By David Mosse
Juventus had one more score to settle domestically before turning its attention almost exclusively to the Champions League for the remainder of the season, and the Bianconeri came through with a 2-1 win at the San Siro on Saturday against an Inter side that ended their 49-match unbeaten league run back in early November. A second consecutive Scudetto is now just a matter of time.
Fabio Quagliarella and Alessandro Matri found the back of the net, as Juventus earned its third straight Serie A victory, maintaining a nine-point lead atop the standings with eight rounds remaining. It took less than three minutes for Quagliarella to open the scoring, and Matri restored the advantage early in the second half shortly after Juventus conceded for the first time in a month.
The indomitable Gianluigi Buffon made his contribution with a sensational first-half stop on Rodrigo Palacio who scored Inter’s goal and represents just about the only bright spot in this otherwise wretched campaign for the Nerazzurri. Fredy Guarin started on the bench after missing his flight back from international duty, eventually coming on for the invisible Ricky Alvarez.
It was a frustrating afternoon indeed for Andrea Stramaccioni’s side, which protested furiously that the ball had gone out of play in the build-up to Matri’s goal, despite replays clearly showing otherwise, and Esteban Cambiasso disgraced himself with an awful challenge on Sebastian Giovinco in the closing moments that may keep the diminutive playmaker out of Tuesday’s clash with Bayern Munich.
Cambiasso received his first red card in 277 matches with the Nerazzurri, sparking ugly scenes at the final whistle with Conte of all people whisking the Argentine away from angry Juventus players. Inter supporters began the day by unveiling a silly banner mocking the Bianconeri’s demotion to Serie B back in 2006, and pointing out their club remains the only one in Italy never to be relegated.
At this point, however, any references to Calciopoli serve merely as a prologue to a remarkable success story. Thanks to a new stadium and astute management, Juventus has come roaring back and will enter the Champions League quarterfinals with as good a chance as anyone to lift the trophy at Wembley. The outlook certainly isn’t as bright for Inter, which has been reduced to living off its past.
Most of the drama in Italy now surrounds the battle for the other Champions League spots with Napoli and Milan vying for direct entry into the group stage. The Partenopei remain two points ahead for the third straight round after a remarkable 5-3 away victory over Torino this past weekend that featured a hat-trick from Blerim Dzemaili, and second consecutive brace for Edinson Cavani.
The Uruguayan hitman has rediscovered his scoring touch, and second place may come down to a duel between Cavani and Mario Balotelli who played a part in Riccardo Montolivo’s winner against Chievo on Saturday by striking a fierce free kick that Christian Puggioni could only parry into the path of the former Fiorentina midfielder. Montolivo slotted home the rebound and the Rossoneri claimed a 1-0 victory.
Milan has yet to suffer a league defeat in this calendar year and now boasts a six-point advantage over fourth place Fiorentina, which fell 2-1 away to Cagliari, despite a goal from the emerging Juan Cuadrado. The most mystifying result of the round came in the form of Palermo’s 2-0 home win over previously surging Roma, as the Rosanero climbed out of the cellar for the first time in weeks.
It was the first loss in six league matches for the Giallorossi who dropped below crosstown rivals Lazio once again after Vladimir Petkovic’s side claimed a much-needed 2-1 victory over Catania. With the Europa League to negotiate as well, the Biancocelesti could pay the price for fixture congestion, but Miroslav Klose’s return from a two-month layoff does represent an enormous boost.
Elsewhere this weekend, Genoa and Siena played to a thrilling 2-2 draw that does neither club much good in the fight to avoid relegation. Bologna did well to earn a point at the Stadio Friuli, holding Udinese to a scoreless draw, as Antonio Di Natale squandered a penalty. And Mauro Icardi came inches away from scoring in Sampdoria’s 0-0 draw away to Atalanta on Saturday.
Some Other Thoughts:
*Roma’s shock 2-0 defeat to Palermo spoiled the 20-year anniversary of Francesco Totti’s Serie A debut, but the 36-year-old captain deserves all the plaudits for putting forth a remarkable campaign that has recently even sparked talk of an international recall. Totti lasted all 90 minutes for the 16th time in Serie A this season, and holds the key for Roma in its quest for European football next season.
*The goal of the weekend came in Parma’s 3-0 thrashing of lowly Pescara, as Amauri capped off the scoring with a sensational overhead kick in the second half. The Brazilian-Italian has reached double figures for the first time since the 2008-2009 campaign, and helped the Gialloblu avenge a 2-0 defeat to Pescara earlier in the campaign. The Delfini, meanwhile, dropped to last in the standings.
*Mario Balotelli failed to find the back of the net this past weekend against Chievo, but was once again instrumental in Milan’s victory and continues to impress since his return to Italy. Following the match, Massimo Allegri compared the 22-year-old favorably to Zlatan Ibrahimovic who left the Rossoneri last summer for PSG, claiming Balotelli’s arrival finally filled the void left by the departure of the Swede.