Serie A returns to action on Saturday for a three day festival of calcio after a week chock full of excitement to behold in European continental competition.
Wednesday saw a resolved and organised Milan slay the Barcelona behemoth 2-0 at the San Siro in an emphatic statement to the scores of pundits, fans, and all others who had given them not the slightest figment of a chance against the Spanish giants. The Rossoneri will thus carry a two goal advantage going into the return leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie at the Camp Nou on March 12, setting the stage for what is sure to an epic decisive 90 minutes of football.
Lazio and Inter each advanced to the second knockout round of the Europa League on Thursday with a pair of convincing second leg victories, 2-0 and 3-0 over Borussia Monchengladbach and CFR Cluj respectively. The capital outfit was unable to escape their encounter without controversy, however, as the stabbing of three visiting fans from Germany has seen the Aquile once again made to answer for safety troubles confronting foreign supporters converging on the Stadio Olimpico.
Napoli were the only Italian club to taste the bitterness of defeat midweek, as the boys who train in the shadow of Vesuvius were dumped out of the Europa League by Czech opposition in Viktoria Plzen. Despite sitting in second place in the domestic table, the Partenopei were unable to muster a proverbial eruption, much less even a rumble, as they were embarrassingly eliminated from the tournament 5-0 on aggregate by a completely unfancied adversary.
With these results on the books, however, let’s look forward to what the weekend has in store around the peninsula.
Genoa and Palermo kick off round 26 on Saturday with a crucial relegation battle at the Stadio Renzo Barbera. The Grifone come into the matchup four points above the drop zone in seventeenth place and in good form, having claimed eight of the last 12 points on offer since Davide Ballardini replaced Luigi Delneri at the managerial helm on January 20. Last-place Palermo on the other hand are winless in their last 11 Serie A games, though new manager Alberto Malesani has been able to squeeze a pair of draws out of the dispirited Sicilians in his first two bouts on the sideline with the Rosanero. The home side will take heart in the return of talismanic striker Fabrizio Miccoli to the starting lineup as well as Genoa’s inability to win this fixture since a 3-2 result in March 2008, but still face an increasingly desperate situation that could see them slip as far as 5 points adrift of safety should they succumb to defeat.
Sunday’s lunchtime match sees two teams level in the standings on 29 points, good for a share of twelfth place, go head to head at the Marassi in the form of Sampdoria and Chievo. Delio Rossi’s men have emerged from a tricky slew of games against the big boys with tremendous confidence and will likely look to be on the front foot against the stuttering Flying Donkeys as they look to break into the top half of the table.
Roma will look to build on their inspiring 1-0 victory (their first Serie A triumph of the new year) over league leaders Juventus last week with caretaker Aurelio Andreazzoli at the helm as they take on an Atalanta side that has won just once, against bottom feeders Palermo, since December 8. The Orobici will be looking for a measure of revenge against the Giallorossi, having lost twice to the Eternal City outfit this year already between Serie A and the Coppa Italia without scoring a single goal. Hometown heroes Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi are each suspended for Roma whilst Atalanta will miss playmaker Luca Cigarini, meaning each squad will have to cope without their main distributor of the ball. The sides split the last six editions of this fixture at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia with three wins apiece, with Roma picking up a whopping four red cards in their last three losses in Bergamo dating back to April 2007. The visitors will likely attempt to mix aggression with discretion in an effort to come away with a vital three points as they chase the pack occupying the European places following the disastrous run of form that lead to Zdenek Zeman’s dismissal.
Bologna welcome Fiorentina to the Renato dall’Ara Saturday afternoon for the Derby dell’Appenino, though the match could potentially be called off due to heavy snows impacting the Emilia-Romagna region. Vincenzo Montella will hope that his men have finally turned a corner after a dismal start to 2013 after demolishing Inter 4-1 in round 25 with a cracking effort. They will be forced to get on without banned pass master David Pizarro, which should see winter transfer window purchase Mohammed Sissoko make his first start in a Viola shirt in his stead. Stefano Pioli is likely to revert to a four-man defence with talented young central defender Frederik Sorensen missing out with an injury, a change that his back line should contend well with, having played in such a set-up on 13 other occasions this season. The Rossoblu have not won at home since January 12, but have also lost just twice to the Florentines in the friendly confines in history, in February 2009 and October 1996. Fiorentina will be motivated by the potential to move into the final Champions League spot should their rivals stumble, as they sit just two points outside of third place in a tight pack.
Elsewhere on Saturday afternoon Catania travel to Parma as they look to bolster their chances of succeeding in an improbable run at a European spot with a precious away victory over the faltering Ducali, starting the day just four points out of fifth place. Cagliari will take on Torino behind closed doors at an empty Is Arenas in the wake of Isolani President Massimo Cellino’s arrest and continued controversy over the stadium’s safety, whilst Siena face a daunting task away to table toppers Juventus as they continue to fight for their Serie A lives against the backdrop of a six point Calcioscommese deduction to start the campaign.
The tie of the weekend will be contested Saturday evening, as fourth-place AC Milan and fifth-place Inter will clash in the renowned Derby della Madonnina at the San Siro. Each side faces fitness concerns following their midweek continental victories, with the Rossoneri having an extra day to rest over their rivals, but also having dealt with a tougher task in going up against Barcelona. Inter face an injury crisis in defence with Walter Samuel, Matias Silvestre, and Andrea Ranocchia on the treatment table, whilst the Diavolo are short in midfield as Mathieu Flamini and Antonio Nocerino have joined long term absentee Nigel De Jong on the sidelines.
Fitness nightmare Antonio Cassano played 90 minutes on Thursday due to Diego Milito’s season-ending knee damage and Rodrigo Palacio put in a half of his own, meaning the Nerazzurri attack will likely be highly fatigued. Cup-tied Mario Balotelli will be raring to go after putting in only a Harlem Shake or two on Wednesday for physical effort in being ineligible for the Champions League. The Italy international’s uninhibited energy levels could prove the difference as two exhausted sides take each other on in a match with huge implications, as they are separated by only a point in the table and will compete fiercely to be the pride of the fabled city they both represent.
Napoli will look to stay as close to Juventus at the top of the table at Udinese on Monday night after squandering the chance to get within two points of the Bianconeri the previous round. The Partenopei have not won at the Stadio Friuli since a 5-0 thrashing in September 2007 and will come into the match tired and in dreadful spirits after crashing out of the Europa League Thursday, whilst the Zebrette have emerged victorious in their last four home matches on the bounce. Lazio and Pescara will round out the action later in the evening, meeting for only the fourth time in history. The Aquile have beaten the Delfini in all of their previous three meetings, and will be keen to pick up full points at home after a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Siena last week with Inter and Milan hot on their heels in the table.
Round 26: The Breakdown
Player to watch for: Innocent Emeghara, Siena
The Swiss-Nigerian has been red hot since moving to Robur in January, scoring four goals in his first three starts, including a brace last week versus Lazio. Juventus were doused earlier this season by an emerging Mauro Icardi, and could be at risk again with Emeghara roaming the pitch if he is not well accounted for.
Tie of the Round: Inter-AC Milan
The Derby della Madonnina kicks off with the sides separated by just one point and having each played midweek. Expect drama to ensue.
Statistic of the Week
In the last six editions of the Derby della Madonnina, a combined 35 yellow cards and five red cards have been shown. Sparks fly when rivals collide.
You can follow Ian Capasso on Twitter: @capasso10