Monday, May 19, 2008

Ibra the star of frantic Serie A climax

“Inter, are you scared?”

That was the pointed question La Gazzetta dello Sport dared to ask of Serie A’s defending champions as they stumbled unconvincingly towards the finishing line, in pursuit of a third successive scudetto.

From eleven points clear, Inter’s lead had gradually ebbed away following a series of indifferent performances – culminating in a nightmare derby defeat at the hands of Milan and a 2-2 draw with lowly Siena during the past fortnight. The latter game featured a last-gasp penalty miss by controversial anti-hero Marco Materazzi which, if converted, would have sealed the title there and then. Materazzi took his frustrations out on his telly, which he was reported to have hurled out of the bedroom window of his home in Pisa.

Meanwhile, down in the south of the peninsula, free-wheeling Roma were making the most of the nerazurri’s jitters – reeling in the long-time leaders with an exciting brand of open, attacking football. As the final 90 minutes of the Italian season kicked-off yesterday afternoon, Roberto Mancini’s spluttering Inter juggernaut had only a single point advantage over their Roman rivals left to defend.

Luciano Spalletti’s men were faced with a simple equation – they must turn over relegation-threatened Catania in the Sicilians’ own backyard and pray that Inter failed to win at Parma; another side haunted by fears of demotion to Serie B.

Due to a peculiar ruling by Italian football’s powers-that-be, the Inter ticket allocation for their season-defining clash at the Tardini was heavily restricted. Such a decision was apparently taken to ensure ‘fairness’ to Roma, whose notoriously volatile tifosi had been barred from making their delightful presence felt in Sicily. Nonetheless, the Parma faithful were out in force to provide raucous backing to their team’s improbable fight for survival.

The biggest roar of a tight, tense first half came as a result of news filtering through from Catania. Mirko Vucinic’s stunning solo goal put Roma 1-0 up, giving Parma renewed hope of preserving their cherished top-flight status. At the same time, the lanky Montenegrin’s moment of genius had put the Romans in the driving seat for the scudetto. Now Inter simply had to score.

It was Parma’s Stefano Morrone who spurned the opening period’s clearest goalscoring opportunity though; the experienced midfielder firing directly at Inter ‘keeper Julio Cesar when he suddenly found himself in possession just outside the six-yard box.

Andrea Manzo’s first, and probably last, selection since the youth team coach succeeded perennial failure Hector Cuper as Parma boss just last week, incorporated Croat forward Igor Budan at the expense of proven goal-getter Cristiano Lucarelli. Budan nodded narrowly over the Inter bar from Andrea Gasbarroni’s wicked cross, as the gialloblu briefly took the upper hand against a nervous-looking Inter side.

On the half-time whistle, Inter’s 17-year-old prodigy, ‘Super’ Mario Balotelli skinned a pair of dazzled Parma defenders and delivered an excellent cross which his forward partner Julio Cruz could not convert.

Still, Roma led. Inter’s title dreams were slipping agonisingly away in the Parma rain. The nerazurri had won just once in their last 17 visits to the Tardini, but to claim a hat-trick of scudetti they had 45 minutes remaining to defy that form and find the back of Nicola Pavarini’s net.

In the early stages of the second half, Mancini’s men were quite evidently lacking the grit of injured midfield energiser Esteban Cambiasso and, most importantly, the ingenuity offered by mercurial forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Bosnian-born Swede proved willing to jeopardise his participation in Euro 2008 as he heeded Mancini’s desperate call from the bench, apparently no more than 50 per cent fit.

Within less than a minute, ‘Ibra’ had sprung clear of Parma’s defensive shackles, but skewed his low shot wide. Within ten, he had given his team a vital lead.

His powerful 51st minute strike, low and left of the despairing Pavarini, nestled neatly in the back of the net – sending Inter’s tiny travelling contingent and long-suffering club president Massimo Moratti wild with delight.

Once the Milanese giants had shattered the deadlock they flooded forward in search of a killer second, as puddles started to form on the sodden pitch. Both Ibrahimovic and Balotelli came close, before flying Brazilian full-back Maicon used all his searing pace to get to the goal-line and cut the ball back for Ibrahimovic to turn it in at the far-post. The scudetto was sealed in that moment, and so was Parma’s demotion to – in the words of their president – the ‘hell’ of Serie B.

Deflated Roma then conceded a late equaliser in Sicily, as little Catania prolonged their Serie A adventure for another year. Instead, it was Empoli that joined Parma and already relegated Livorno through the trapdoor to hell.

Milan’s 4-1 thumping of Udinese at San Siro came too late to rescue the Champions League qualification they’ve come to regard as their right. A late winner away to Torino saw Fiorentina cling onto fourth spot ahead of the rossoneri.

Carlo Ancelotti, Milan’s head coach – but for how long? – described his club’s ‘demotion’ to the UEFA Cup as “a year in purgatory”. Perhaps such a humbling experience will allow them to concentrate their energies fully on Serie A next time round, rather than continuing to cultivate an ageing squad designed merely to perform on the big occasion – much in the vein of the revitalised Bayern Munich this term. But, with Ronaldinho and Andrii Shevchenko among the rumoured summer arrivals at Milanello, perhaps not.

Fiorentina’s priority must be to hold onto their one genuine star, Adrian Mutu. Claudio Prandelli’s squad must be greatly improved if they are to compete effectively at Europe’s top table. Third-placed Juventus complete the Champions League quartet, and the Old Lady’s big-spending plans should give them a fighting chance of making a success of their return to continental competition.

