Serie A title is AC Milan's to lose
The title race in Serie A looks like AC Milan's to lose after it beat Inter
Italian teams have struggled in Europe, but Serie A has been full of drama
AC Milan could become one of the weakest Serie A champions in quite some time
What makes a great season? If it's the quality of soccer played, then this has been a dismal year for Serie A, something shown up by the performances of Italian clubs in European competition. Internazionale limps on in the Champions League, somehow in the last eight despite a back line about as well-drilled as a class of 5-year-olds on their first school trip. However, AC Milan and Roma went out in the last 16 and Italian interest in the Europa League ended when Napoli lost to Villarreal in the last 32. Juventus and Palermo didn't even make it out of the groups.
If a great season is about drama, though, then this year has been the greatest since calciopoli (the 2006 scandal when certain teams were implicated in the rigging of games), and possibly long before that. Sunday's game between Napoli and Lazio was one of those wonderful, inexplicable matches in which nothing quite makes sense and even neutrals end up gawping in emotional exhaustion. This had always looked like being a key weekend, with first playing second, third playing fifth and sixth playing seventh; what nobody had expected was that first versus second, the Milan derby, would end up merely as the warmup act.
Under Leonardo, Inter had momentum. It had taken 37 points from 15 games after Christmas, closing the gap on Milan from 13 points to two. Not since 1993 had they met as the top two in Serie A, and even then the gap between them was seven points. Milan had put together a series of stuttering performances, partly attributable to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's weirdly habitual loss of form in February. He was missing anyway on Saturday through suspension, leaving Pato and Robinho as Milan's preferred partnership.
On recent form, Milan seemed there for the taking, but it was ahead in 43 seconds, shambolic defending almost letting in Robinho, and eventually allowing Pato to score. Wearing a skullcap with a loose chinstrap, Cristian Chivu resembles Biggles, and he's so slow these days he may as well be flying a Sopwith Camel while everybody else goes flying past him in F15s. That has been a problem at times at fullback this season, and it wasn't disguised at all by the move into the center to replace the suspended Lucio. Without the Brazilian, Inter was horribly exposed. Again and again a huge gap opened up between Chivu and Andrea Ranocchia. That they had never played together before was all too obvious; at times the two back line was so higgledy-piggledy that the center backs were advanced of the fullbacks.
That would have been worrying enough, but Inter was also overmanned in midfield. Leonard opted for a 4-2-1-3, but Wesley Sneijder, the one in that system, has been playing higher and higher up the pitch this season, almost as though to convince the world he is a genuine playmaker and his World Cup goals weren't some kind of freak. With Mark van Bommel sweeping in front of the back four, Clarence Seedorf to the left and Gennaro Gattuso to the right, with Kevin Prince Boateng as a sort of shuttling trequartista linking a deep-lying back seven to the front two, Inter never had control of the ball, and looked vulnerable whenever Milan had it.
Had Pato not rather wasted two one-on-one opportunities in the first half, on both occasions seeming not quite to realize how much time he had, the game could have been over long before it was. The decisive moment came with Chivu's dismissal. Caught for pace once again by Pato, he hauled him down, and from then on it was merely a question of many Milan would score.
Milan's 3-0 win will probably end up settling the title, but by the middle of Sunday afternoon, the derby had ceased to be the major talking point of the weekend. Napoli probably won't go on to be champion, but if it does, its victory over Lazio will be the game that goes down in legend. It was 2-0 down after 56 minutes, but scored twice in four minutes to be level at the hour (both those first two goals coming as Lazio got the first touch on free kicks but failed to prevent the ball reaching Christian Maggio at the back post).
Lazio's Cristian Brocchi seemed to have given Lazio the lead as his shot cannoned down off the bar and over the line, only for the referee to allow play to continue, and Lazio did go back in front as Salvatore Aronica prodded the ball over his own line. Remarkably, there was still quarter of the game to go. Napoli, switching from 3-4-2-1 to something resembling a 4-1-1-4 as it became increasingly desperate, set sophistication to one side, and began thumping long balls at Edinson Cavani. The sense was oddly not of continuity, but of a series of discrete incidents, most of which fell the way of Napoli.
Almost from nothing the ball arrived in front of Cavani in the box with eight minutes remaining. Giuseppe Biavi bundled him over and was sent off; Cavani rapped in the penalty. Six minutes later Cavani broke a rickety offside trap and chipped Stefano Muslera, who got a hand to the ball, but succeeded only in slowing it down on its way into the net. Napoli had the win and kept the gap to Milan at three points.
Even then the incident wasn't quite over as Lazio's Giuseppe Sculli squared up to Cavani. Both were booked, which, as Sculli had already been booked, should have earned him a red card, but didn't. More important, it means that Cavani will miss next week's fixture away against Bologna. Given he has scored half of Napoli's goals this season, he will be missed; this, after all, was a game won almost entirely by his predatory instincts. Without him, Napoli is significantly diminished.
Even as the Sao Paolo seethed in celebration, it was impossible to avoid thinking back to Napoli's meek 3-0 capitulation to Milan at the beginning of March. It was far less dramatic than Sunday's events, but it may be that this is the game that ends up being decisive. This Milan is not one of the great teams, but it looks well set to win one of the great championships.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.
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