Tuesday, January 15, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: January 17, 11:25 AM UK
Pato lives up to the hype
Actual football beats transfer speculation by so much it's ridiculous, so the restart of the Serie A season could not come soon enough.
Although Italians fans who subscribe to Sky Sports Italia will have had their festive fill of football with the dozen or so English Premier League matches the broadcaster aired; most of them bearing the distinctive characteristic of actual fans filling the background on all angles of camera shots.
Sadly the same thing can't be said about Italian grounds, where an early-season upward trend in attendance was followed, right after the November 11 riots following the fatal shooting of a Lazio fan by a police patrolman, by yet another decrease, although statistics are still incomplete.
That sound you heard in the background during the prolonged Christmas holidays for Serie A teams was the incessant hype machine touting the division's hottest new arrival, Brazilian budding superstar Alexandre Pato, who signed for Milan last summer but has only been eligible to play for the Rossoneri since the turn of the year.
Having spent the better part of 22 million euros to get him, Milan clung to him, or better yet the idea of him, like ivy.
In fact, it is well known that once Carlo Ancelotti's side started the season so poorly, falling way behind local rivals Inter in the title race while keeping a reasonable form in the Champions League, the official mantra was that Milan's season would not take shape or meaning until the World Championship for Clubs in mid-December.
To their credit the Rossoneri won and then bolstered their apparent resurgence by propogating stories that Pato had reportedly been doing terrific stuff in training.
While it would not be particularly helpful to know Pato's performances in midweek had raised Ancelotti's eyebrows, since the affable coach seems to wear a permanent mask of calm bewilderment, you have to sit up and take notice when some of the veterans in the side, among them Paolo Maldini, praise the newly arrived youngster, predicting a bright future for him.
This near Patolog... er, pathological anticipation of the young Brazilian's arrival on the big scene was finally dissolved on Sunday night when Pato made his debut for Milan in the home clash with Napoli.
The scene had been set: with a typical disdain for rationality and meteorological history, the match had been brought back from 3pm to 8.30pm - just what the doctor ordered for a mid-January match in cold Northern Italy - and with the rest of the Serie A program already completed, all eyes were going to be set upon Milan, Pato's debut and Ronaldo's return.
For once, the result met the anticipation, as Milan won 5-2, breaking their season-long winless streak at the San Siro in the Serie A, and Pato scored his first Italian goal with a coolly-taken strike 16 minutes from the end: running under a long pass/clearance by Massimo Ambrosini, the Brazilian trapped the ball and cut inside defender Maurizio Domizzi in one darting move, then placed the ball under advancing keeper Gennaro Iezzo, who had left the ground in anticipation of Pato lifting the ball over him.
A great piece of skill which left Pato on the brink of tears and sent headline writers, not to mention pun bandits, on a frenzy: many significant Italian words end with the four letters 'pato' and one can only wonder what will be next.
Although an impressive amount of triviality seems already to have been injected by hyperventilating newspapers in Milan's new approach to the season with the inevitable moniker for the Rossoneri's strike force, Ka-Pa-Ro (Kaka-Pato-Ronaldo), a reminiscence of the glorious Gre-No-Li (Gren-Nordahl-Liedholm) of the early Fifties.
Somehow, the new version lacks the aura and pomposity of the older one, and looks downright stupid to me. But then I do not have to influence readers.
What Milan's win means for the future is difficult to fathom, at the moment.
Last year, the Rossoneri's run to the Champions League final and to third place in Serie A was launched during the winter break, when the squad spent a few days training in the warmer surroundings of Malta.
At the time, Milan were already out of the Serie A title race, not least because they had started the season with a eight-point penalty following their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal: their immediate goal was to climb the table upto fourth place and automatic Champions League participation, but a few weeks after the Malta camp Carlo Ancelotti was facing another test of his coaching skills when Milan announced the signing of Ronaldo from Real Madrid.
Having already played in Europe with the Spanish side, Ronaldo was at once Cup-tied but vital to Milan's season, and Ancelotti basically had to draw up two different versions of the same team, one for domestic competition, one for Europe.
Mission accomplished on both fronts, as Ronaldo's goals - seven in 14 matches - lifted the Rossoneri to fourth place, while some great Champions League nights saw Milan advance to the final and eventually beat Liverpool in Athens to lift the European Cup for the seventh time.
Given the long tradition of superstitions that has always resided in footbal, it is not difficult to see why this year's break in the sun, this time in Dubai, was also seen as the panacea for most of the troubles Milan had seen in their path during the first half of the season.
And the grand manner which the Rossoneri dispatched Napoli, overcoming their own shortcomings in midfield and defence with an exciting display of attacking football, may also encourage comparisons with last year.
Ancelotti will have his work cut out again, though. The 4-3-1-2 formation used on Sunday, with Pato partnering Ronaldo up front and Kaką exploiting the space behind them, means Clarence Seedorf has to revert to being a midfielder, alongside Andrea Pirlo and Ambrosini (or Rino Gattuso).
Seedorf, one of the most vocal and influential members of the team, has already, discreetly but gently expressed his displeasure at leaving what he believes - with some evidence - to be his better position, alongside Kaką in a 4-3-2-1, and only a successful run of results will keep others whose place in the side may be under threat, like Alberto Gilardino, happy.
The irony of this all?
While Ronaldo, Kaką and Pato were stretching Napoli's defence, Inter were already on their way home, having overcome the winter-break syndrome which can affect sides returning from the Christmas holidays with a comfortable lead at the top.
Their win in Siena followed a familiar pattern: once ahead, albeit on a questionable penalty, Inter let their guard down for a moment, allowing Massimo Maccarone to equalise, then shifted gears as they've so often done and coasted home, their skill and physical superiority too much for Siena to deal with.
The introduction of Pato along with Ronaldo's surprising recovery from an apparently endless stream of injuries, should result in a better second half of the season for Milan.
But ironically the onus seems to be on Inter, for some time the better side, to prove their real worth in the Serie A, by increasing their already comfortable seven-point lead over Roma, and in Europe, by outlasting their rivals and getting their hands to the trophy after an awesome 43-year hiatus.
Forgive me for the cliché, but one swallow - or duck, the English translation for Pato - does not make a summer, but it could still make a season, and an interesting one, at that.
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