Roma and Lazio did their best to keep the title debate open in Italy at the weekend. Giancarlo Rinaldi assesses the importance of their Week 21 performances.
All roads led to Rome in the Italian title fight at the weekend or, at least, to the capital's two clubs. Lazio did their bitter rivals Roma a much-grudged favour by holding Juventus to a draw on Saturday night. The Giallorossi then fulfilled their end of the bargain by emerging victorious at Verona's Stadio Bentegodi - one of the toughest grounds to take anything from this season.
This being Italy, of course, none of it could happen without a dash of controversy.
The game at the Stadio Olimpico demonstrated that the best way to make a real contest of the Scudetto fight might be to make Juve play the rest of the season with 10 men. Having lost Gigi Buffon and seen Antonio Candreva convert the resultant penalty, it actually made a match of it. La Vecchia Signora really had to dig deep into her handbag of resilience to salvage a point. It took a Fernando Llorente header of sublime accuracy to level the match before the woodwork and Marco Storari’s reflexes denied Edy Reja’s side a winner. It stopped the Bianconeri’s winning run at 12 games, but Antonio Conte was understandably bullish about their performance afterwards.
“In adversity you saw what great men are in this side,” he said. “We showed why we are top of the table. We never gave up and kept trying to win despite being a man down against an on-form Lazio side. But the penalty and red card is too harsh a rule - it should be changed.”
The bad news, for Conte aficionados, is that he also confirmed he will do no more pre-match Press conferences this season as he feels his words have been misrepresented in the past. He may have a point, of course, but ultimately it is his own supporters who pay the price of missing out on his pearls of wisdom. Others, perhaps, may welcome a 50 per cent reduction in his pronouncements.
After that game, it was over to Roma, who managed to slice Juve's lead to six points with a 3-1 win over Verona with goals from Adem Ljajic, Gervinho and Francesco Totti - although Emil Hallfredsson briefly levelled for the home side. The Giallorosso skipper, who hauled his weary old bones off the substitutes’ bench, saw it as a signal that his team is up for the fight.
“We've shown we are a match for Juve,” said Totti. “After they put a foot wrong, we proved we can fight on level terms with the champions of Italy for the Scudetto. We have closed the gap on Juve. This week we have seen they are not unbeatable, even though they are very strong.”
Less impressed was Napoli netminder Pepe Reina who apparently took to Twitter to criticise the soft penalty which put the Giallorossi’s victory beyond doubt. It might have been a generous decision but he would probably do better to worry about his own team’s downturn in form. A 1-1 draw with Chievo Verona on Saturday evening confirmed a drop-off in the quality of the Partenopei’s play and a difficulty in breaking down more lowly opposition.
They got a break, however, in events at the Stadio Artemio Franchi on Sunday night. A contentious penalty for Genoa, converted by Viola old boy Alberto Gilardino, opened the scoring in a crazy 3-3 draw which will have frustrated Alberto Aquilani. He scored his first Serie A hat-trick - and had another chalked off for a debatable offside - and it still was not enough to get Fiorentina the win they craved to move closer to third spot. The game also saw ex-Manchester United man Anderson make his debut for the Tuscan outfit. He slotted in well enough to suggest he might rediscover some sort of form in Florence - and, in the process, silence those who claim the move is more about pizza than putting his career back on track.
It looked like Milan might succumb to their familiar failings in Sardinia but late goals from Mario Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini gave the Clarence Seedorf era more substance. A dreadful attempted clearance by Marco Amelia had helped Marco Sau give Cagliari the lead. The new Rossoneri boss recognised the psychological importance of getting another three points on the board. Suddenly, they are just five behind city rivals Inter who could do no better than a goalless draw with Catania.
Walter Mazzarri looked more than a little flustered after that display, coming at the end of a week which brought humiliation on the transfer market with the Mirko Vucinic-Fredy Guarin swap fiasco. He highlighted the tense atmosphere at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza as a contributory factor in the share of the spoils with the Sicilians. One section of the Nerazzurri support displayed a banner advising Erick Thohir never to do any deals with Milan or Juventus and also to get rid of the old backroom staff and bring in his own trusted men. Most of us, however, would have reservations about whether running your club at the whim of your most vociferous fans is a winning formula for the future.
Inter’s problems - without a win since the Milan derby last year - have allowed Parma and Torino to put them under severe pressure for the Europa League spot that fifth place offers. An Amauri goal got a win at the weekend for Roberto Donadoni’s men against an ever-more-struggling Udinese side. In Turin, Alessio Cerci converted a penalty he won to see the Granata past a battling Atalanta.
In the lower reaches, Sampdoria and Bologna shared the points in a draw which did neither side any great favours. The only significant winners in the relegation zone were Livorno who got off to a lightning start to secure their 3-1 victory over Sassuolo. Still, eight teams remain within as many points at the bottom of the table so there is likely to be at least one six-point clash every week between now and the end of the season.