The number 10 shirt has long been the most prized of all in Italian calcio. It’s generally handed to the chosen few with the creativity, vision and finesse to fulfil the role of play-maker. In Serie A, they even have a couple of special terms for the player who dictates play from the ‘hole’ behind the striker(s). These days the fantasista or trequartista might not actually wear the ‘10’ on his back (more likely 14, 23 or even 80, such as Ronaldinho), yet the role remains the same.
In the first game of the weekend’s early-season-defining double-header – Roma would entertain Juventus 24 hours later – Jose Mourinho’s Inter showcased their bright new hope on the most daunting stage imaginable. By happy fortune rather than contrivance, Wesley Sneijder arrived at the club within hours of the season’s opening Derby della Madonnina. After a summer spent frustratedly chasing old flame Deco, to no avail, Mourinho instead plumped for one of the countless Dutch cast-offs of the Real revolution. Already, it looks a wise move for both parties.
Listless in the opening day draw with top-flight returnees Bari, Inter were, this time, ruthless in their exploitation of fellow San Siro-sharers Milan’s numerous limitations. Sneijder – denied a spectacular debut goal by Marco Storari after only six minutes – provided the spark, while Dejan Stanković deputised for the stricken Esteban Cambiasso at the base of midfield.
Though Milan, under the stewardship of rookie coach Leonardo, took the early initiative, the pendulum had clearly swung Inter’s way when Thiago Motta benefitted from neat inter-play by new strike-partners Diego Milito and Samuel Eto’o to steer the ball comprehensively past Storari. Five minutes later, the irrepressible Eto’o (can he really be worth €40m less than Zlatan Ibrahimović?) charged clear of the inattentive Milan defence, and was haring menacingly in on goal when Rino Gattuso hauled him down. Milito slammed the resulting penalty high and hard into the centre of the goal.
Worse was to follow for Gattuso. Struggling with injury, the Milan captain tried to substitute himself by virtue of furious hand signals to the bench and sporting a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. Sub Clarence Seedorf was not ready to take his skipper’s place – a critical error, as it turned out – as Gattuso received a merited second booking for a typically inelegant challenge on Sneijder. Down to ten men, the rossoneri capitulated. Brilliant Brazilian full-back Maicon danced his way through the gaps in the porous Milan defence to add a third goal on the stroke of half-time.
Either side of Inter’s fourth and final goal – a typical 30-yard thunderbolt from the boot of Stanković – Sneijder again missed out on a first Serie A goal by a matter of inches, then was withdrawn to an ovation from the already adoring Inter tifosi. The Dutchman’s opposite number, Ronaldinho, wore heavily the burden of replacing the irreplaceable Kaká in the Milan attack. Ronnie’s decline has been a sharp and unsightly one, and on this evidence the former Ballon D’Or winner may struggle to inspire his side out of a tricky Champions League group which also includes Real and Marseille.
So, while Nathan Tyson was busy waving a red flag at a crowd of white-shirted bulls in the aftermath of a characteristically boisterous East Midlands derby, Milan were listlessly offering a white flag in the direction of their bitter rivals. Given Milan’s current state of flux, it most likely lies with Juventus to provide Mourinho’s men with any kind of cogent title challenge.
Slowly returning to prominence following their brief flirtation with Serie B, Juve have gambled on the capabilities of Brazilian maestro Diego to add a little grace to their play; hoping to mirror the heady days when Brady, Platini or Baggio dominated all-comers on the Turin turf. There has been the feel of a guard-change around the bianconeri this summer: former captain Ciro Ferrara was installed as manager, while talisman Pavel Nedved finally retired. For the trip to the Stadio Olimpico, to face Roma, big names such as David Trezeguet, Mauro Camoranesi and Alex Del Piero were confined to the bench, while Diego and fellow Brazil international Felipe Melo (signed from Fiorentina) took up residency in the engine room.
Diego – free-scoring in the Bundesliga last year – took only 25 minutes to make an indelible mark on the game. Dispossessing the sluggish Marco Cassetti in the centre circle, Diego used all of his significant powers of power, touch and composure to hold off Phillipe Mexes’ challenge; poking the ball firmly past Roma’s goalkeeping debutant, Júlio Sérgio. Such brilliant opportunism, however, was matched by Daniele de Rossi ten minutes later. The heartbeat of the Roma team slammed an unstoppable pile-driver past ashen-faced Gigi Buffon, as the Juve defence dallied while David Pizzaro took a quick free-kick.
At the end of a fractious opening period – in which six bookings were issued – Diego rolled another chance against the base of the post, while an off-colour Francesco Totti spurned the opportunity to give the home side an unmerited lead: Buffon’s desperate point-blank save from the Roma skipper rescuing his inattentive back four. Juventus’ domination grew stronger as the game wore on – lively strikers Amauri and Vincenzo Iaquinta could easily have notched two goals apiece before Diego clinically claimed the a 2-1 lead for his side by again bamboozling Mexès with a dextrous shuffle of feet, burying the ball beyond Buffon.
When timid Roma eventually threw on Montenegrin forward Mirko Vucinic to support a floundering Totti, the change had an immediate effect, as both Vučinić and Jérémy Menez went close to an equalising goal. Totti then rattled the post from the kind of self-crafted opportunity he has dealt in for so many years. But, just beating the final whistle, it was Juventus that instead sealed the deal by virtue of a charging Felipe Melo run and shot which Julio Sergio could only glance at as it zipped, low and hard, into his net.
So, the boys from Brazil proved to be the decisive factor in the game between two sides which have often been scudetto rivals during the past decade. In 09/10, however, it is unlikely that Roma can keep pace with Juve or Inter, as De Rossi has more or less admitted to the press. When Serie A returns after the international break, much interest will lie in the fortunes of calcio’s two new playmakers par excellence; Sneijder and Diego.