By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
It was almost as though the world had slipped back onto its axis on Tuesday night. Following Barcelona’s sticky patch of recent weeks, AC Milan felt the full force of the Blaugrana’s most public of declarations which proved they are far from done yet. But the Rossoneri didn’t sit around and lick their wounds, if only because Mario Balotelli simply wouldn’t let them.
Balotelli is not one for sitting around and waiting for the world to hand him things on a plate. Instead, he’s all about stepping up and taking things for himself, and his double against hometown club Palermo blasted Milan back onto the front foot after the missed opportunity that was the experience at Camp Nou in midweek.
Down in Naples, Edinson Cavani and Napoli were finally finding their form in a hard-fought 3-2 win over Atalanta which keeps them in second spot for the time being, but the juggernaut continues to roll on at San Siro. With nine games to go and Milan still two points off the silver medal position, it is actually the Diavolo who sit in pole to finish in the automatic Champions League spot rather than the Partenopei.
And so much of that is down to ‘Super Mario’. The 22-year-old has now hit seven goals in six games since returning to Serie A at the end of January, netting in every match except the Milan derby. His form was not the catalyst for the current run of Rossoneri magic – that started way back in mid-November – but he is the one guiding them towards the finish line.
It seems inevitable now that Massimiliano Allegri’s side will complete their magical comeback from 13th place to second before the season’s out regardless of what Napoli do between now and May 19. Still unbeaten in Serie A in 2013, Milan are in the kind of form the Azzurri would die for, and they have a spearhead just as influential as Cavani driving them on. It has been such a run that one begins to wonder what they might have been capable of had Allegri been able to cajole such performances out of them a couple of months sooner.
Balotelli’s enforced exclusion from the Champions League squad has only helped their case in many ways. He has remained untouched by the psychological blow of Catalunya in midweek. Not for him the soul-searching, the what-ifs and the sleepless nights. It is arguable that he is not the type of character for that in any case, but his ineligibility against Barca ensured that he gave it to Palermo with both barrels.
Sure, the Rosanero are bottom of the league and heading for Serie B so fast that even club president Maurizio Zamparini’s trigger finger can’t keep up, but Milan got on with their job at San Siro on Sunday, and their reward is to remain on Napoli’s shoulder.
Fiorentina also grabbed a win, and some Roma fans may claim that their side are in with an outside shot of the podium now, but it is the Rossoneri who are best placed to represent Italy once more in the Champions League. And with each passing week comes another performance from Balotelli which suggests they will get another crack at Barcelona next year without the pain of play-offs.
Super Mario cost the club around €22 million, but his current run of form could prove to be worth at least that in the short term alone. The riches on offer from the Champions League, and particularly from the summer-long knowledge of automatic qualification, are practically invaluable, and Milan look closer and closer to attaining exactly that with each passing week. Make no mistake about it, Balotelli’s transfer fee was money very well spent.
The Rossoneri still have Fiorentina, Juventus, Napoli and Roma to play, but on current form they have nothing to fear, especially with the unwavering Balotelli dragging them by the scruff of the neck towards a Champions League return.
- Edinson Cavani's return to the score-sheet coincided with a first win in six games for Napoli against Atalanta. The Partenopei were in desperate need for points after seeing their outside shot at the Scudetto completely disappear, and they now face a real fight with Milan for second place. The Uruguayan's return to scoring form - like Balotelli he hit an early penalty and struck a second later in the game - comes at a timely moment. If anything, it is a reminder of what they could lose if they miss out on automatic Champions League qualification. Without the safe knowledge that Europe's top table awaits at the end of the summer, president Aurelio De Laurentiis may be put under extra pressure to sell his 20-goal front man if a big bid comes in. Napoli's need to finish second is potentially bigger than anyone's.
- The farcical scenes in Turin on Sunday night were a marvellous advertisement for the excellent decision by authorities in Genoa to call an early halt to hopes of Sampdoria taking on Inter. While the Blucerchiati's fixture was postponed at lunchtime and rescheduled for April 2, Torino's clash with Lazio was somehow given the go-ahead. What ensued was a ridiculous 'spectacle' in which the ball was barely visible to those hardy spectators who made the trip. For what it's worth, Il Toro earned a 1-0 win over their 10-man visitors, but there is little wonder Italian football attracts such minuscule attendances when the authorities treat fans with such utter contempt. Fans of both sides would surely have preferred the inconvenience of a postponed fixture and a real contest at a later date than the non-event that they could barely see from the sidelines on Sunday.
- Italy's 27-man squad for the friendly fixture against Brazil and World Cup qualifying clash with Malta threw up a couple of interesting names on Sunday. Alessio Cerci has been rewarded for his excellent form with Torino this season with a first call-up, while Milan's uncapped Mattia De Sciglio gets a second call-up. The selections of Cerci and Sampdoria's Andrea Poli proves once again that Cesare Prandelli will pick any player from any club on merit, with the less intense nature of the two games coming up providing an opportunity for the national coach to give chances to those players displaying excellent form across Serie A. And for Cerci it is the latest proof that he could yet be finally on his way to realising the talent that many have seen in him over a long period of time.
- And the last word of the weekend goes to Francesco Totti, who went clear of Gunnar Nordahl as the second highest scorer in Serie A history with his strike against Parma. The 226th goal of his league career underlines the legacy he continues to leave at Roma. Bravo, Francesco!