It was a weekend for gallows humour in Italy.
“Goals from [Ciro] Immobile and [Lorenzo] Insigne yesterday,” tweeted the wags from Chiamarsi Bomber on Sunday. “So we qualified, right?”
In truth, it will take a lot more than a week for a nation to digest its World Cup play-off defeat to Sweden. Gian Piero Ventura was fired as manager of the Azzurri last week, and the Football Federation president Carlo Tavecchio resigned on Monday amid reports that his support base had crumbled.
Change is necessary after a calamitous qualifying campaign, but that alone will not assuage the anger and disappointment of supporters as they face up to a first World Cup without Italy in six decades. Likewise, even the most entertaining round of Serie A fixtures could only serve as a temporary distraction. Still, what a distraction it turned out to be.
The schedule was always alluring. A weekend that began with the first Rome derby of this campaign – and the first of the post-Francesco Totti era – would proceed through Napoli-Milan and Sampdoria-Juventus before finishing up with Inter-Atalanta on Sunday night. Not one of Italy’s top seven sides could look forward to an easy ride.
Roma took the derby, Radja Nainggolan stealing the headlines after he capped a swaggering performance with the second goal in a 2-1 win. Eyebrows were raised back in Belgium. The midfielder had cited a groin lesion as he pulled out of friendlies against Mexico and Japan, just days after being recalled to the national team by Roberto Martínez.
Eusebio Di Francesco scoffed at suggestions of a falsified injury, instead hailing Nainggolan’s powers of recovery as he described the player as a “superhero” and a “true Ninja”. The rest of us might reserve some praise for the Roma manager himself. This is ever more a team in Di Francesco’s image: ultra-aggressive with a targeted press that forced Lazio into errors just as it had Fiorentina and Chelsea in recent weeks.
Napoli won by an identical scoreline, though for the more patriotic fan this victory might well have been laced with regret. Insigne, granted just 15 minutes of Italy’s two-legged play-off against Sweden, ran this show from the get-go. He served José Callejón with a beautiful cross just before the quarter-hour mark only for the Spaniard’s back-post header to be pawed away by the keeper. Insigne then opened the scoring himself, VAR confirming that he had timed his run just right to spring Milan’s offside trap before finishing from the edge of the box.
A further potential assist was lost when Dries Mertens failed to convert a one-on-one. Instead Piotr Zielinski eventually grabbed Napoli’s second, before Alessio Romagnoli scored one of the best consolation goals you are likely to see from a centre-half.
Insigne refused to be drawn into criticising Ventura at full-time, insisting that he was “more disappointed not to go to the World Cup than not to play against Sweden”. Maurizio Sarri, likewise, was reluctant to speak ill of a coaching colleague, though he did observe that his own experiences had steered him to a point where he would never sacrifice talent to tactical principle. When a reporter asked whether he might consider the Italy job, the Napoli manager joked that he would sooner run for parliament. Why would he leave the Partenopei now, as they sit top of Serie A? Their hold on first place would only be strengthened a day later, as Juventus fell to a 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria.
Even that scoreline was deceiving. Juventus had trailed 3-0 in the 90th minute, decimated by a second-half salvo. Samp took fewer shots and held a smaller share of possession, yet they were concrete in all the ways that their opponents weren’t. The opening goal offered a glimpse of the game in microcosm. Fabio Quagliarella crossed from the right for Sampdoria, Federico Bernardeschi attempted to clear with a needless overhead kick inside his own penalty area and the ball looped over to Duván Zapata at the back post. The Colombian took his chance with aplomb.
Lucas Torreira drilled home a satisfying second from inside the D, before Gian Marco Ferrari slipped home the third from close range. The crowd at Marassi were delirious. Sampdoria have been flawless in their own stadium this season: winning six out of six home games, as well as the derby – technically an away game – against Genoa.
By full-time on Sunday, their manager, Marco Giampaolo, was being touted as a potential winner of the 2018 Panchina d’Oro (Golden Bench). Sixth in the table – and only five points behind Juventus, with a game in hand – his team were being discussed as legitimate Champions League contenders.
Giampaolo wanted no part of either conversation. He was too busy enjoying his first ever victory against Juventus: a team he had faced 10 times in his managerial career without taking so much as a point. “I’m not thinking about any particular targets,” he insisted. “I enjoy teaching the lads a particular movement and then taking the pleasure that comes when they apply it better than I taught it.”
That mentality helps to explain why he has been such a good fit at Samp. Giampaolo is a coach who enjoys getting into the details, working with individual players on the little things that make them better. A youthful midfield has flourished under his guidance. Torreira, on this form, may yet demand the consideration of the Uruguay manager, Óscar Tabárez, for next summer’s World Cup.
Juventus, for their part, slipped to third, after Mauro Icardi’s brace propelled Inter to victory over Atalanta. It is not that reality, nor the four-point gap to Napoli that ought to concern the reigning champions so much as the 10 goals they have now conceded in six away games. Their manager, Massimiliano Allegri, had reflected on the World Cup play-off at his pre-match press conference, observing that: “The Italian is full of pride. Normally when these things happen, he knows how to pick himself up and start over.”
With a Champions League showdown against Barcelona coming up on Wednesday night, he had better hope that the same goes for his own team.
• It would have been remiss of me not to sign off with a mention for poor Benevento, who became the first team across Europe’s top five leagues ever to lose 13 games to begin a new season. It is not the statistic itself, but the way they have reached it that demands attention. They thought they had claimed their first Serie A point a month ago, when they equalised in the 93rd-minute away to Cagliari. Somehow, on that occasion, they contrived to concede another goal seconds later.
This weekend brought fresh indignity. At home to Sassuolo, they fell behind on a goalkeeping blunder – with Alberto Brignoli passing the ball directly to an opponent – before pulling level midway through the second half. Benevento then had a right-back Gaetano Letizia sent off, but clung on until the 92nd minute, when they gave away a penalty on an Andrea Costa handball.
The story does not end here. Domenico Berardi crashed the spot-kick against the bar, granting the home support a moment to believe that their luck might finally have turned. That feeling can only have been reinforced when Brignoli pushed a header from a free-kick wide a minute later. And then, the ensuing corner was sent in from the right. Federico Peluso rose in the middle to head home – and condemn Benevento to yet another defeat.
Results: Benevento 1-2 Sassuolo, Crotone 0-1 Genoa, Internazionale 2-0 Atalanta, Sampdoria 3-2 Juventus, SPAL 1-1 Fiorentina, Torino 1-1 Chievo, Udinese 0-1 Cagliari. Saturday: Roma 2-1 Lazio, Napoli 2-1 Milan.
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