It took the final minutes of the last game of the season to decide Italy’s last European representative. Giancarlo Rinaldi recounts how an incredible evening’s action unfolded.
It all ended in tears for Alessio Cerci. One of the most influential players in Torino’s season had an injury time penalty which could have sent his team into European football after a 20-year absence. Instead, it was saved by Antonio Rosati and, in the process, he started celebrations in Parma.
With the Scudetto, Champions League and relegation issues already decided, the Europa League was the only matter left in the melting point and it did not disappoint. Four teams had the potential to sneak into sixth spot and grab a shot at continental competition. At least three of them had a concrete chance to seize that opportunity during a tense and dramatic couple of hours.
First to bow out were Verona, a long-shot to make it anyway. They were 3-0 down to Napoli within the first 25 minutes of their match at the San Paolo and ended up on the wrong end of a 5-1 thumping. It should not, however, spoil the memories of an incredible first season back in the top flight for Hellas. There was much for Andrea Mandorlini’s men to savour.
For a moment, even Clarence Seedorf’s Milan had a whiff of Europe. With about an hour gone they were beating Sassuolo while Fiorentina had the lead over Torino and Parma could not break down Livorno. The irony that a Giuseppe Rossi penalty for the Viola might have done the Rossoneri a final day favour was not lost on anyone. But their time in sixth place lasted just five minutes or so.
It was Parma who seized their chance with an Amauri double putting them in the driving seat but they could only listen nervously to what was happening in Florence. Marcelo Larrondo drew the Granata level before Ante Rebic restored the Viola’s lead. Then, with six minutes to play, a Jasmin Kurtic free-kick gave Giampiero Ventura’s men a final hope. But Cerci was unable to turn it into reality.
Serie A time seemed to stand still as the ex-Fiorentina man stood over the spot kick which could have sent the Turin side into the Europa League. He was brave to step up to take it, but his execution was far from perfect. Then, when the final whistle blew, he was overwhelmed with tears. Rossi was among the first to console him. “Alessio has had a great season,” he said at full time. “I hate to see him in tears.”
It was the lasting image of this closing chapter of the league campaign. Those who were already proclaiming the ‘Biscotto’ – the result which suits both sides – had to rethink their views. And, in Parma, the celebrations could begin in earnest.
“This is part of the Toro fans’ DNA, we are destined to suffer,” said an understandably downbeat Granata boss Ventura. “This has been a great season which would have been extraordinary if we had got into Europe. I am proud of my players and they should be proud of themselves and I think the fans are proud of them too.”
While it was impossible to ignore the pain being suffered by the Granata, it is only fair to pay tribute to the side from the Stadio Tardini. They, too, have had a fine season and deserve plenty of plaudits for how they have played. Now they face the even trickier task of helping Italy rebuild its co-efficient in Europe.
“It has been a marvellous year,” said Parma boss Roberto Donadoni. “We were concentrated on what we had to do - we had to win and Livorno did not make it easy for us.” Rest assured that Silvio Berlusconi has been watching his former player’s progress as a manager with interest.
The other evening games were something of a formality in comparison with Inter managing to throw away a lead at Chievo with a Victor Obinna double bringing a sour end to Walter Mazzarri’s first season in charge. While Lazio had a Lucas Biglia penalty to thank for a 1-0 win over already relegated Bologna which left the Biancocelesti tantalisingly close to Europe. They must wonder how their season might have been without such a sluggish start under Vlad Petkovic.
The weekend had started with one of those spectacularly typical end-of-season affairs. With all pressure off both sides, Udinese and Sampdoria served up a six-goal draw which had all eyes on Toto Di Natale. He struck a hat-trick to take his Serie A haul to 193 and put just one question on everyone’s lips. Can he really hang up his boots with his double century insight? Most pundits seem to think he may put the retirement plans he announced earlier in the season on hold.
It was followed in the afternoon by another procession of pretty pointless clashes. Juve broke the 100 point barrier and confirmed their 100 per cent League home record with a 3-0 stroll past Cagliari. Roma fell over the finish line in a superb second place with a single goal defeat at Genoa. And Catania said farewell to the top division with a win over Atalanta which will only have increased the regret they felt at hitting any kind of form so late in the season.
We know for sure that they will be replaced by another Sicilian side in the shape of Palermo, already comfortably promoted from Serie B. The other two sides making the leap up could be just about any two from 12 teams thanks to new play-off rules which could take qualification down as far as eighth place. Whoever it is, we can only hope they help play their part in rebuilding the reputation of Italy’s top flight a little further.