Have we reached the end already? Of the Scudetto race, of the battle for Champions League places, and of Francesco Totti’s Roma career?
The fixture list shows there are still seven rounds of matches left to be played in this Serie A season, but this was a weekend that felt decisive on so many fronts. It certainly was for the Lazio manager, Stefano Pioli, fired at the end of a 4-1 derby defeat.
But let us wind back to the beginning. Specifically: to the beginning of this season, when Juventus stumbled out of the gate with consecutive defeats. They had won only once by the end of September, and after 10 games were already 11 points adrift of first place. Few would have predicted that they could find themselves top of the pile with seven matches remaining. Fewer still that they would hold a six point advantage over the team in second. But that is the reality after Juventus beat Empoli 1-0 in Turin on Saturday night, before Napoli lost away to Udinese.
The first of those results came as no surprise. Empoli, although comfortable in mid-table, had not won a game since 10 January. They enjoyed more than 58% of possession at J-Stadium, but rarely threatened to pull level after Mario Mandzukic had headed the hosts in front at the end of the first-half.
And so it was over to second-placed Napoli to maintain their pursuit. On paper, they too had reasons to feel confident. Udinese were in freefall, plunging towards the relegation zone after collecting just seven points from their previous 12 matches. They had scored fewer goals as a team (26) than Gonzalo Higuaín had managed on his own (29). Napoli, though, were not in ideal shape. Pepe Reina was injured, and Higuaín had only returned on Thursday from international duty in Argentina. In defence, Kalidou Koulibaly and Faouzi Ghoulam must also have felt drained after they each played the full 180 minutes of their respective countries’ Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers during the international break.
The latter two players gave away penalties inside the opening half-hour on Sunday. The first was scored, but the second saved by Reina’s replacement, Gabriel. Higuaín equalised in-between with a fine effort from the edge of the box, but Napoli’s celebrations were premature. They conceded again in first-half injury time. Gabriel was entirely at fault. Far too casual in receiving a back-pass on the corner of his six-yard box, the keeper’s heavy touch gifted possession to Udinese’s Duván Zapata (a former Napoli player, no less). The damage might yet have been mitigated if Gabriel had retreated back to his line, with the striker moving away from goal and Koulibaly covering.
Instead, Gabriel followed the ball out of the box, and Zapata hooked a cross back into the middle. Bruno Fernandes met it with a beautiful overhead kick. The ball flew off his boot and into the empty net. Udinese’s third arrived early in the second half, Cyril Théréau converting after Silvan Widmer got ahead of Ghoulam to send a ball over from the right. Any lingering hopes of a Napoli comeback were dashed when Higuaín then got sent off for a second yellow card. The Argentinian’s reaction might have been even more damaging to their cause than the initial offence. Higuaín confronted the referee, Massimiliano Irrati, putting two hands on his chest. It took a host of team-mates, opponents and Napoli staff members to drag him from the pitch. There is every chance now that he will be suspended for more than one game.
It might be that the title is beyond Napoli in any case. Juventus would need to lose twice in their remaining seven matches to allow their rivals any opportunity to pull level. When you consider that the Bianconeri have dropped a total of two points in their last 21 Serie A fixtures, such a scenario starts to look rather improbable. But an extended absence for Higuaín would put another nail in Napoli’s coffin. He has scored 30 of his club’s 63 league goals this season. Without him, trips to Inter and Roma over the next month would look even more daunting.
Only a catastrophic collapse could jeopardise Napoli’s place in the top three. They are 11 points clear of fourth-placed Fiorentina and 12 ahead of Inter, both of whom failed to win at the weekend. But Roma could yet overtake Napoli in second, denying them automatic access to the Champions League’s group stage.
The Giallorossi have their tails up after that emphatic victory in the Derby della Capitale – their ninth win in 10 matches. The Stadio Olimpico was a sad sight on Sunday, its stands semi-deserted as ultras on both sides stayed away as part of a season-long protest against the introduction of barriers that split the Curve behind either goal in two. It was Rome’s city prefect, Franco Gabrielli, who imposed this change in the summer, citing reasons of public safety. Ultras, however, have also accused the leadership at Roma and Lazio of not doing enough to stick up for their cause. Both clubs’ owners, James Pallotta and Claudio Lotito, had already butted heads with supporters on other matters besides.
But empty stands should not be interpreted as evidence of a dwindling interest in this fixture. Both sets of ultras hosted huge gatherings elsewhere in the city, with close to 1,000 Lazio fans gathering to watch the game on a big screen in Tor di Quinto, and at least twice that number of Roma supporters marching to do the same at their team’s former home in Campo Testaccio.
