Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
The front pages of the Italian press will tonight be all black and white, but for the nerazzurri, it is like a re-birth. One almost wishes that the season was already over, as one could hardly pen a more fitting & emotionally uplifting scenario to wrap an otherwise difficult season that has tested the frontiers of complexity. This evening’s Milan derby has done a lot to restore pride and happiness, as well as remind the nerazzurri of the kind of passion that has been missing for most of the season. Even the ridiculously incompetent (or purposefully malignant?) refereeing trio could not dent the force of the hosts tonight, despite denying them a goal and then gifting a non-existent penalty to the visiting Milan AC.
Il Principe started things off brilliantly with a true poacher’s goal, but the fans then had to endure the now predictable officials’ “helping hand”. Unsurprisingly, the squad suffered after the gifted penalty was converted, and was further tested after the second goal by Ibrahimovic. But the ageing “senators”, led by the tireless and as usual exemplary captain Zanetti, have again confounded the critics by digging deep for that agonistic spirit that has characterised the side that won the historic triple in 2010. Let them now come forward and argue that the squad is old and depleted – they would be hard pressed to find evidence of fatigue and resignation in tonight’s performance. This was partly helped by the compact 4-5-1 formation (with Wesley occasionally venturing forward in support of the otherwise lonely Milito), but fundamentally this game was all about heart, guts and motivation in standing up for self and fighting injustice. Because it would clearly have been a case of daylight robbery had the visitors managed to get away with 3 points.
Instead of suffering what most observers mights have already banked on, the blue & black soldiers rose to the occasion, similarly in many ways to the return leg in 2010 in its dramatic intensity and sense of overwhelming favoritism for the opponent. And with what aplomb! Douglas Sisenado gifted us one of those goals that had forever endeared him to the nerazzurri fans in the past and notably in 2010, reminding all of his attacking flair and capacity to take responsibility.
The joy of this victory is doubly delicious as it presented the final blow to the cousins’ aspirations, condemning them to a title-less season and putting Allegri’s last season’s success into a more humble context.
It was certainly a most appropriate way to pay homage to one of the longer serving faithful, for whom it was the last game at home, Iván Ramiro Córdoba Sepúlveda.
The dream continues!
Yes it is, but not enough for the usual “silenzio stampa” treatment. The pressure was high for new coach Gasparini and the team delivered superbly in the 1st half, with new signing Ricardo Alvarez showing lots of promise as well as young Obi Wan highlighting why he was one of the few things buzzing under the fortunately short lived Rafa days. Milan was disjointed and uninspired in the 1st half and though Wesley’s (superb) goal came on a free kick, it crowned a team effort in ball control and territorial dominance.
The second half was unfortunately not up to scratch as Milan found renewed courage and showed more bite offensively. I hope that Gasparini is not going to be another one of these coaches who feels that they have to address the supposed “defensive” nature of Inter’s play by playing so called “attacking” football. As it happens, however, the theory is not always in line with actual practice, and so it was that the 2nd half performance wasn’t so offensively minded after all, since Eto’o was left to toil alone for most of the game upfront, the introduction of Pazzini coming in too late. Also, the omission of a creative potential like Goran Pandev was puzzling, particularly if the 1st choice instead was the relative unknown non-pharaonic quantity of Faraoni. As many observers have pointed out, Inter lacked bite upfront and was rarely truly dangerous.
Still, despite the missed opportunity of another title, particularly at the expense of bitter cujini rivals, the nerazzuris should not despair as this was from the outset an experimental outing without a number of key senior squad members, and notably Lucio and Cambiasso but also Maicon and Diego Milito. The fighting spirit is still there and the excellent performance of Wesley Sneijder, who the Inter management will hopefully know better than to allow to leave, Samuel, and the aforementioned newcomer Alvarez, provide grounds for good expectations in the new season.
It is very ambitious to hope to achieve the treble or even the double over consecutive years. For sure, this was not the greatest year for Inter Milan. The 2009-2010 season was it, and it has put the bar very high in terms of titles, incredible feats, valor, spirit and emotional ups and downs. How could one compete with that?
