If you want to take the temperature of Serie A, there are few better thermometers than the Milan derby. A clash between two of the top sides in the country can serve as a health check for the whole Division. On Sunday night, the condition report was not of the kind you would want to hear on any of your nearest and dearest.
All the elements were there, on the surface at least, for an outstanding evening’s entertainment. There was an early goal to break the deadlock, a whole heap of controversial decisions and a pantomime villain in the stocky shape of Antonio Cassano. And yet, if you asked most people if it was a classic Madonnina, they would have to answer – oh no, it wasn’t!
That is not to rain on the Nerazzurri’s parade. They went ahead through a thumping Walter Samuel header and should have doubled their lead when Christian Abbiati presented a gift at the feet of Diego Milito. They also defended with uncompromising resolve even after going down to 10 men through the loss of Yuto Nagatomo. The result keeps them on pace with Lazio in hunting down League leading double act Juventus and Napoli.
In truth, however, it was hard to judge their title credentials on the evidence of the derby. The goal so early in the game allowed them to sit in and Milan could do little to hurt them. And going down to 10 men effectively killed off any chance of seeing them again as an attacking force. They will have other opportunities to show those qualities.
What they did display was an impressive spirit. And the switch to 3-5-2 seems to have given them a very solid base to build on. It earned comparisons from President Massimo Moratti with the battling approach seen under Jose Mourinho against Barcelona en route to their famous Champions League triumph.
“Our approach to the game was better than our opponents, I thought,” said Inter boss Andrea Stramaccioni. “It was something we had worked on and we started off with the aggression that I wanted. And in 43 minutes or so with 10 men we didn’t give them much.”
It was a more disappointing night, obviously enough, for Milan. Their fans will, understandably, complain about a possible penalty and a disallowed goal from Riccardo Montolivo. But underneath those justifiable gripes, there was a lack of quality, speed and imagination to their play which was worrying. Not without reason do they find themselves a long way adrift of where a club of their size would expect to be.
After the game Max Allegri insisted his team had played well but needed to get more clinical in front of goal. He also hit out at the referee for having a big effect on the outcome. However, that masked a lot of shortcomings he will need to work on during the international break.
Outside the derby, of course, there was the little matter of the on-going Scudetto fight between Juventus and Napoli. The Bianconeri did the business – not without a few scares – away to little Siena. Their boss, Serse Cosmi, got sent off during their game and then raged that the visitors should have seen red too.
“Giorgio Chiellini should have got a second yellow card and we should have been playing 11 against 10,” he said. “We are so far behind teams like Juve that incidents like that can be decisive.”
Juve stand-in boss Massimo Carrera dismissed that interpretation of Chiellini’s actions swiftly. “He was trying to get the ball and his opponent was quicker and got there before him,” he said. “It was not a bad foul. We made a mistake on their goal, but we played the whole game in their half of the pitch.”
Napoli hit back with a battling 2-1 win of their own at home to Udinese. Walter Mazzarri’s side are clearly growing up and are getting victories in matches they might have messed up last year. It sets up a mouth-watering trip to Turin after the break.
“We know Juventus are tough and almost unbeatable on their own ground,” said Mazzarri. “But we will try to do something special. They are the super-favourites for the game.”
There was big news, too, from Roma and it was not simply that Zdenek Zeman’s side won at home to Atalanta. The exclusions of Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo from the starting line-up raised eyebrows higher than even Carlo Ancelotti can achieve. It was the kind of high-risk gamble we have come to expect from the Giallorossi Coach.
“I have always said that everyone has their chance to play, but only 11 players can go out on the pitch and I chose those ones,” said Zeman. “What matters to me is what they do during the week and I thought this line-up was the best. You can’t understand these exclusions because you don’t see the players during the week and so it amazes you when they are left out.”
The victory kept Roma in the top half of the table but it did not answer a lot of questions about the side. There are still long periods when they don’t play with the focus you would expect for a Zeman side. They could yet be a force if they start applying all their Coach’s instructions for a whole game at a time.
A word of recognition, too, for the work being done at Catania. Rolando Maran has continued the good endeavours of Vincenzo Montella and his troops sit tied with their former boss’ new side Fiorentina. Both teams have been happy revelations of the season so far. And, who knows, with some of the bigger guns struggling, there might be even greater satisfactions at the end of the campaign.