As for the champions, their next stop is the Coppa Italia final in which they face, for the fourth successive year...Roma.

Next year, Il presidente Moratti will prioritise European success, which is why Mancini may be forced to give way for a coach versed in the arts of knockout football. Jose Mourinho lies in wait.

In finally claiming the title, Inter defied the critics at La Gazzetta with a show of character which had plainly been lacking since February’s catastrophic Champions League exit at Anfield. They may not have had the title safely wrapped up with 22 points in hand and five weeks to spare, as last year, but they did manage to clamber over the finishing line in the final half-hour of the season. Undoubtedly, Inter had been more than a little ‘scared’ at times, but crucially held their collective nerve when it mattered most.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sparkling Valencia fires Wigan to safety

Aston Villa 0-2 Wigan Athletic
3pm, Saturday May 3, 2008 (Attendance: 42,640)

Antonio Valencia’s stunning second-half brace accounted for an off-colour Aston Villa at Villa Park yesterday.

Wigan’s shock victory ensures their Premier League survival – a feat boss Steve Bruce heralded as “the best achievement” of his managerial career to date. Their opponents, meanwhile, now look set to fall agonisingly short of fifth place and subsequent qualification for next season’s UEFA Cup.

The match was prefixed by a minute’s silence in memory of Villa fan Christopher Priest, who died in an incident outside the ground following last month’s Second City derby with Birmingham City. Nonetheless, the opening exchanges of the game were far from sombre or reflective; and a scrappy, physical first half ensued.

Early on, Olof Mellberg – in his valedictory home appearance – crunched into Marcus Bent out on the touchline and the resultant free kick initiated a game of pinball in the Villa area, from which the home side were lucky to escape with their goal intact.

Another potential Villa Park departee, Gareth Barry, skewed a decent opportunity high and wide on 24 minutes, having been played in by one of many John Carew nod-downs throughout the course of the afternoon. And within minutes, Barry had spurned another half-chance; a measured Ashley Young back-flick wide on the left found the supporting Wilfred Bouma, but the Villa captain headed Bouma's whipped cross safely within the impressive reach of Wigan ‘keeper Chris Kirkland. Kirkland then saved smartly from a Zat Knight header soon after.

Just before the half hour mark, a long, high ball found Gabriel Agbonlahor totally unmarked and – to the surprise of the Wigan back-line – onside, right on the edge of the area. Though his first-time control was impressive, the Erdington-born speed-merchant then scuffed a left-footed effort lamely wide of the target.

Shortly after, Marcus Bent hooked a close range attempt just wide and then went on to fire a 25-yard rocket narrowly over Scott Carson’s goal.

With Villa pressure mounting on the Latics’ goal as half-time approached, Young’s precise corner found the head of Agbonlahor, who had a header tipped onto and over the bar by Kirkland at full-stretch.

But soon after the interval, Valencia struck Wigan’s first. A Villa corner was cleared upfield and, with the home side’s defence left exposed, Jason Koumas found time and space to play a sharp pass into the path of the advancing Valencia. His 20-yard shot took a wicked deflection off Wilfred Bouma and looped into the net over the despairing dive of stranded Carson.

In response to this setback, Villa boss Martin O’Neill rang the changes – Patrik Berger replaced Zat Knight, with Mellberg switched to his favoured centre-back position and Nigel Reo-Coker to right full-back. But this radical re-shaping only served to further destabilise his shaken team.

In the 63rd minute, a long punt from Kirkland was flicked on by Wigan battering ram Emile Heskey, and Valencia once more eluded the retreating Villa defence with a powerful run and clinical near-post finish.

O’Neill, animated as ever, called super-sub Marlon Harewood from the bench in vain hope of sparking a late revival. However, within seconds of the big forward’s arrival, Wigan mounted yet another penetrating counter-attack. A three-on-one raid against an abandoned Reo-Coker narrowly failed to culminate in what would have been an astonishing 20-minute hat-trick for Valencia; Kevin Kilbane’s through-ball found the Ecuadorian starlet in acres of space once more, but on this occasion the speedy winger struck his low shot straight at Carson.

Despite dominating possession and territory from thereon in, the home side rarely suggested they could muster even a consolation goal. In the final throes, John Carew headed weakly wide of Kirkland’s near post and Martin Laursen frustratedly hammered a 30-yarder over the bar and into the Holte End masses, now resigned to defeat.

Post-match, Martin O’Neill lamented his side’s inability to perform at a crucial stage of the season. He said: “Both the result and the performance were very, very disappointing. We won’t be giving up on the UEFA Cup yet, but this was our opportunity to do it (put pressure on Everton).”

On whether persistent speculation surrounding skipper Barry’s future had an effect on the game’s outcome, he said: “I’m sure that it didn’t help. But we can’t use that as an excuse. We should have been better than that.”

Steve Bruce, meanwhile, hailed Wigan’s fine achievement in turning round what looked a lost cause before the turn of the year: “After going into the Blackburn game in December with nine points, to get 31 points this (calendar) year is fantastic for the players.”

Bruce, who claimed to “take no pleasure” in hearing of former employers Birmingham City’s demise at the hands of Fulham, continued: “It’s our home form that has kept us in the league (yesterday’s win was only Wigan’s second on the road this season). But I'm delighted we've managed to get a result in that manner against a very good Villa side who have been playing well.”

“I’m just delighted for the Chairman, and I'm sure the fans are delighted seeing a little town like Wigan staying year after year in the Premier League."