Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Juve shake up race for Europe
As a Roma supporter who used to trek every day from his home in the hills south of the capital to the Trigoria training centre and was once dubbed Tottino (Little Totti) while playing for the youth team alongside his friend Daniele De Rossi, Simone Pepe will have found scoring Juventus' late winning goal at Lazio on Monday evening particularly satisfying. It may have been only after celebrating wildly in front of the travelling fans that Pepe (a surname which translates into English as pepper, adding a spicy component to the evening) realised his goal threw the race for the fourth Champions League place open again.
With Milan (77 points), Inter (69) and Napoli (68) having already secured participation in next year's top European competition, Lazio now stand in fourth place with 60 points, one ahead of Udinese and Roma and four in front of Juventus. As far as form goes, none of the four seem to be in their best shape of the season, which may make for an interesting final stretch.
Lazio wasted a great chance and actually had most of the play in the second half until their captain Cristian Ledesma was sent off for a second bookable offence nine minutes from time. There was also a legitimate penalty claim for a foul on centre-forward Sergio Floccari, but it has now become so common for losing sides to pick out one unfavourable refereeing decision and make an example of it, fogging the memory of the rest of the game, you wonder what's wrong when this does not happen. Shockingly - or perhaps not, in a culture that breeds the deflection of blame into its sons - a symposium on "refereeing mistakes and relevant compensation" will be held in Rome on Tuesday as an introduction to a wider college course on the structure and organisation of football. It is yet another nail in the coffin of sportsmanship, or what's left of it.
Lazio, meanwhile, will play their next game at Udinese, who seem to have peaked in February and March when they were an absolutely magnificent side, and have now won just one of their past five matches. Roma scraped a lucky win at Bari on Sunday evening in a match that summed up most of what's wrong with the very foundation of Italian football, being played against the backdrop of a nearly empty stadium.
Juventus themselves had hardly been flying until Monday evening: two consecutive draws, one at home to lowly Catania who equalised with the last kick of the game after being 2-0 down with nine minutes to go, had all but wiped out any thought of securing that final Champions League place. That could have suited the Juventus brass fine, as coach Gigi Del Neri has been under pressure all season from most of the fans and the Juve-friendly section of the media that craves a successful side, and until a few days ago he seemed to have no chance of seeing out the remainder of his contract, which runs until June 2012.
But a number of high-profile players have let the world know they support him and this may become interesting, in a train-wreck sort of way, if Juve do end up in fourth place. However, Del Neri himself, after disregarding all comments on his status for the best part of the season, seemed to hint at his departure after the Lazio win.
Things may be even more interesting, although less glamorous, at the other end of the table though. Bari (21 points) never seemed to have a chance all season, and Brescia, on 31 points, will probably join them in suffering relegation. This is a classic case of someone having to go down because the system so requires, but watching Brescia play you get the sense they do not deserve that fate. They will probably regret that seven-game stretch under Mario Beretta which brought them a total of six points, after which owner Gino Corioni recalled Beppe Iachini, whom he'd sacked on December 7.
Keeping faith in the coach that guided a side through pre-season seems to be a mixed blessing. Cesena, perhaps the best football side among the strugglers, resisted the temptation to sack the unpopular Massimo Ficcadenti during their worst spell spanning January and February and were a couple of minutes away from defeating Inter last weekend until disaster - wearing Giampaolo Pazzini's No. 7 jersey - struck twice deep into injury time, while Parma profited from replacing Pasquale Marino with Franco Colomba on April 3.
Colomba, 56, a former midfielder blessed with vision and touch, has since led Parma to three consecutive wins and out of the relegation zone on 41 points, but he was only available because he'd been sacked by Bologna just one day before the start of the season. He will lead the so-called Crociati (from the cross emblazoned in the front of their jerseys) out at Bologna's Stadio Dall'Ara knowing full well that another win for his side would plunge Bologna deep into trouble again.
The Rossoblu were "safe" according to their coach Alberto Malesani after the home draw with Genoa on March 20 but have been stuck on 40 points ever since, amid internal turmoil which has seen them go through a fifth chairman since last July and allegations - which the squad fiercely rejected, of course - that they gave up on the season once that mythical mark had been reached near the end of a troubled campaign in which they'd actually overachieved under stressful circumstances. Stressful, you may ask? The club had neglected to pay taxes and back wages and the federation was forced to dock Bologna three points back in December, which means the side have actually won 43 points on the pitch.
At Lecce (35 points), Gigi De Canio offered to resign after a bad defeat at Cagliari in late November but was talked out of it by his chairman, and the side from Puglia, who play decent football but seem too vulnerable away from home, will probably go head-to-head with Sampdoria (36), whose plight has perhaps been the most shocking of all. Since an injury-time goal by Werder Bremen's Markus Rosenberg deep into stoppage time stole their hearts in the Champions League preliminary round last August, little has seemed to go right for the club. Having let Antonio Cassano and Pazzini go, Sampdoria hoped former Middlesbrough striker Massimo Maccarone and Manchester United loanee Federico Macheda would supply enough goals for the side to avoid dropping down like a stone, but the experiment has so far horribly failed.
Coach Mimmo Di Carlo was sacked on March 7 and replaced by Alberto Cavasin, but the tide has hardly turned in this half of the port city of Genoa: under the new coach, who has used a three-man defence most of the time, Samp have now extended their winless home streak to almost three months and six matches (four of them against fellow relegation strugglers), garnering just six points since a February 13 win over Bologna. Their next game is the local derby against Genoa, who are already safe and would of course like nothing better than to send their rivals down.
You have to feel for fans who have experienced the whole gamut of emotions and perspectives since last August, but the worst omen for Samp may well be the Italian equivalent of the "too good to go down" label that's been attached to them since last winter. We all know what happens next, although observers may argue that only those who have never actually watched the side could have been bold enough to think of using that description.