There was no mistaking how much this occasion meant to Alessandro Florenzi, playing in his eighth derby with Roma but his first while wearing the captain’s armband. After scoring the goal that put his team 3-1 ahead in the 82nd minute, he sprinted directly to the bench to celebrate with fellow local boy Daniele De Rossi.
It was an expert finish from Florenzi, and also a crucial one – restoring Roma’s cushion at a point when Lazio had been threatening to pull level. The symbolism, though, also felt significant. Both De Rossi and Totti were unused substitutes, and there is no guarantee that either will get the chance to play in another of these derbies. Was this the day on which a torch was passed?
De Rossi is no longer a fixed part of the starting XI and as such his team-high salary of €6.5m per year is increasingly hard to justify. He does still have one year left on his contract, though, unlike Totti – who is yet to secure a new deal, and who has played a total of 246 minutes across all competitions in this campaign.
The painful reality is that the King of Rome’s reign appears to be drawing to a close. And if this was indeed Totti’s last-ever derby, then many fans will never forgive Luciano Spalletti for failing to give him at least a brief appearance off the bench. The manager, in his defence, was focused on winning. He used his final change when the game was still finely poised at 2-1.
Totti did not appear to complain. He celebrated Roma’s goals and was seen smiling with Morgan De Sanctis as the final minutes of injury time ticked away. But when the cameras cut back to him at full-time he looked distant, melancholic, as though the reality of never playing this fixture again might be starting to hit home.
For a man who has celebrated his successes in this fixture with such aplomb – from the customised T-shirts, to the selfies, to commandeering a TV camera – the contrast was stark. It was Pioli who lost his job on Sunday night. But such an emphatic win for Roma without Totti can only accelerate us toward that moment in which the forward himself must decide whether to move upstairs or move on.
Results: Inter 1-2 Torino, Atalanta 2-1 Milan, Chievo 3-1 Palermo, Fiorentina 1-1 Sampdoria, Genoa 4-0 Frosinone, Lazio 1-4 Roma, Udinese 3-1 Napoli, Juventus 1-0 Empoli.
• Fewer fans at the stadium apparently did not eliminate the risk of derby-related violence in Rome on Sunday. A group of 400 or so Lazio supporters are reported to have descended on their own club’s training ground after full-time, with some throwing rocks and other objects at the team bus when it returned. Police eventually used tear gas to disperse the crowd and several arrests were made. One policeman is also said to have been injured.
• There were minutes of silence or applause held all over the peninsula to mark the passing of Cesare Maldini on Sunday. He is remembered by a generation as the father of Paolo, but before that he was a brilliant player in his own right – a defender so intelligent that he was trusted to reshuffle tactics mid-game, as he famously did in the 1963 European Cup final, adjusting Milan’s marking schemes to help his team beat Benfica and become the first Italian side ever to win the competition. Later, as a manager, he led Milan to a Cup Winners’ Cup win and oversaw a period of sustained success for Italy’s Under-21 team in the early 1990s. But perhaps the greatest testament to him is that even supporters of sides that he never represented made special efforts to honour him this weekend. Before Atalanta hosted Milan in Bergamo, the home fans hung a banner saluting both him and Johan Cruyff as “champions of the much missed football of yesterday”.
• Atalanta went on to win that match against Milan, recovering from a goal down with the help of yet another overhead kick from Mauricio Pinilla. Afterwards he joked that if he had got a tattoo for every such strike in his career, “I would not have a centimetre of skin left free”.
• This was actually a rather fantastic weekend for goals in Serie A, and no individual contributed more on that front than Suso (yes, Liverpool fans, that Suso), who grabbed a hat-trick of the highest order as Genoa routed Frosinone 4-0. The Grifone have been a team transformed since the middle of this season. Only Roma, Napoli and Juventus have collected more points since the start of 2016.
• Frosinone, meanwhile, stay 19th after that defeat, though still only one point behind Carpi and Palermo – who suffered chastening defeats of their own against Sassuolo and Chievo respectively. It looks increasingly likely that two out of those three will join Verona in dropping down to Serie B, especially in light of Udinese’s victory.
Results: Atalanta 2-1 Milan, Carpi 1-3 Sassuolo, Chievo 3-1 Palermo, Fiorentina 1-1 Sampdoria, Genoa 4-0 Frosinone, Inter 1-2 Torino, Juventus 1-0 Empoli, Lazio 1-4 Roma, Udinese 3-1 Napoli
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010