In an ever-tightening Serie A scudetto race, a quirk of the fixture list saw the two table-topping giants from Italy’s fashion capital each facing snappy underdogs from the Eternal City on the final weekend of an eventful March. Inter (1st) and their bitter rivals Milan (2nd) met Roma (3rd) and Lazio (16th) respectively, with the nerazzuri’s league form apparently suffering as a consequence of their determined focus on European matters and Milan, still suffering from their Old Trafford shellacking, counting Messrs Nesta, Pato, Abbiati, Beckham (all injured), Ronaldinho, Pirlo (both suspended) among an extensive – and expensive – list of absentees.
Coach Leonardo was still able to field a strong line-up for the Sunday night visit of Lazio; opting for a rare 4-4-2, with Pippo Inzaghi partnering mainstay Marco Borriello up front and Clarence Seedorf featuring alongside Flamini, Ambrosini and Abate in midfield. An intriguing tactical battle was in prospect, because Eddy Reja – recently in for the jettisoned Davide Ballardini – selected three centre-halves, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Aleksandr Kolarov as wing-backs.
The mastermind of precious back-to-back wins in the biancocelesti’s relegation fight, Reja has clearly galvanised a group of players that often looked dispirite under the previous incumbent. Despite an early setback – Borriello converted a penalty won by Flamini’s 17th minute surge into the box to put Milan one ahead – there was little to suggest that the visitors could not compete on an even footing with opposition from the other end of the league table.
As ever, stand-in ‘keeper Dida brought his own special brand of jittery incompetence to proceedings, as Milan sat on their lead, inviting Lazio to seize the initiative. All too briefly the darling of St Andrews, Mauro Zárate – palpably a victim of ‘second-season syndrome’ if ever there was one – and strike-partner Tomasso Rocchi (just two Serie A goals so far) have struggled desperately for goals all season long in a team with just 27 goals in 31 games. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that it was a wing-back who scored a deserved equaliser for the strugglers just after the half-hour mark. Swiss international Lichtsteiner was rewarded for his prodigious work-rate with a well-taken close-range goal, after a glaring miskick by rossoneri full-back Luca Antonini.
Lazio were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty for a clear shove by Flamini on Kolarov (a reversal of roles from the first penalty incident) just inside the Milan area, but, curiously, not a single visiting player appealed for a spot-kick. Taking that, plus a later glaring miss from Lazio’s recently-acquired Brazilian defender André Dias, in to account – and given the general paucity of ideas offered by the hosts – it would have been unjust had Antonini been successful with a shot smashed against the crossbar early on in a second half devoid of inspiration. One-all then, and for the biancocelesti: a point well-earned. Surely they are ‘too good to go down’. But since when did that guarantee immunity from the drop? For title-chasing Milan – as attested to by the grimaces of touchline spectators Ronaldinho and Paolo Maldini – it was more an opportunity missed.
Such an opportunity – to draw within a single point of stuttering Inter – had been opened up by Roma’s exploits at the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday evening. Increasingly invincible in domestic football – their only recent blip was the Europa League exit at the hands of Panathinaikos – the giallorossi entertained José Mourinho’s men with that very same incentive in mind: to reduce Inter’s once-formidable advantage to just a point.
A rare howler from Brazil’s no.1, Júlio César, presented Roma vice-captain Daniele de Rossi with a tap-in for the opening goal; which he celebrated in curious style by kissing his shin-pad. In response, efforts either side of half-time from Walter Samuel, then Diego Milito, each rattled the woodwork – proving Inter’s intent. It was the league leaders who were firmly in the ascendancy following a characteristically early substitution from Mourinho: in-form Goran Pandev replacing midfielder Dejan Stanković.
Their overdue equaliser owed a little to fortune, as heroic last-ditch blocks from first Jeremy Ménez – mounting a late, but likely fruitless, run for inclusion in the French World Cup party – then De Rossi, fell kindly to Milito. The Argentine striker further extended his fine scoring run from close range. Replays showed, however, that Pandev was clearly offside in the build-up.
Another slice of luck saw Maicon’s spiteful studs-up assault on De Rossi go totally unpunished – which was particularly fortunate given the same player’s later booking for a reckless challenge on Roma’s Man of the Match David Pizarro. The resolute Chilean playmaker displayed outstanding endeavour and peerless composure on the ball, once more outlining his vital importance to the Romans.
The wheel of fortune was to spin in the giallorossi’s favour soon after, as Luca Toni profited from sub Riccardo Taddei’s wild-shot-turned-precision-cross; slotting the ball past Julio César to net his fifth goal in nine games for his new club. The 32-year-old finished with the kind of aplomb which lit up his previous Serie A spell and made him Italy’s leading centre-forward for a brief but productive spell. Younger models – Milan’s Borriello, Samp’s Giampaolo Pazzini and Alberto Gilardino of Fiorentina have since moved ahead of the lumbering Modenese marksman in the Azzurri pecking order, however.
Before the winter break, while Roma were still toiling to regain ground lost from an awful start to the campaign, Toni was resolutely bench-bound and embroiled in a very public war of words with Louis Van Gaal and the rest of the Bayern Munich hierarchy. How things have changed. Capping his return to favour with a World Cup call-up really would put the cream on the cassata.
In search of a second equaliser, Mourinho was even desperate enough to throw on expensive flop Ricardo Quaresma for the final ten minutes – but the best his side could manage was another shot against the woodwork from Milito, deep into injury time. Roma even had the luxury of welcoming back Francesco Totti, to a rapturous reception, in the dying moments of a vital win.
Taking into account Milan’s ever-lengthening injury list, Claudio Ranieri’s charges must now be considered the greatest challengers to the hegemony of Inter – who have Javier Zanetti, Samuel Eto’o, Lucío and Maicon missing through suspension for the upcoming visit of Bologna. Cristian Chivu’s name should have been added to that list too, but the ex-Roma defender was only yellow-carded for a stamp on Toni.
In the aftermath, Mourinho – who wore a fixed wry grin on his face during the final minutes, as if silently protesting against some unseen injustice – declined to comment; so exacerbating his tortuous relationship with the baying Italian sports media.
Inter’s sudden loss of discipline and upcoming continental diversions give further hope for their new nearest challengers. A viewpoint acknowledged by the customarily forthright De Rossi, who was more than happy to fill the media vacuum left by Mourinho’s all-too-rare reticence.
“We hope the Champions League can distract them,” said the Rome-born midfield general.“Inter have slowed down and now we will have to spit up blood in order to finish top.”