What a weekend it promised to be. A Rome derby on Sunday night, with the capital clubs joint-third and fighting desperately to cling to their Champions League berths. Inter, one point behind, kicking off 24 hours earlier away to an Atalanta team with European ambitions of its own. In between those two games, Milan-Napoli at San Siro. Anything could happen. And so, inevitably, nothing did. All three of the aforementioned games, along with two others, finished without a goal being scored.
Put your preconceptions about Italian football to one side. This is hardly the norm in a division that has averaged more goals per game than the Premier League in 2017-18. Even this weekend, chances were created, woodwork struck and forwards denied by extraordinary saves. If there was one truly predictable element, it was this: by the end of it all, Juventus were celebrating.
But let us start at the beginning. The stalemate in Bergamo might have set the tone for some of what came next. Inter knew a win would guarantee them a place in the top four, since Roma and Lazio were going head-to-head. To qualify for Champions League football, though, typically requires a consistent capacity for sticking the ball in the net. And if there’s one thing Inter do not do, it’s consistency.
A team that scored eight times in the space of two games last month has failed to do so even once in three since. Inter can boast Serie A’s second-most prolific striker in Mauro Icardi, while Ivan Perisic has chipped in nine goals from the left flank, and yet somehow 10 of this season’s opponents have walked away with clean sheets.
If anything, they were fortunate not to lose to Atalanta, who had comfortably the better of the first half. Papu Gómez and Musa Barrow were each guilty of missing presentable chances, though Samir Handanovic also played his part in the Inter goal.
In any case, that draw did take some of the edge off the Rome derby. Not for supporters – who produced stunning choreographies at both ends of the Stadio Olimpico – but perhaps for the teams, who now knew a draw would preserve their top-four status quo. To evoke a phrase famously used by Gigi Buffon: “Better two wounded than one dead.”
Perhaps it would be better to frame this match in the language of exhaustion rather than injury. Both teams looked spent from their midweek exertions in Europe. The results might have been very different but the physical and emotional investment was similar.
And so what we got on Sunday was a game high on tension but lacking in sharpness on either side. Chances came and went sporadically. Bruno Peres hit the post for Roma. Sergej-Milinkovic-Savic set up Marco Parolo and Ciro Immobile with delicate chips only for both to get the finish all wrong.
The only period of sustained pressure came right at the death, when Edin Dzeko saw one header well saved, then hit the crossbar with another and flashed a further shot wide, all in the space of not much more than a minute. He and Immobile have combined for more goals this season than any previous pair of strikers facing off in a Rome derby, yet neither could find a finishing touch.
Was there much to be learned from this game? From a tactical standpoint, it was interesting to see Eusebio Di Francesco repeat the three-man defence he used against Barcelona. Untested before last Tuesday night, will it become a feature of the remaining part of this season, or did he simply see the merit here in mirroring Lazio’s formation?
The other great question for Roma concerns their capacity to manage players’ energy levels through this final part of the campaign. Di Francesco made only one change to his midweek starting XI, replacing Alessandro Florenzi with Peres. But Roma face a further six games in three weeks, including the two legs of their Champions League semi with Liverpool. Given the precariousness of their hold on a top-four spot, none of them can be taken lightly.
What were Serie A’s schedule-makers thinking when they arranged a midweek round between the Champions League quarter- and semi-finals? Given that Juventus have been habitually involved in the latter stages of continental competition in recent seasons, it seems a significant oversight.
The Bianconeri presumably will not mind, after they were eliminated by Real Madrid. There was no hint of a Champions League hangover as they beat Sampdoria 3-0, with an inspired Douglas Costa providing all three assists, though Massimiliano Allegri admitted the sound of his team being applauded before kick-off by supporters “twisted my nuts all over again about how we went out.”
That win moved them six points clear at the top, following Napoli’s draw away to Milan. The match at San Siro had – despite the lack of goals – been perhaps the most entertaining of the weekend, and not only for the bizarre spectacle of a half-time penalty shootout featuring Bruce Grobbelaar and Geri Haliwell.
This was a match played at a helter-skelter tempo and in a cacophony of noise, with opportunities arriving at both ends. But the scene was stolen by Gianluigi Donnarumma, making his 100th appearance in Serie A at the age of 19 and producing an absolutely sensational save to deny Arkadiusz Milik a last-gasp winner.
It might not have been a stop that turned the title race – the Partenopei were, after all, already four points off first place – but it was certainly celebrated in Turin. Napoli’s performances have faded over the past six weeks, yet their capacity for grinding out late results has endured. Five of their last nine goals have been scored inside the final 10 minutes.
So when Lorenzo Insigne flicked a Christian Maggio cross into Milik’s path in the 91st minute, the narrative seemed set. Six yards out, the striker took aim at the bottom corner: the correct choice when facing a keeper as tall as Donnarumma, who does sometimes struggle to get down in close quarters.
Not here. The teenager plunged to his left and pushed the ball around the post. In Monday’s Gazzetta dello Sport, Fabio Licari defined it as a “Cristiano Ronaldo overhead in reverse”.
Sometimes even no goals can be beautiful. Not for Napoli, clearly, not for the title race and not even for a Milan team whose four-game winless run has cost them a shot at the Champions League and may yet put their Europa League spot in jeopardy.
But for a young keeper who has been through the wringer this season, targeted by his own fans for a perceived lack of loyalty and by Neapolitans on Sunday for “betraying” his hometown? “That was one of the most beautiful I’ve made in these few years of my career,” said Donnarumma. He has time yet for many more.Topics Serie A Sportblog European club football blogposts Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content