And yet they have done it. Like the Bride did to Budd, the nerazzurri’s cup win at the Stadio Olimpico last night (against Palermo) once again demonstrated to those who had hoped to bury this squad and be done with it (and notably certain people with a heavy spanish accent with a silly goatee to match) that they had another coming. One would have thought that the comeback against Bayern would have imprinted that clearly in most minds, but where there is a numbness of the will, there will be a way for bad faith. It does not matter to the fans though. That was a unique night for the fans, emotionally uplifting and up there with the greatest moments of 2009-2010. Even just for that, we are grateful.
Sunday night was also special and beautiful not only for the win, punctuated by yet another imperious performance by Eto’o and a glorious return to scoring ways for Diego! Alberto! Miiliitooo!, but also for a great game of two teams who both wanted the title and where the outcome hung in the balance until the dying minutes when El Principe sealed the win for the nerazzurris with a delicious tap-in from a well worked Pandev cross. Unlike the slaughter on Saturday night, which may have appeared deceptively balanced to some due to the Man U’s goal in 1st half, this was a true contest, with a bold and entrepreneurial Palermo side that refused to back down and who fought for it until the very end, thereby still giving their fans pride and joy even in defeat.
That performance was not missed on any who had observed it including Inter’s players, who quickly opened their arms to their opponents on the night for moral support and recognition, which was reciprocated in an emotional show of passion and respect that was glaring in omission on Saturday. This was a men’s moment, one which is not accessible to a bunch of emotionally undeveloped brats for whom winning is now an obvious entitlement, and for whom fair play and exchanging respect are perfunctory elements of protocol learned in school, performed with a cold heart of ones who have yet to experience major disillusionment. But it will come, don’t worry.
So now it is hopefully clear to all that Inter is not a squad that will give up the ghost easy. While most if not all of the talk in offices today was of Barça’s smothering of Manchester United, yet Inter again claimed center stage in Italy with this powerful and emotional win, undeterred by the chorus of the soft consensus around Europe’s new champions. And why should they be intimidated? With the lion king Samueeel Eto’ooo (grazie Recalcati) at the helm, the blue and black are still champions of the world, at least until November. And with the kind of performances that his teammates Milito, Pandev, Julio Cesar, Lucio, Wesley Sneijder, Chivu, Nagatomo and last but not least il capitano Javier Zanetti also put in, sprinting down the right wing at the end of the game like a fresh kid just subbed on from the bench, I think they have every right to want to claim it back very soon.
As Leonardo has himself framed it so well (watch here), the end of period accounts don’t look so bad after all: 1 Super Cup (won against Roma), 1 Clubs’ World Champion Cup, and to top it off, another Italian Cup. It is a mini tris of sorts, indeed. Joking apart, it demonstrates the extent to which this squad was committed to building on the successes of last year, not content to kick back and rest on its laurels. If you add to that a solid 2nd spot in the calcio as well as an exit in quarter finals of the Champions League, there isn’t many clubs who wouldn’t sign for such a season. Ask Arsène Wenger to start with, or Carlo Ancelotti for that matter, not to mention the Juve.
And if you didn’t quite get that point, think about the striking comparison with Palermo. Of course, the southerners had never won any title, so for them to be even present in the final in Rome was an achievement in of itself. Maybe the English press can convince itself that the same applies of Manchester’s showing in the final. That’s OK if low horizons is your cup of tea, my chummy chums. But the black and blue dreamed to achieve more: and the dream goes on.
It’s all over in Italy as Milan have sealed their title win thanks to yet another clean sheet in Rome. Despite a rather insipid 0-0, the additional point was sufficient for Silvio’s crew to finally reconnect with some domestic success after many years of frustration. Congratulations might have been on the cards but after hearing about Gattuso’s rather lowly comments towards Leonardo the mood here just isn’t very sporty. Inter on the other hand dispatched relatively easily with Fiorentina despite breaking some cold sweat in the second half after Fiorentina pulled one back but youngster Coutinho’s first goal in nerazzurro (a fine curling yet sharp free kick à la Wesley) restored the 2 goal lead that Inter had confidently acquired in the 1st half. Lucio thought he would add spice and freak the fans out with a careless ball loss that brought the best out of Julio Cesar towards the end but the game (view highlights) finished on 3-1, thereby helping to reduce Milan’s lead to 6 points. The win and the renewed confidence (so good to see El Muro back on the bench), combined with that declaration, now means that we will be sharpening the knives in the hope to meet the red & black once again in the Cup final for a revenge opportunity, but in the meantime tomorrow’s official colour is pink: forza Palermo, we’re counting on you Pastore.
