By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
Sunday night’s clash between AC Milan and Napoli had been given top billing by fans, coaches, players and media alike. It was advertised as a Champions League showdown, a winner-takes-all battle and a gun-slinging contest rolled into one, but it ended up resembling a Spaghetti Western in which the two adversaries slapped each other a couple of times and walked away.
Despite threatening to be a real humdinger after the two sides had exchanged goals midway through the first half, the match unravelled into something of a damp squib in the closing stages after referee Gianluca Rocchi lost control of the two teams and Mathieu Flamini momentarily lost control of his brain.
The Frenchman’s dangerous two-footed challenge on Pablo Armero will see him suspended for at least the trip to Juventus next round, if not two more matches, and Milan’s task over the next five weeks is already appearing a great one after the 1-1 result left them still four points behind Napoli with time running out in the race for second spot. Many Milanisti were immediately drawn to liken the foul to Esteban Cambiasso's on Sebastian Giovinco which earned the Argentine just a single game's suspension, but two erroneously lenient bans do not make a right.
Flamini had looked set to be a hero after scoring in back-to-back fixtures for the first time in his five-year Serie A career, but he will not be able to make it three from three after his horror tackle which he claimed came in frustration after the Partenopei had been able to level through Goran Pandev. The former Arsenal midfielder knew that his side were chasing the game due to their deficit in the table, but no amount of desire can excuse his subsequent actions.
|FIGHT TO THE FINISH | The Serie A run-in
||CAGLIARI (h)||Juventus (a)|
|ROUND 34||Pescara (a)||CATANIA (h)|
|ROUND 35||INTER (h)||TORINO (h)|
|ROUND 36||Bologna (a)||Pescara (a)|
|ROUND 37||SIENA (h)||ROMA (h)|
||Roma (a)||Siena (a)
But while Rossoneri coach Massimiliano Allegri will not stew too long on the loss of a player who has played only 92 times since signing for the club in 2008, he will be worried that his team have lost the momentum which had put them in the box seat for the final automatic Champions League spot only a fortnight ago. When Napoli kicked off against Torino on Easter Saturday, they did so with 56 points to their credit, while Milan had 57. It was a meant to be the sign of things to come after the Diavolo had wiped out what for seven rounds of this season was a 12-point deficit behind Walter Mazzarri’s side, but since then the 18-time league winners have hit a road block.
With two difficult opponents in Fiorentina and Napoli have come two draws, but both have come after leads have been squandered and Milan suddenly look like a Formula One car running low on fuel with the final couple of laps still to negotiate. Time is not on their side and neither is the Serie A calendar. While Milan travel to Juventus Stadium next week, Napoli host Cagliari, meaning there could well be a six or even seven-point discrepancy to overcome in the final five rounds of the campaign.
Without Mario Balotelli for a further two matches, the Rossoneri need to find inspiration from somewhere, but they looked short of it on Sunday, even before they were reduced to 10 men. There were squabbles aplenty in evidence either side of the final whistle as, not for the first time, ref Rocchi failed to stamp his mark on the game in a positive manner, but now Milan need to show that fight in a positive sense.
They now head to Juventus facing the fact that if they don’t complete a league double of the champions of Italy, they could well be left facing the prospect of a Champions League play-off come August.
- Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni claimed after his side's 2-0 defeat away to Cagliari in Trieste that the Nerazzurri season has been "cursed" from the off. However, the truth of the matter is that they have simply not been good enough and now sit four places and nine points off the Champions League play-off spot through nobody's fault but their own. Disputed penalty calls at both ends and injuries to Walter Gargano and Yuto Nagatomo had Stramaccioni on the defensive in the north-east, but a thin squad, a lack of consistency in attack and a poor defensive unit have been as much to blame for their current plight. The reliance on players such as Fredy Guarin and Ricardo Alvarez to unlock opposition back lines has left them understandably short, while the reliance on Rodrigo Palacio for goals is no more healthy than the burden having been placed on Diego Milito before him.
- Palermo goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino begged Palermo fans for forgiveness on Twitter after his gaffe robbed his side of two precious points in their battle for survival. Siena's win at Pescara had put the Rosanero behind the eight-ball in the relegation picture and they remain firmly ensconced in the bottom three after the shot-stopper somehow allowed the ball to squirm through to Bologna's Manolo Gabbiadini, who gladly fired home to earn the Rossoblu a point. The former Chievo keeper's misery was compounded by Genoa's late equaliser in the Derby della Lanterna against Sampdoria which keeps Davide Ballardini's men level on points with the Sicilians with six rounds to play.
- Lazio host Juventus in Monday night's posticipo in what is likely to be one of the least anticipated fixtures of either team's season. Neither will be much looking forward to the reality of having only league matters to deal with after their eliminations from Europe in the past week, but both still have plenty to fight for. Juve are dead certs for the title, but will hope to get back on the bike and earn a second successive Scudetto as soon as possible - especially given their chance to gain revenge on Milan next weekend, while the Biancocelesti will still believe that a victory over the champions could yet be a springboard to a successful final push for the Champions League play-off spot. Vladimir Petkovic has worked wonders with Lazio this term, but if he achieves third spot, too, then the Coach of the Year award should be a foregone conclusion.