A dramatic Week 36 saw Serie A pull few punches for action, but again attention shift away from the pitch. Rob Paton writes.
Just after the half-hour mark at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Delio Rossi made his first change for Fiorentina. Having watched his players fall two goals down to otherwise relegation fodder Novara off the back of two glaring defensive mishaps, the Coach took youngster Adem Ljajic off in favour of Ruben Olivera.
As he trudged off the pitch clearly dissatisfied and made his way to the bench, Ljajic sarcastically applauded his Coach. Calling to Rossi as he looked for a seat, he appeared to say something at the same time as giving his tactician the thumbs up, in a clear act of displeasure at being made to look the fall guy. Rossi, however, responded, shouted back and dived into the bench, which at the Franchi is below pitch level, pinning the player back with one hand at Ljajic’s neck as his other made a fist.
Team manager Roberto Ripa and team doctor Paolo Manetti stepped in to try to calm matters, but as Rossi exchanged further words with Ljajic, neither staff member could prevent their Coach from unleashing a significant blow to the player, and in due course to his own career at the club. Indeed, as ugly as the mistakes made on the pitch in Week 36 may have been to push Rossi and Ljajic into this unnerved state, it was nothing to the scene acted out by the duo and their disregard to the game continuing behind them, which by that point had become a sideshow.
Reports in recent weeks presented Ljajic as a determined, young man keen to prove himself to both Rossi and the club that he was deserving of another chance in the first team. Since a disappointing performance away to Inter in mid-December, the Serbian had, until the middle of April, been relatively confined to sitting on the bench or even in the stands, since a reported lack of trust from his Coach in his ability to follow instruction or indeed affect play as his potential otherwise suggests he can.
Certainly, for what he had shown signs of for the club during his short career, the chances to continue his development this season have actually seen some of his worst football yet, with a performance away to Lazio a notable low-point. Even so, injuries to Amauri and Stevan Jovetic through April presented the youngster with another extended first-team run and he looked to be responding. Alongside Jovetic, Ljajic can argue he has played a significant part in all three of the team’s away wins this season – at Novara, Milan and Roma – with the last two coming in the past month, which in conjunction with Riccardo Montolivo’s drop in form, had seen him emerge as a more viable creative outlet.
However, Rossi had seen enough to take him off after the half-hour mark at home to Novara, returning Coach and player to their earlier relationship in an episode that proved to be a last straw for both. Before the players were even out for the second half, reports emerged that club directors were in an emergency meeting to discuss a course of action on the incident.
The fans welcomed Rossi back to the pitch for the second half and insulted Ljajic, showing whose side they had taken, and even if rumours suggested the players were siding with their young colleague, their performance to earn a 2-2 result showed signs of rallying in spite of the disunited state. Even so, the inevitability was that the Coach would be sacked. Andrea Della Valle spoke with the players in the dressing room post-match, before confirming to the media of the 51-year-old’s removal from office.
“It’s the last decision we wanted to take, but we feel it is also for his own good,” confirmed Della Valle. “We talked and he gave his explanation. He was ready to apologise, as he is such a good man, as proven throughout his career, but I had to make this decision. We are sorry for Rossi, as he does not deserve to be seen all over the world acting this way, but it was a serious incident and we had to fire him.”
Rossi has reportedly apologised to the players and the club, but has since chosen silence on the incident, one that has left the team with two games to go without the guidance they expected in place to avoid being pulled into the relegation zone. That they face Lecce at the weekend seemingly adds to the vulnerable state they have been forced into, even if they only need a point in that game to secure survival.
Meanwhile, another scrap took a dramatic turn in the midweek round, with Gianluigi Buffon, the most experienced member of the country’s most solid defence of the season, making a calamitous late error to gift 10-man Lecce an equalising goal. With minutes remaining, the goalkeeper collected possession from Andrea Barzagli, only for a heavy touch to allow Andrea Bertolacci to take the ball and finish in an open net, relieving the Turin side of two title-race points. It’s an opportunity Milan took up to close the gap, even if they still require Juve to drop further points from the final two rounds to have any chance of overtaking them at the top.
The points difference will ultimately mean that debate over Sulley Muntari’s ‘ghost goal’ in the direct confrontation between the pair at San Siro in February will rumble on. Another ‘ghost goal’ was scored this round, as Kwadwo Asamoah’s strike ricocheted off the crossbar and over the line before bouncing out. However, for what replays showed, the speed of the incident adds a defence to the officiating error this time, whilst Udinese still won the game at Cesena. The Zebrette look to be in a straight shootout with Napoli for third spot, in light of other results.
Elsewhere, Parma spent the build-up to welcoming Inter in midweek talking of their European ambitions and the possibility that qualification for the Europa League this year was even a possibility. Whilst that may prove mathematically impossible, Roberto Donadoni’s men did provide a dramatic and comprehensive second-half fight-back against Inter to not only inflict a first defeat on Andrea Stramaccioni, but suggest that their optimism is not that misplaced. Nor would any hopes a team may place in Sebastian Giovinco leading their attack next season, based on his recent form.