Serie A: Trading Places
By David Mosse
AC Milan fans had already exhausted themselves complaining about management last summer, especially by the time the Rossoneri sent Antonio Cassano to crosstown- rivals Inter in exchange for Giampaolo Pazzini. But adding a one-dimensional striker at the expense of perhaps the most gifted player in Italy seemed like the coup de gras in the most infuriating offseason in club history.
Pazzini fired a hat-trick in the second round against Bologna, but through the early part of the campaign, Cassano clearly had the upper hand. Il Talentino found the back of the net 5 times in the first 8 league games, forming a lethal partnership with Diego Milito, and helping the Nerazzurri remain within striking distance of Juventus, as the Rossoneri sank to the bottom half of the table.
Indeed, the first Milan derby this season was all about Cassano with the former Bari hitman subjected to abuse from Rossoneri supporters throughout the match, while Pazzini went mostly unnoticed in his brief substitutes’ appearance. Cassano appeared to have hopped off the Titanic just in time, placing himself in a much better situation to compete for trophies and take part in big matches.
Among the many subplots surrounding Milan’s remarkable rise up the standings and Inter’s sputtering form the past few months has been the reversal of fortunes of these two players. Cassano has scored just twice in Serie A since that promising start, and was dropped from the squad for this past weekend’s trip to Catania following a training ground bust-up with Andrea Stramaccioni.
He was an afterthought when Milan and Inter met again last weekend with all the attention centered on Mario Balotelli, and Cassano may struggle to command a starting place the rest of the season after Inter did just fine without him, rallying from two goals down to earn a rousing 3-2 victory in Sicily. Rodrigo Palacio bagged another brace and is clearly the Nerazzurri’s main attacking threat.
Pazzini, meanwhile, has played an important part in Milan’s revival, scoring 7 times in his last 7 Serie A appearances, including twice on Saturday in a crucial 3-0 win over Lazio. Kevin-Prince Boateng found the back of the net as well, and the Rossoneri are now in sole possession of third place, an incredible achievement considering they were 12 points off the pace in mid-November.
The 28-year-old Pazzini also put in a good shift in the upset of Barcelona, and the Champions League is where he’ll be counted on the most with Balotelli, who sat out this past weekend with a bruised shin, expected to carry the load in league play. Milan is now well-stocked to compete on multiple fronts thanks in part to a summer swap of strikers that suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
The Rossoneri trail second place Napoli by five points after Walter Mazzarri’s side played to a 1-1 draw against Juventus on Friday in a highly anticipated top-of-the-table clash. Antonio Conte will have few complaints about leaving town with a six-point lead still intact, but given Napoli’s wretched form at the moment, the result also represents a missed opportunity to put Serie A to bed.
Juventus took an early lead through Giorgio Chiellini, and Mirko Vucinic squandered a great chance to double the advantage when he was denied by Morgan De Sanctis. The Bianconeri paid the price for their profligacy in front of net when Gokhan Inler’s deflected shot beat Gigi Buffon on the stroke of halftime, and both sides created plenty of danger in an entertaining second half.
Napoli’s chief concern must be the form of Edinson Cavani who hasn’t found the back of the net in seven matches in all competitions, and was very fortunate not to be sent off following a confrontation with Chiellini away from the ball. Qualifying for the Champions League is a must if the Partenopei have any hope of retaining their star hitman, and they need Cavani’s goals to get back on track.
Elsewhere, Mauro Icardi was on target yet again for Sampdoria in a 1-0 home win over Parma, as the Blucerchiati upped their unbeaten run to six league games. The young Argentine has scored 8 times in this calendar year. Antonio Di Natale broke his six-game goal drought by bagging the winner for Udinese in a 1-0 victory over Pescara, while Bologna hammered Cagliari 3-0 in a relegation tussle.
Some Other Thoughts:
*Francesco Totti became the joint second all-time scorer in Serie A history when he converted a penalty in the first half of a 3-1 home win over Genoa on Sunday. The 36-year-old is now level with Gunnar Nordahl at 225 goals, and trails only Silvio Piola who scored 274. Totti shows no signs of slowing down, and joked afterwards that he’ll only retire after surpassing Piola.
It was the third straight league win under caretaker boss Aurelio Andreazzoli, and the Giallorossi are very much in contention for a Champions League spot. Roma trails Milan by five points and will face the Rossoneri at the San Siro in the penultimate game of the season before closing out at home to Napoli.
*Palermo has truly entered the theatre of the absurd under controversial owner Maurizio Zamparini, as manager Gian Piero Gasperini made his second “debut” for the club this past weekend in a scoreless draw away to Torino. Gasperini was sacked less than a month ago, but was recalled last week after his replacement, Alberto Malesani, received his marching orders. The Rosanero remain in last place.
*Diego Maradona attended the Real Madrid-Barcelona match this past weekend presumably with a ticket paid for by someone else because any money in his pockets should be going to Italian authorities. The third greatest player of all-time behind Pele and Lionel Messi owes an estimated 40 million euros in taxes dating back to his playing days with Napoli, and is in Europe sorting out the issue.