Crammed with action, controversial VAR drama, five red cards and mesmerising goals by Nicolo Zaniolo and Fabio Quagliarella, the first-ever Boxing Day Serie A fixtures could not have topped off the post-Christmas celebrations more emphatically.
In the hair-raising match in Bergamo, 10-man Juventus just survived to salvage a point in their 2-2 draw with a tricky and determined Atalanta. With Cristiano Ronaldo starting on the bench for the first time in Bianconeri colours, Juve still seemed comfortable after taking the lead in the second minute. However, a brace from an in-form Duvan Zapata and a red card shown to Rodrigo Bentancur was enough to inspire the Dea to take full control of the game – that is until the No 7 came on.
After being on the pitch for less than 13 minutes, Ronaldo – amidst a scrambling Atalanta defence – capitalised with a clean header to keep the Old Lady’s unbeaten record in Serie A this season intact. As for Gian Piero Gasperini’s brave men, the impressive performance still managed to rattle this resolute Juve side, who dropped points for the second time in 2018-19.
The game that was a perfect summation of the dramatic Boxing Day round was the top-four clash between Inter and Napoli. After dropping crucial points against last-placed Chievo in the previous round, the Nerazzurri were looking to reduce the eight-point gap to five against the second-placed visitors. For the Partenopei, the opportunity to go 11 points clear of Inter and six behind Juve was on offer.
For about 80 minutes of the evenly-matched fixture, neither side looked capable of winning it due to the solid defensive displays at both ends. The closest chance came from Mauro Icardi at kick-off – launching his shot from the halfway mark over a distracted Alex Meret and thumping the crossbar. Some monumental interceptions and a goal-line clearance from Kalidou Koulibaly kept the Neapolitans in the game.
Late in the second half, just as Napoli was in the ascendency, Koulibaly’s challenge on Matteo Politano saw the Senegal international pick up a yellow card. His sarcastic applause towards the referee resulted in his instant dismissal and Napoli’s demise. However, tensions were already high after the centre-back regrettably received racist abuse from some opposition fans inside San Siro.
Inside the final minutes, the Partenopei almost clinched the winner through a quick counterattack but Piotr Zielinski saw his shot denied by Kwadwo Asamoah’s goal-line clearance. Just into added time, substitute Lautaro Martinez fired home the winner for Intern – showing that Luciano Spalletti made the right substitution this time around. To cap the night off, the heated clash between Keita Balde Diao and Lorenzo Insigne saw the Neapolitan receive a red card, causing further animosity between the players, coaching staff and referee. Ancelotti’s men now find themselves further behind League leaders Juve.
Staying on the topics of drama and teams dropping points, Milan’s inconsistency so far this season was precisely demonstrated during their stalemate with 19th-placed Frosinone. The Rossoneri failed to test the Canarini goal, revealing the creative problems this jaded Diavolo side have going forward.
Gennaro Gattuso’s men could consider themselves fortunate after the VAR disallowed Frosinone’s goal in the first half in controversial fashion. The uninspiring performance and result now leave the Rossoneri in danger of slipping further down the table. Dropped points at home to SPAL this weekend would surely spell the end of Gattuso’s Milan reign.
Another Coach who came into this round hanging by a thread was Eusebio Di Francesco. Fortunately for the Roma boss, the Giallorossi pulled off a 3-1 victory against a problematic Sassuolo. The Neroverdi started brightly - Domenico Berardi’s long-range effort almost catching out Robin Olsen - but it was Patrik Schick’s involvement in the first half that was imperative for the Lupi surging in front. The 22-year-old Czech managed to win a penalty and score Roma’s second with some neat dribbling past Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli.
Goal-line technology also became another talking point in the Boxing Day round, ruling out a Sassuolo equaliser. But the main highlight of the Roma-Sassuolo game was when Nicolo Zaniolo’s trickery and composure saw the youngster score a Andrea Pirlo-esque goal. With the capital club breathing down the necks of Milan and Sampdoria, it looks like Eusebio Di Francesco’s job is safe – for now.
While it was enjoyable witnessing late drama and some freakish goals, the Koulibaly racism incident has tainted Serie A’s first Boxing Day round and left Calcio tifosi with a very bitter aftertaste.