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The Bianconeri's hold on the title race was loosened thanks to the goalkeeper's bizarre late mistake, allowing the reigning champions to close the gap to a single point

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By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor

That wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

On the night Juventus could have left the field as champions, they instead allowed the current holders of the Serie A title to believe again. And it was one of their most flawless, unflustered individuals who gave AC Milan hope.

Of all people, it was Gianluigi Buffon who gifted Lecce a late equaliser at Juventus Stadium to allow the Rossoneri to close the gap at the top to a single point. In a squad of players many of whom have not tasted the experience of a title run-in before, it was the likes of Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro Del Piero who were expected to just get on with business. If a season-changing error was to be made, it would surely come from a younger, less savvy player … right?

Wrong! With Juve still holding just the narrow lead given to them by Claudio Marchisio’s early header which escaped the clutches of Massimiliano Benassi, they remained vulnerable to a sucker punch. And, with Lecce having not previously troubled Buffon in the entire game, the keeper took a heavy touch on his left foot from Andrea Barzagli’s simple back pass, allowing Andrea Bertolacci to steal in and grab a point for the Salentini.

MATCH FACTS | Juventus 1-1 Lecce

 Shots

 On Target
 Possession
 Territory
 Corners
 Bookings
 Red Cards
JUVENTUS
18
8
  55%
  59%
6
1
0
LECCE
1
1
  45%
  41%
2
5
1

It hadn’t been a vintage Juve showing, but they had done enough to get into several good positions to grab a second goal. This time around, they couldn’t do it. It was a return to the profligate side of the first three-quarters of the season, but more than that it was a nervy showing of sorts. Against a Lecce outfit battling for survival, they gave up more possession and more space than they generally have this term. Their penalty area remained practically unbreached, but mainly thanks to their having camped out in their own half at times in a way they simply hadn’t done before in 2011-12.

It was a huge result for Serse Cosmi’s side in their quest to stay in the heavyweight division, especially with relegation rivals Genoa winning against Cagliari, but that wasn’t really the story. Instead, Buffon had made all the headlines. The Italy captain, the man who followed a World Cup win with a trip to Serie B with the Bianconeri, the second-highest caps holder for the national team, one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the world, he was suddenly the failure.

His inability to deal with Barzagli’s pass has blown open the race, not simply due to the gap being reduced, but also because of the new pressure it will induce. There is no margin for error anymore. Gone is the knowledge that they can slip up once and get away with it. Every clearance, every shot, every crucial tackle that needs to be made, could now be a title-defining one. The ‘Get out of jail free’ card has been used. Juve now need to at least match Milan’s results in the final two games in order to claim a 28th official title.

It can still be done, and they are still favourites, but it’s no longer the foregone conclusion it appeared. They still could be champions by Sunday night, but that’s not under their control anymore. Milan entered the field against Atalanta knowing it could be for the last time as champions, but left with a renewed spring in their step.

MATCH FACTS | Milan 2-0 Atalanta

 Shots
 On Target
 Possession
 Territory
 Corners
 Bookings
MILAN
17
10
  51%
  54%
4
0
ATALANTA
7
2
  49%
  46%
2
0
Marchisio’s goal in Turin had been almost immediately mirrored by Sulley Muntari’s opener at San Siro. Replays suggested he may have been offside by about a stud’s length, but one could forgive the referee’s assistant for not have a magnifying glass on him to make the call. The pass to the Ghanaian had come from Kevin-Prince Boateng, and he was the architect for what was little less than an onslaught on Andrea Consigli’s goal early on.

Like Juve, Milan held on to their slender lead until late, with even Zlatan Ibrahimovic miscuing wildly at one point. But then, having heard news of Lecce’s equaliser, the Rossoneri grabbed a late clincher, with Robinho superbly following in to turn home Consigli’s parry from Ibrahimovic’s long-range blast.

Belief and momentum. Two things that can be supremely vital in a title race are suddenly with Milan, if only for a few days. Juve remain ahead, and with the more simple run-in to negotiate, but the cafe debates and message-board threads will all be about their ability to hang on now, rather than planning Sunday afternoon celebrations in Sardinia. Where once it was a carefree march to the crown, now it is a test of nerve for players young and old. Meanwhile, Milanisti will head to the derby clash with Inter that evening believing they can pull off Mission Impossible.

It’s game on again.

ELSEWHERE…

  • Delio Rossi ended the 2010-11 season waving a fond farewell to the 40,000 Palermo fans who had travelled to Rome to see their side compete in the Coppa Italia final. Twelve months on, he finishes the campaign jobless after one of the craziest moments witnessed in calcio for some time … and that’s saying something!

    VIDEO: Rossi and Ljajic altercation
    Click on the image to watch on our official YouTube channel!
    Rossi was forced into an early rethink after his Fiorentina side fell 2-0 behind to relegation-threatened Novara at the Artemio Franchi, and he made the decision to withdraw the under-performing Adem Ljajic just after the half-hour mark. The young Serb’s response was to sarcastically applaud his coach, which led the 51-year-old to gesticulate wildly at his player before launching himself into the dugout swinging punches at the winger.

    While many have quickly defended Rossi by rightly proclaiming that the behaviour wasn’t indicative of his usual manner, the extraordinary scenes were always likely to lose him his job. Two Riccardo Montolivo goals would eventually be enough for the Viola to save face and relegate Novara, but the real damage had already been done.
  • Inter’s much-improved run under Andrea Stramaccioni came to an abrupt halt four days before the derby with a 3-1 defeat to Parma at the Ennio Tardini. After Wesley Sneijder grabbed the opening goal, it appeared that the Nerazzurri’s Champions League charge would continue unabated. But a disappointing second-half display saw the home side eventually run away with the points, leaving Inter to dust themselves off ahead of their clash with Milan at the end of a five-game fortnight.
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