have been in irrepressible form since November and appeared headed for a fifth straight league win after taking a 2-0 lead courtesy of goals from Riccardo Montolivo and Mathieu Flamini. Montolivo was booed mercilessly in his first return to the Artemio Franchi, but showcased all his class just 15 minutes in by stealing the ball from David Pizarro and coolly slotting past Emiliano Viviano.
Flamini was on the receiving end of a perfect cross from Montolivo, doubling the advantage early in the second half, and by then the Viola had been reduced to 10 men thanks to a shocking decision by referee Paolo Tagliavento. Defender Nenad Tomovic was sent off late in the first half for an elbow to Stephan El Shaarawy, despite replays clearly suggesting the contact was accidental.
Fiorentina’s task was made even tougher by the departure of Stevan Jovetic who aggravated a thigh injury, but Vincenzo Montella’s side benefited from Tagliavento’s desire to atone for his earlier mistake. The controversial referee who was also involved in the Sulley Muntari “ghost goal” episode last season whistled two penalties against the Rossoneri in a span of eight minutes.
The first came when Adem Ljajic was pulled down by Antonio Nocerino at the end of an extraordinary slalom run through a series of Milan players, and the young Serb, who has emerged as a genuine star this season, converted himself to reduce the deficit. Shortly after, Mattia De Sciglio mistimed his tackle on Juan Cuadrado, and Pizarro stepped up to fire home the equalizer.
Tagliavento saved his best for last, failing to award Milan a penalty in stoppage time after Facundo Roncaglia handled the ball in the box, but refereeing decisions aside, both teams displayed the sort of quality worthy of inclusion in the Champions League. Only one will make it, however, with Napoli rediscovering its form at just the right time and virtually assured of a top-three finish.
Fiorentina remains six points behind Milan for third place and must make ground in the next two weeks with the Rossoneri set to square off against Napoli and Juventus. Mario Balotelli, reduced to a peripheral figure on Sunday, is suspended for the clash with the Partenopei after picking up a silly booking in the second half, while the Viola will sweat out Jovetic’s fitness with a match away to Atalanta up next.
Napoli duly capitalized on the opportunity to extend its lead over Milan for second place with a 2-0 home victory over Genoa. Goran Pandev and Blerim Dzemaili supplied the goals, while Edinson Cavani was desperately unlucky not to score, squandering a number of great chances, including a second-half penalty. It was the third straight win for Walter Mazzarri’s side and the first clean sheet since February.
Another South American striker grabbed the headlines, as German Denis notched an incredible second-half hat-trick at the San Siro, helping Atalanta rally for a heart-stopping 4-3 victory over Inter Milan that will leave Andrea Stramaccioni gasping for air. The Argentinean hitman struck three times in the span of 12 minutes, consigning Inter to a third consecutive home league defeat.
Elsewhere this weekend, Rolando Bianchi snatched a dramatic equalizer in the last kick of the game for Torino against Bologna in a battle between two clubs fighting to remain in Serie A. Catania was held to a scoreless draw at home by Cagliari, a disappointing result for the Elefantini who are still in contention for a place in Europe next season, while Siena’s home clash with Parma finished scoreless as well.
Some Other Thoughts:
*Juventus picked up a 2-1 home win over Pescara on Saturday, moving closer to a second consecutive Scudetto, but it was an uninspiring effort from Antonio Conte’s side, which had clearly yet to recover from the disappointing first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich. Mirko Vucinic scored both goals in the second half and his return to fitness represents an enormous boost for Wednesday’s return match.
The Bianconeri will need to put forth their best performance of the season to overcome the Bavarian giants, and Vucinic is the key figure after being limited in Munich due to illness. Kwadwo Asamoah should also regain his starting place after Federico Peluso was abused by Bayern, and Gigi Buffon must play much better to prevent Italy’s Champions League participation from coming to an end.
*It has been a difficult season for Udinese with struggles in Europe impacting the club’s domestic form as well, but Antonio Di Natale is quietly putting together another solid campaign. The 35-year-old scored twice this past weekend, including a sensational volley, in the 3-1 home victory over Chievo, and Di Natale is now second in the Capocannoniere race with 17 goals, trailing only Edinson Cavani.
*Palermo continued its improbable resurgence following up last week’s 2-0 win over Roma by claiming its first away victory of the campaign on Sunday. Steve Von Bergen, Josip Ilicic and Santiago Garcia supplied the goals in a 3-1 triumph over Sampdoria, and the Rosanero suddenly have a very real chance to avoid relegation, which would be an achievement considering the lack of stability at the club.