The Balo Effect
Mathieu Flamini went from hero to villain on Sunday in Milan’s frustrating 1-1 draw with Napoli at the San Siro, finding the back of the net in the first half before being sent off in the final 20 minutes. But the Rossoneri can probably consider themselves fortunate to earn such a result given the absence for most of the match of their two leading marksmen, one through suspension and the other by choice.
Mario Balotelli served the first of his three-match ban for insulting a linesman in last week’s draw away to Fiorentina, while Massimo Allegri made the shocking decision to leave Stephan El Shaarawy on the bench for three quarters of Milan’s most important contest of the season. He was even given a reprieve when Kevin-Prince Boateng limped off late in the first half, but chose to bring on M’Baye Niang instead.
Not surprisingly, the Rossoneri lacked a cutting edge with Giampaolo Pazzini and Robinho ill-equipped to break down Walter Mazzarri’s rejuvenated Napoli side, and questions will be asked about a Balotelli- dependency ahead of next weekend’s showdown with league leaders Juventus. The former Manchester City hitman has scored seven goals in eight games, earning the bulk of Milan’s points of late.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that the club’s revival began long before Balotelli arrived. He made his debut on February 3 against Udinese (scoring twice) with the Rossoneri already in 5th place, having won seven and lost just one of their previous nine Serie A matches. The 22-year-old deserves credit for helping Milan maintain its momentum, but his emergence has come at a cost.
El Shaarawy, the player who actually saved the Rossoneri’s season, has scored just once in the seven league games he and Balotelli have started together, a wonderful strike in the derby against Inter. The Little Pharaoh had managed 15 goals in the 19 Serie A matches prior to the Balotelli hurricane rolling into town, including a brace in a 2-2 draw with Napoli at the San Paolo in mid-November.
His recent dip in form cost him a place in the starting lineup against the Partenopei this time round, but dropping El Shaarawy was a rare mistake by Allegri who has enjoyed a remarkable campaign. Sunday’s match represented a golden opportunity for the youngter to regain his scoring touch, which is absolutely vital for Milan to maximize its potential this season and beyond.
Certain tactical adjustments are inevitable with Balotelli in the fold, including El Shaarawy being forced to play out wide, but Milan cannot rely on the troubled striker for all their goals because as he reminded us all with this latest ban, he’s not always around when you need him. The immediate effect of Balotelli’s suspension is that a Champions League berth is suddenly very much in jeopardy again.
Napoli remains four points above Milan for second place and direct entry into the group stage, while Fiorentina closed to within four points of the Rossoneri thanks to an impressive 2-0 away victory over Atalanta. Vincenzo Montella’s side overcame the absence of Stevan Jovetic thanks to goals from David Pizarro and Marcelo Larrondo, while Adem Ljajic was unable to start due to a muscular problem.
Fiorentina faces an easier run-in than Milan, as a home clash with Roma early next month represents the only remaining fixture against a team currently in the top half of the table. The Giallorossi kept their hopes alive for a Europa League spot with a 2-1 victory over Torino. Pablo Osvaldo broke his scoring drought, and Erik Lamela provided the winner with a sensational second-half strike.
Elsewhere this weekend, Inter Milan suffered its fourth defeat in five league matches, this time falling 2-0 away to Cagliari, as Andrea Stramaccioni continues to place his own future in doubt. Udinese claimed a 3-0 away win over Parma, despite the absence of Antonio Di Natale through suspension, while Siena earned a massive 3-2 victory over Pescara to climb out of the relegation zone.
Some Other Thoughts:
*It was a devastating week for Italian football with Juventus going down meekly to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, while Lazio was eliminated by Turkish side Fenerbahce in the Europa League. Those results have once again triggered debate about whether Serie A can compete with the other top leagues in Europe given the financial restraints faced by clubs in the peninsula.
National team boss Cesare Prandelli insists ideas can defeat money but with the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain set to continue raiding Serie A for talent, the future does not seem bright. Italian clubs also continue to pay a price for the slower pace and lack of intensity in Serie A matches relative to the rest of the continent.
*After a bizarre two a half month layoff, the Coppa Italia returns this week with Inter Milan and Roma set to square off on Wednesday at the San Siro in the return match of their semifinal tie to determine who will face Lazio in the final. The Giallorossi claimed a 2-1 win in the first leg at the Olimpico and are clear favorites to advance given Inter’s incredible injury crisis, which now includes Antonio Cassano.
*Fiorentina could receive a further boost in their quest to overtake Milan for the final Champions League spot with reports in Italy suggesting Giuseppe Rossi now has a firm target date for his return. Rossi has been sidelined since October 2011 due to damaged knee ligaments, but is hoping to take part in the Tuscan Derby against Siena on May 8. The 26-year-old joined the Viola in January from Villarreal.