The final whistle contrast could hardly have been more stark. One player sat slumped on the pitch in glowering frustration, while the other beamed with a delighted glow. In the glum corner was Milan’s Mario Balotelli – but the glee was clear to see for Luca Toni of Verona.
Only a football watcher with a heart constructed of Carrara marble could fail to feel good for the big hitman. Last season he dedicated a first goal of the campaign to his stillborn child, this time around it was for his two-month-old daughter Bianca. Even opposition supporters could hardly grudge him such delight.
Toni’s two-goal haul turned around a game which the Rossoneri looked to have under control after a fine Andrea Poli strike gave them the lead. But they fizzled out following their European exertions and, by the end, Verona were worth their victory. The warning light is on already for Max Allegri not to start another season like he did last year.
It was hard not to sense a deeper significance in the evening enjoyed by the past and present Italian internationals. Toni is playing with a smile on his face, happy in his personal life and enjoying a glorious Indian summer to his career few thought he would enjoy. Balotelli, in contrast, seemed a pent-up ball of rage at his inability to turn around a match he desperately wanted to win. How he could have used just a dash of his opposite number’s relaxed contentment.
And yet Super Mario’s malaise hints at underlying problems for his team. No doubt there was an added incentive to win for the former Manchester City man due to the pre-match taunts with the Verona support and fears of racism. But there is also a sense that he feels he has to carry this Milan side on his shoulders. And, looking around the squad, it is not hard to see why.
Where Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard or Dejan Savicevic once stood, there now stand Kevin Constant, Antonio Nocerino, M’Baye Niang and the likes. Everyone connected with the club is having to get used to a new reality where the genuine superstar players are in short supply. It might still be the same plate of pasta, but the once-lavish truffle shavings have all but disappeared.
On Saturday evening it was evident that the responsibility was hanging heavy on Balotelli as he tried too hard to win the match single-handed. He thumped the corner flag in dismay and howled at the referee as his increasingly desperate attempts to turn the game failed. The joy with which Toni played the game in a team which will be simply happy to survive in Serie A was his polar opposite.
There will be happier times, of course, for Mario and his team. But it seems clear that fans will have to lower their expectations from the glorious successes of years gone by. This squad can still achieve decent results – especially in Italy – but it is no longer the kind to strike fear into sides across the planet. The Stadio Bentegodi – where two stronger Milan teams once saw their Scudetto dreams dashed – was clear proof of that. Verona provided a template for other outfits hoping to beat the Rossoneri in future.
Toni’s tour de force was a clear candidate for performance of the weekend but another contender was Napoli’s Marek Hamsik. The last of the Three Tenors remaining after the departures of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, he still made sweet music. Two goals and an assist crowned a sumptuous display which gave Rafa Benitez a winning debut in the San Paolo against an out-of-sorts Bologna. There was plenty for the Partenopei’s newly-employed cheerleaders to get excited about.
Reigning champions Juve produced the sort of bread-and-butter win which they build League titles from at Sampdoria. Carlitos Tevez struck the winner to confirm the impression that he is the new signing most ready to make an immediate impact for the Bianconeri. If he turns out to be the 20-goal man they were looking for, Antonio Conte’s men will be hard to catch.
Inter harbour hopes of getting closer to La Vecchia Signora than last year and got off to a winning start under Walter Mazzarri. He shored up the midfield and looked to cut out the silly mistakes of last year for the visit of Genoa. A late flourish – a hallmark of his sides – was enough to record a morale-boosting win at the San Siro through Yuto Nagatomo and Rodrigo Palacio.
Another new Coach setting out in positive fashion was Roma’s Rudi Garcia. It took until the second half for Daniele De Rossi with his first Serie A strike in over a year and Alessandro Florenzi to score the goals which saw off Livorno. The other talking point of the night was seeing Erik Lamela play no part for the Giallorossi as Marco Borriello started up front. It seemed to confirm that the young Argentinian will soon be heading elsewhere.
The other half of the capital, Lazio, enjoyed a win over traditional slow-starting Udinese despite the absence of their hardcore support. The Curva Nord was strangely silent as it remained closed as punishment for the racist booing during the Italian Super Cup. Luckily for Vlad Petkovic, it did not seem to hurt his team too much.
Cagliari triumphed with even less noise as they saw off Atalanta in the Nereo Rocco stadium in Trieste. And Torino also picked up three points against newly-promoted Sassuolo. Indeed, the only game of the weekend without a victor came in Parma. The Antonio Cassano effect was not enough to see off a stubborn Chievo side.
The last two teams to face-off will be Fiorentina and Catania in Florence on Monday night. The Viola will be hoping their new big money signing Mario Gomez can help them to continue the good form they showed last year. Otherwise, who knows, they might start to look north to Verona and the man they let go in the summer with more than a flicker of regret.