The race for the final Champions League berth took an interesting twist this weekend as the Nerazzurri gained ground on the Giallorossi. A ‘Higuain-less’ Partenopei travelled to San Siro desperately trying to keep their title hopes alive, whilst Roma faced Atalanta in a match-up that many thought would be another guaranteed three points. Sub-plots, drama and an enormous helping of nostalgia changed this battle for Europe from a certainty to a genuine playoff.
It is safe to say that the last time Inter faced Napoli at the San Paolo many people’s jaws were left hanging open. Not only for the incredible performance that Roberto Mancini’s men unleashed on the Neapolitans, but also for the incredibly inappropriate homophobic outburst unleashed on the Inter Coach by Maurizio Sarri.
Napoli’s season was seen by many to have ended against Udinese only a couple of weeks before. The implosion was highlighted by the sending off of star striker Gonzalo Higuain, who received a four-game ban for his outburst, reduced to three on appeal. A victory against Hellas the week after was perhaps a false dawn, as whilst giving the Veronese the credit they deserve, they are having a diabolical season.
Even with this in mind the Nerazzurri have not been setting the world on fire and the 1-0 win against lowly Frosinone had given little hope before the clash this weekend. The turgid football exhibited was saved only by the predatory nature of Mauro Icardi, who grabbed his 50th goal in his 100th Inter appearance.
It was he who would deliver an early hammer blow to Napoli, as in the first five minutes his ‘Bergkamp-esque’ take down and lob over Pepe Reina put his team in front.
As the game developed it became obvious that the Inter ‘Mister’ had his tactics right. His preferred midfield of Gary Medel (holding), Geoffrey Kondogbia (superb in transition) and Marcelo Brozovic (creating) were working in harmony. This hasn’t always been the case this season, but the Nerazzurri were pressing harder than in previous games and they were also much quicker when releasing the ball. This in turn meant that they dominated their opponents in the middle of the pitch and when Brozovic scored the second it was no surprise.
It is frustrating for Inter fans, as the team can grind out results most weeks but when Joao Miranda, Kondogbia and Icardi are all on form they look like a different outfit all together. The 2-0 win extinguished Napoli’s title hopes, especially when Juventus steamrolled Palermo the next day, and left Inter looking up at Roma licking their lips.
So what of the Giallorossi? They travelled to Bergamo to take on an Atalanta team who at the time were six points off the relegation zone. Luciano Spalletti’s return to the Eternal City has sparked a renaissance for the Romans and it has looked almost guaranteed that they would reach the Champions League and perhaps (especially after Inter’s result) catch Napoli in second.
After 27 minutes at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia nobody would have argued with this evaluation. Roma were 2-0 to the good after Lucas Digne and Radja Nainggolan scored early on and they were looking comfortable. Trips to Bergamo are not as testing as they used to be, it’s true, but the other Nerazzurri produced a display that allowed their fans to cast their minds back to when the stadium was a fortress.
When Marco Borriello netted his second it put Atalanta 3-2 up, completing an incredible comeback, which could have been put to bed as the striker should have had a hat-trick and made it four.
With the minutes ticking down on the clock Spalletti turned to the much-ignored Eternal hero Francesco Totti. If there was ever a time to say ‘This is what you are missing’ it was now, but this isn’t a comic book. In fact it was better, as ‘Il Capitano’ didn’t just assist the comeback, he scored the equaliser with four minutes to spare.
The nostalgic euphoria will last for some time in Rome, but when it wears off they will notice that Inter are not far behind them and closing in quickly.
The race for Europe is still wide open, as Fiorentina ended their six-round negative streak and Milan got back to winning ways on the debut of new Coach Cristian Brocchi. Lazio also lifted their game under Simone Inzaghi.
There seems little doubt at this stage that Juventus will win their fifth consecutive Scudetto. Despite moving nine points clear at the top, the mood was sombre in Turin following news Claudio Marchisio tore his anterior cruciate ligament. The title race is practically over, but so is Marchisio’s season and his hopes of taking part in Euro 2016.
The relegation situation is all to play for still, apart from Hellas Verona, who confessed they are doomed to the drop. Frosinone’s last-gasp victory at the Bentegodi saw them leapfrog painful Palermo and stay within a point of Carpi, while Udinese and even Sampdoria aren’t safe yet.