It was a weekend that proved pivotal in last weeks of the Serie A title race. It was a great weekend for AC Milan fans as many of this week’s results went the Rossoneri’s way. The main highlight was of course the Sunday clash between Napoli and Udinese, whereas the shock of the weekend was Inter Milan’s loss to Parma.
AC Milan set the pace with a 3-0 win over Sampdoria. It was a comprehensive win and one that was expected. After all Sampdoria has been in dire form and gone from a near-miss Champions League qualification to battling relegation. Sampdoria have never recovered from the sales of Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, and have been winless in their last nine matches. In fact Sampdoria have only managed three goals throughout this terrible run, only confirming their struggles in front of goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was serving his suspension and thus Robinho partnered Alexander Pato with Kevin Prince Boateng behind the Brazilian duo as the trequartista (playmaker). A rejuvenated Clarence Seedorf opened the scoring direct from a freekick, firing past the wall, beyond Gianluca Curci, and into the far-post net. It could have all gone pear-shaped for Milan however as both Christian Abbiati and Pato had to be withdrawn early in the first half due to injury. Marco Amelia replaced the Italian between the sticks while Cassano came on for Pato. In the end however, Milan were able to see out the game thanks to a Cassano a penalty and his assist to Robinho’s goal. With the three points wrapped up, the Rossoneri awaited the rest of the weekend’s results and hoped that the chasing pack would slip up.
The Rossoneri’s cross-town rivals were also in contention away to Parma and it was to be another disappointing defeat for Leonardo’s men. Leonardo was very much at the center of it all, this time not particularly for tactical blunders however. Instead it was the Brazilian’s selections, or more accurately his omissions, which drew criticism. Wesley Sneijder, Thiago Motta, and Maicon were not selected for the starting eleven. In fact both Thiago Motta and Maicon did not even travel with the team. Leonardo did not hide the reason why the three players were omitted from the team, and revealed it was for disciplinary reasons. In the end however, Leonardo’s attempt to punish those players he felt were not pulling their weight only backfired against him. It was the ex-Juventini who proved Inter’s tormentors. Cristian Zaccardo sent the ball into the box as Sebastian Giovinco pounced on the cut-back and smashed the ball past Julio Cesar. The other Juventus loanee, Amauri, latched onto a loose ball in the box, muscled off Esteban Cambiasso, and fired past Julio Cesar at the near-post. With the gap now growing all the wider, chances of catching Milan and retaining their Scudetto seemed all the more slim for Leonardo’s men.
The match of the weekend pitted Napoli and Udinese, in a crunch game for the Partenopei as they attempted to keep pace with league leaders Milan. It all seemed set up for them. Edinson Cavani, who had missed last week’s game, was back in the fold. Napoli were unbeaten at the San Paolo which had to be seen as a bonus despite Udinese’s blistering away form. Most importantly however was the fact that Udinese were missing both Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale. It all seemed poised for the Neapolitan side to put the points on the board and keep the pressure on Milan. In fact even more good fortune fell to Napoli as Mauricio Isla was substituted off early after suffering an injury, leaving the Zebrette without very key personnel. So much so that Francesco Guidolin deployed Kwadwo Asamoah as a seconda punta (second striker) under German Denis. Pablo Armero was moved closer into the midfield while Giovanni Pasquale operated in the Colombian’s natural left wingback role. It was a scrappy affair at first, but the match starting in lively fashion with lots of end-to-end action. Napoli were the more dangerous of the two sides, with Cavani coming close on two occasions but firing agonizingly wide of the post. The usual Udinese back-three looked a back-four on this occasion but this was only the case during the defensive phases of the game when Pasquale would drop deeper to defend and nullify Napoli’s wide play on the counter-attack. Defensively, Guidolin’s men were fairing very well. In fact, it was the Zebrette who were able to take most advantage of Napoli’s three-men backline as the likes of Armero gave the Neapolitan side all manners of headaches down the flanks. But it would be from an individual moment of brilliance that Gokhan Inler would break the deadlock, unleashing a screaming 25-yard shot that flew straight into the top-corner. The curse of the ex would soon befall Napoli, a mere five minutes after the Swiss’ opener, as Denis chested down Armero’s cross and volleyed past Morgan De Sanctis. For the remainder of the game, Udinese more than held their own and even dominated through some large spells of the game. Despite their notable absentees, they remained a threat on the counter with Armero the main tormentor of the Neapolitan side. Udinese regained some fluidity in their buildup play, which they had lacked in the first half and as a result had struggled to keep any sort of possession. Asamoah dropped deeper into midfield to pick up the ball and it was mostly the reason for this resurgence, as he was able to linkup play and release Armero sprinting ahead of him with balls over the top. It was a bit of a smash-and-grab as the Zebrette only managed 34% possession. But the story of Napoli’s dominance over the match is not all that clear either as Udinese managed almost as many shots (13) as their rivals (18) and more on target (Udinese with five shots on target against Napoli’s three). A statistic that is not inflated by set pieces either as the corner count was in favor of Napoli. Napoli would grab a late goal through Giuseppe Mascara but it was nothing more than consolation. In fact the game had been won moments before that as Samir Handanovic saved Cavani’s penalty.
The results at the San Paolo and the Ennio Tardini have seriously damaged the chasing pack’s title hopes. The Rossoneri now commands a six-point advantage over Napoli and an eight-point buffer between themselves and Inter. In addition Milan has done the double against their rivals, beating both teams home and away, this season. Effectively it thus gives the Rossoneri an extra point over their rivals due to the head-to-head record. It is the Rossoneri’s title to lose for the and with the next three fixtures against Brescia (away), Bologna (home), and Roma (away), the Rossoneri could seal the Scudetto at the Stadio Olimpico with two games to spare. The feat is not as evident as it may sound however, injuries to Abbiati will be of concern as well as to Pato who is now ruled out for 2-3 weeks due to a hamstring strain. The absence of the still suspended Ibrahimovic is another concern, leaving Massimiliano Allegri’s attack short-handed in the coming weeks with only two seconda punti to call upon, in Cassano and Robinho. It will be a tough few weeks to come, but calm and composure will be key in ensuring that Milan lift their first Scudetto since 2004.