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The Swede was quiet against Lazio, and the Rossoneri paid the price. Meanwhile, a four-goal haul from the Argentine proved insufficient due to his side's defensive issues

By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor

The snow may have stopped them in their tracks on Tuesday, but Juventus were the big winners on Wednesday as Lazio’s triumph over AC Milan kept the Bianconeri at the top of Serie A. And once again questions are being asked of the champions’ ability to turn it on when Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not at the top of his game, with many fearing it could cost them the title.

After Sunday’s win in a turgid affair against Cagliari, the warning signs were there. It was the big Swede who had broken through the low tempo of the proceedings to strike a superb free-kick inside the near post on the way to a 3-0 victory. But last night there was no free-kick. There was no Ibra moment. And there was next to no hope for Milan as a result.

Lacking energy and direction, the cracks are all too evident when the Plan A of hitting Ibra and seeing what happens does not work. Last season, Robinho was a magnificent boost to the Rossoneri lineup, but this term he has slumped back into the kind of form which left few in tears when he left Real Madrid and Manchester City. Alexandre Pato is injured – again – and Antonio Cassano’s extra dimension will be missing for the rest of the season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Antonio Nocerino
Kevin-Prince Boateng
Antonio Cassano
Clarence Seedorf
Alberto Aquilani
Alessandro Nesta
Gianluca Zambrotta
Stephan El Shaarawy
Alexandre Pato
Mario Yepes
Thiago Silva
Massimo Ambrosini

“Maxi Lopez can play alongside Ibra,” said CEO Adriano Galliani at the former Cagliari man’s unveiling earlier this week. The pair may well have to prove him right sooner rather than later if the club’s title hopes are not to take a kicking every time Ibrahimovic is marked out of a game.

It’s not just in his style of play either. Ibrahimovic’s eye for goal has pulled Milan out of many a spot this term. Aside from his 15 goals in Serie A, only Antonio Nocerino has struck regularly, and to become too reliant on the Italy international’s output in the box is to misunderstand what his game normally entails. After his seven-goal tally there comes Kevin-Prince Boateng in third place in the club’s goal charts, and three of his four strikes came in 14 minutes away to Lecce.

Gone are the days when Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Pato were scoring 14 each as the title was won from many areas of the pitch. Gone are the days when Ignazio Abate was looking like a natural right-back week-in, week-out. Gone are the days when a midfield of Mark van Bommel, Massimo Ambrosini and Nocerino may have supplied enough energy to pass as a winning combination.

Lazio’s two late goals were much deserved, and both painted a picture in terms of the lack of mobility at the heart of the Rossoneri midfield. When the home side’s runners got forward, Milan looked extremely exposed.

They now need two big-impact signings, but the transfer window has closed. All of a sudden, they demand blockbuster returns from the likes of Boateng, Pato and Alberto Aquilani once they become available again. The ‘favourites’ tag is slipping.

It is not much rosier over the other side of the city either. Diego Milito’s astonishing goalscoring display against Palermo very nearly bailed out Inter, but Fabrizio Miccoli’s hat-trick ensured the pertinent questions will still be asked.

Milito’s four goals apart, the Nerazzurri had all too little to shout about. It was emblematic of the club’s current woes that his haul was struck out by the country’s worst attack on the road. Palermo had scored just two away goals all season before they turned up at San Siro, and one of those was an own goal. But without Walter Samuel at the heart of their defence, they never looked safe with a one-goal lead.

Lecce (h)
Parma (h)
Milan (a)
Lazio (h)
Lecce (a)
Palermo (h)
Won 4-1
Won 5-0
Won 1-0
Won 2-1
Lost 0-1
Drew 4-4
Andrea Ranocchia is symptomatic of Inter’s problems in many ways at the moment. Without the Lucio-Samuel base, Claudio Ranieri’s side are a very different prospect. Last night Ranocchia looked a shambles every time Miccoli went near him with the ball. Great though the striker’s first goal was, the former Genoa man should have dealt with the danger long before the ball found the back of the net.

Added to that, his poor distribution, lack of authority, and turning circle of the largest of ships make for a poor stand-in for the ageing first-choice pair. With Ivan Cordoba and Cristian Chivu the only realistic alternatives, Inter need to think again in terms of their defensive options for 2012-13.

But in terms of the remainder of this season there are all sorts of questions still to ask. What will be the fallout from Ranieri’s loss to the board in the battle over Thiago Motta? Will the coach finally find a suitable spot for Wesley Sneijder? Can Andrea Poli stay fit long enough to inject energy into the midfield? Can Milito’s red-hot scoring form continue long enough to help them pip Udinese and Lazio to a Champions League spot? And what happens when Lucio or Samuel are unavailable?

For all of Inter’s imponderables, Wednesday’s goal feast was easy on the eye. Yes, the defending on both sides was atrocious, but the playing conditions at an extremely icy San Siro were always going to result in such a contest. Milito’s pure finishing – he actually netted six times, only to have two ruled out – and Miccoli’s never-say-die attitude punctuated an enthralling contest.

You never know what you’re going to get from Inter games at the moment. A sucker-punch derby win one week, a lifeless loss to Lecce soon after, followed by an all-out slugfest. It is absorbing for the neutral, but they need to find some consistency if they are to be Champions League competitors again next term.

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