O Captain! My Captain!
By David Mosse
Roma may never sort out its defensive issues under Zdenek Zeman, preventing the Giallorossi from mounting a serious title challenge, but claiming a Champions League spot appears a realistic goal thanks to the most potent attack in Italy. Approaching the midway point of the season, Zeman’s side has scored five more goals than anybody else, and the man at the center of it all, once again, is Francesco Totti.
The latest thrill ride for Serie A’s top entertainers was a 4-2 home win over Fiorentina on Saturday that showcased all the team’s frailties at the back, and strength going forward. The Viola scored a first-half goal when Borja Valero’s free kick found a totally unmarked Gonzalo Rodriguez who squared across for Facundo Roncaglia to tap in. And Roma’s defense was shredded again after the intermission with Valero setting up substitute Mounir El Hamdaoui for an easy header.
Fortunately for the Giallorossi, Totti’s form was simply irresistible with the 36-year-old finding the back of the net twice, and playing a part in two other goals. Forced into a more advanced role at the start due to the absences of Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela, Totti exchanged passes with Mattia Destro before scoring with the outside of his boot early in the first half, and added his second later on with a blistering shot from long range that beat Emiliano Viviano.
His set-piece deliveries created problems for Fiorentina throughout the match, and his passing was absolutely superb. Osvaldo came on in the second half to score his eighth league goal of the season, moving level with Lamela for the team lead, but Totti is not far behind with six.
Following a disappointing 2011-2012 campaign in which he failed to reach double digits for the first time in a decade, it was fair to wonder whether Totti’s Roma career would end much the same as that of Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus. Del Piero spent a frustrating final season sitting behind the likes of Marco Borriello and Alessandro Matri before being forced into semi-retirement in Australia.
But Totti remains an automatic first-choice player on merit, and has played a pivotal part in Roma’s four-match winning streak that has seen the Giallorossi climb into the top five in the standings. He has shown no signs of fatigue, starting 15 games and lasting 90 minutes in nine of those encounters. And with plenty of attacking talent around him, should keep shining the rest of the way.
Fiorentina, meanwhile, suffered its first defeat since late September, and desperately needs a return to health from Stevan Jovetic. The 23-year-old has been sidelined for over a month, forcing Luca Toni to shoulder too much responsibility at his advanced age. The Viola does have an easy schedule in the coming weeks, while Roma braces for showdowns against AC Milan and Napoli.
The Rossoneri continued their impressive run of form with a 4-2 win at Torino on Sunday that featured yet another goal from Stephan El Shaarawy, his league-leading 13th of the season. Robinho scored for the first time from open play, and Giampaolo Pazzini put forth one of his better Milan performances, finding the back of the net and rattling the woodwork in the second half.
Alexandre Pato missed the match due to injury and appears on his way out in January. The same is true of Wesley Sneijder who refused to play any part in Inter-Milan’s highly-anticipated clash with Napoli at the San Siro. The Nerazzurri are coping just fine without him, and leapfrogged into second place with a 2-1 win courtesy of goals from Fredy Guarin and Diego Milito, while Edinson Cavani scored for Napoli.
Elsewhere, Atalanta ended a run of three consecutive defeats by knocking off Parma 2-1 at home thanks to another strong display from German Denis, while Pescara earned an important victory in a relegation battle with Genoa on Sunday. Elvis Abbruscato and Ante Vukusic supplied the goals in the second half, consigning the Rossoblu to an eight defeat in the last nine games.
Some Other Thoughts:
*Antonio Conte made his long-awaited return to the bench on Sunday against Palermo with Juventus riding high following its Champions League qualification. And it proved to be a triumphant comeback with Stephan Lichtsteiner scoring the only goal of the match early in the second half. The 28-year-old finished off a wonderful team move involving Andrea Pirlo and Mirko Vucinic.
The Juventus back line was untroubled the rest of the way, but defender Leonardo Bonucci did provide some comic relief with an outrageous dive in the closing minutes that will likely be replayed on Youtube for years to come. Referee Andrea De Marco wasn’t fooled and Bonucci came away with a yellow card.
*It was a terrible weekend for Napoli with the defeat to Inter-Milan coupled with the news that Walter Mazzarri’s side might be docked a point due to the actions of former goalkeeper Matteo Gianello who attempted to fix a match against Sampdoria in May 2010. Both Paolo Cannavaro and Gianluca Grava face nine-month bans if its proven they were aware of the plot and failed to alert authorities.
*Siena finds itself at the bottom of the table following a disappointing 3-1 loss to Catania this past weekend. Alessandro Rosina scored the only goal for the Bianconeri who surprised last season with a 14th place finish, but have struggled to maintain the same form this around. A return to Serie B seems like a distinct possibility, while manager Serse Cosmi lasting the season does not.