Perhaps it was simply a political publicity stunt. Maybe it was merely a marvelous merchandising opportunity. But, whatever the motivation for Mario Balotelli’s move to Milan, it worked to perfection on his Sunday night debut in red and black.
The script might have been written by Adriano Galliani with stage directions from Silvio Berlusconi himself. Such was the dramatic nature of the Rossoneri’s victory over Udinese which put them straight back into contention for a Champions League spot. The biggest deal of the January transfer window is paying off already.
Even Balotelli’s introduction to the game had a theatrical air. Only a late, warm-up injury to first choice hitman Giampaolo Pazzini opened the door to a starting spot for the ex-Manchester City man. He grabbed the opportunity like the steering wheel of a camouflaged Bentley.
Super Mario might have opened the scoring with his first touch of the ball. Instead, he waited until about midway through the half to thump home the opener. There was almost a hint of a celebration after he broke the deadlock.
Giampiero Pinzi tried to spoil the Balotelli love-in by scoring an equaliser but clearly even referee Paolo Valeri was taking his lines from the plot to this dream debut. He gifted the home side a late penalty which was softer than a Mr Whippy left sitting in the sun. You-know-who, of course, converted the decisive spot-kick with his usual ice cool.
“We were lucky with the referee’s decision,” admitted Milan boss Max Allegri. “I think Mario had a good game. He is strong, he has technique and he is just 22. He should enjoy himself with this Milan and show what he has got.”
But for one larger-than-life character returning, there was another taking his leave. The Zdenek Zeman adventure eventually crashed and burned on Friday night in suitably spectacular style with a 4-2 home defeat by Cagliari. It led to a sacking which was more predictable than heartburn after a homemade grappa.
The Roma boss looked like a dead-man walking before his side was dismantled by the Sardinians and a Mauro Goicoechea howler helped hammer the final nails into his coaching coffin. Sporting director Walter Sabatini had already dug the burial plot earlier in the week. And, with some of his team selections, ZZ helped to write his own epitaph.
He still had a few one-liners to leave us with. “The fans are disappointed with my sacking? I am even more so,” he quipped. “Give up management? They’ll have to shoot me first!”. He might be well advised to watch out for a sniper in Giallorosso colours after the torment he put them through this season.
The whole story seemed disastrously badly handled from beginning to end. Zeman is the coaching equivalent of Ronseal – he does exactly what it says on the tin. Under his guidance, Roma became everybody’s favourite team to watch except, one suspects, for their own supporters. Goals galore at either end were the order of the day, often grabbing spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory. The spiritual leader of the resurgence sought by the club’s American owner is stubbornly refusing to arrive.
With all the dramatic comings and goings, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the Scudetto battle remains as gripping as ever with Napoli and Juve both overcoming potentially tricky obstacles in the shape of Catania and Chievo respectively. “It was vital to get this win and keep a three point gap,” said stand-in Bianconero boss once again, Angelo Alessio. “This is a tougher battle than last year and Napoli have shown they will be our main rival.”
“We can’t afford a moment of distraction, those of us who are involved in football know that,” said his Neapolitan counterpart Walter Mazzarri. “We saw that against Parma last week, every team is competitive. We need to pay attention to every detail.”
That focus is paying off for the top two as chasing Lazio and Inter both took their eye off the ball. The Biancocelesti looked to have salvaged a point at the Stadio Marassi before a late, late strike from Genoa debutant Marco Rigoni sent them spiralling to defeat. For their part, the Nerazzurri were humbled by lowly Siena who could now, without their six-point deduction, be sitting safely outside the drop zone.
“We could have done a lot better, it’s a tough defeat,” said Inter’s Andrea Stramaccioni. “I don’t like looking for excuses, it was a painful loss which makes us angry. I’ll take the blame, but I am sure that we can still reach our goal and qualify for the Champions League.”
“That defeat burns,” echoed Lazio boss Vlad Petkovic. “But we have shown before that we can bounce back and we will do so again. We played a bad first half and Genoa did well to keep believing they could get the win.”
Their slip-ups allowed Fiorentina to prosper with a morale-boosting victory over Parma. David Pizarro was back pulling the strings, Luca Toni and Stevan Jovetic found their scoring boots and Emiliano Viviano returned to the goals to keep a clean sheet. The Chianti was slipping down a lot more easily at the post-match meal.
Things will have a much more bitter taste in Pescara and Palermo, however, where the form line is starting to look like spelling out Serie B. Both sides suffered home defeats to direct relegation rivals in the shape of Bologna and Atalanta respectively. As an American sports commentator once commented – the Fat Lady may not yet be singing for them, but she is surely clearing her throat.