It took 22 attempts but a goalkeeper finally figured him out. Pepe Reina’s name will go down in Italian football history as the first man to thwart Mario Balotelli from the penalty spot in his professional career. In the process, he ended a 27-year wait for a Napoli victory away to Milan in Serie A.
It was as much a hammer blow to the Rossoneri as it was a delight to the thousands of Napoletani who had packed the San Siro. Last season Max Allegri’s men staged an amazing late-campaign rally on the back of their hitman’s spot-kicks. This time, however, the familiar cry of ‘Rigore per il Milan!’ did not bring the anticipated outcome.
By that stage the home side were already two goals behind to an early Miguel Britos strike and another from Gonzalo Higuain who has settled into Serie A in scintillating style. Balotelli did grab a beautiful consolation strike late in the game, but his frustrations spilled over after the final whistle and his prolonged complaints to the referee earned him a red card. It was a typically tempestuous night for the former Manchester City front man.
Not that followers of Rafa Benitez’s side will be interested in that. With four wins out of four, they are dreaming of a third Scudetto. And, with results which have not been achieved since the days of Diego Maradona, who can blame them?
The only side to match them are Rudi Garcia’s Roma. A victory in the capital derby was the crowning glory of his achievements so far. We all knew the Giallorossi had a better squad of players than results had shown in recent times, now they are starting to confirm it.
“We have put the church back at the centre of the village,” said the French tactician, pinching a phrase from his mother tongue. He meant that Francesco Totti and company were starting to set the record straight and it would be hard to argue with that assessment. Goals from Federico Balzaretti and Adem Ljajic were enough to see off their cousins and underline a growing confidence in their play.
“Our aim is to finish in the top five,” insisted the Roma boss. “I am ambitious too but it is too early for us to know exactly how good we are. But I like this team and so do our fans.”
“We had more chances in the first half and in the second anything could have happened – it was important to score first,” said his opposite number on the Lazio bench, Vlad Petkovic. “I am sure if we had taken our chances, things could have ended up differently. Credit to Roma but I don’t think my team let itself down.”
It was a pretty pleasant Sunday for Walter Mazzarri as his new Inter scaled impressive heights against Sassuolo. A seven-goal thumping highlighted both the progress the Nerazzurri have made and the glaring inadequacies of last year’s Serie B champions. If Massimo Moratti was looking to clinch the sale of his club, then this was a pretty perfect sweetener.
Things got even better with the return of Il Principe, Diego Milito, to action more than seven months after being ruled out with injury. That he capped it with a couple of goals made it all the more remarkable. It made for a match which must have felt like fine dining for Inter fans after a long spell making do with more humble fare.
And yet, it seems, there must always be a bum note in every Sunday Serie A symphony. Having seen fans banned from a section of the San Siro due to racist chanting during the Derby d’Italia, the Milanese side’s travelling support decided to get in on the act. An unsavoury rendition of a nasty number about Naples and Neapolitans was something everyone could have lived without. You can give some fans great results, it would appear, but you can’t provide them with much common sense or common decency.
Up in Turin, meanwhile, there was a sighting of the lesser-spotted Fernando Llorente to help keep Juve on pace for a third Scudetto in a row but Verona surely made them sweat. Having looked limp in Europe, the Bianconeri were not at their best to see off the boys from the Bentegodi. They slipped behind to a Fabrizio Cacciatore strike but Carlitos Tevez and the Spanish hitman turned things round in five frenzied minutes before half-time. It was enough to secure the win.
The result and performance were probably reassuring and concerning to Antonio Conte in equal measure. These are the kind of games where the three points can be more important than any sparkling football. If you can get a win without hitting top form, then you know your team has both great resilience and room for improvement.
Another side to win without really shining were the last member of Calcio’s top five – Fiorentina. Vincenzo Montella’s men had their scares on the road to Atalanta but won out in the end. A header off the crossbar by surprise starter Rafal Wolski was tapped home by Mati Fernandez for the opener and Giuseppe Rossi – of whom so much is expected in Mario Gomez’s absence – clinched the victory with a neat shot on the turn. Both Viola fans and Italy boss Cesare Prandelli will have been smiling.
Other weekend winners were Chievo and Torino who gave their League positions a more healthy look with victories over Udinese and Bologna respectively. Elsewhere, Cagliari and Sampdoria, Genoa and Livorno and Catania and Parma all shared the spoils. For the Sicilian side it was the first point they have got on the board during a pretty miserable start to the season after being a revelation in recent years. Their only consolation may have come from a Sassuolo side which, unfortunately, looks like it might be capable of beating all sorts of negative records for Serie A.