Napoli in the meantime lost away to resilient Lecce (see great 2nd collective goal punctuated by a superb strike by ex-Sevillano Chevanton here) and thus their gap with Inter has now widened to 4 points. On paper this would probably mean that the fight in San Paolo next Saturday against Inter would be quite bitter, but as things seem to be souring by the minute between the coach Mazzarri and his president Dino de Laurentis, perhaps the motivation won’t be as strong since in addition the azzurris are fairly strongly positioned in 3rd place and will furthermore missing their talismanic goalscorer Cavani, red-carded during this game. A fierce battle for fourth place is now on between Lazio, Udinese and Juventus (who again managed to draw tonight at home to Chievo).
In England in the meantime, Man U’s 2-1 win against Chelsea (view highlights) has given Fergie’s team the decisive 6-point lead that pretty much seals the title race. Mathematically the Red Devils can still drop the ball if they lose both of their last 2 games and Chelsea somehow cruise through both of theirs and end up with a better goal average (they would have to achieve a 3 goal improvement on Man U in these 2 games), thereby stealing the title on the basis of the latter. However the probability of that happening is fairly low at this point considering as well the two games that the teams have to play and the moral advantage that Man U have through this win over the current champions, as evidenced by the celebrations at the end. Arsenal in the meantime have failed to capitalise on the Blues’ defeat in losing 3-1 to Stoke City at the Britannia, as the “rugby team” (as they were affectionately dubbed by the Gunners’ faithful) coached by Tony Pulis put themselves in an excellent mindset for next Saturday’s FA Cup final against fourth placed Manchester City. The light blues lost away to Everton despite starting strongly as late goals from Distin and Osman keep them pegged in fourth position with an apparently very strong resurgent Liverpool challenging for theirs and Spurs’ European passes. The relegation battle also promises to go down to the wire as things remain very tight at the bottom.
Elsewhere, anti-José fans should note yet another defensive outing by the blancos as they humiliated Sevilla by a mere 6-2 away at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. That’s only 12 goals in the last3 games but it’s probably still too defensive for most. Barça in the meantime drubbed local rivals Espanyol with a defensively reckless 0-2 win.
In France, Lille’s bid for the title regained credibility through a tough but determined win away at Nancy on Saturday, and was further reinforced by Lyon’s emphatic win at the Gerland against 2nd placed Marseille (see video highlights here). Good to see Cris being decisive again and regaining some authority in the club. PSG will be delighted of course, although the Lyon win puts them back in fourth place as they only managed a point against a Monaco side that has finally begun to find some form. Rennes, who were previously competing for 1st place, have fallen off the rails and will be fortunate to finish 5th considering the strong performances from France’s most attractive side (by joga bonito standards, but actually they very creative) Sochaux, who again confirmed their potential with powerful win against Bordeaux (see highlights here) that has finished off Tigana’s mandate.
In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund missed the chance to seal the title through defeat at Werder Breme but it’s now probably just a matter of 1 or 2 games. In the meantime, Bayern comforted themselves (for their miserable season, by the club’s lofty standards) with a 8-1 win over relegation bound St. Pauli.
P.S. thanks to Prince O for highlighting both Chevanton’s goal and Gattuso’s outburst.
To paraphrase that much revered sage that was Bill Shankly, why is football so much more important than life and death? Because in a totally irresponsible and careless way we commit our emotions to something which is totally out of our control, that is 11 lads (or usually less if it’s Inter) running after a ball aiming to take it and keep it away from another 11, both groups of which ultimately want to put it in the back of the other ones’ net. Sometimes that will yield incredibly exhilarating outcomes, putting the kind of wind in our sails that defies earthly laws; at other times, it will sink us to the bottom of our self confidence and morale.
For Inter fans (of which I am one), but also all the Inter haters (of which there are many, in Italy and beyond, most of which don’t have the courage to declare themselves openly as such), this week has seemingly stretched the depths of the latter. The double whammy of a scoreless defeat to Milan in the derby, followed by an even more humiliating drubbing by Champions League first timers Schalke 04, is threatening to put a serious stop to Inter’s confidence and ambitions.
But should we really doubt? Should this moment of doubt and contextual underperformance really rock the foundations of the renaissance of the dream that goes by the name of Leomuntada?
For sure, all is not well in the Inter camp: the last two games have highlighted again the importance of that key quality that the enemies of Inter often point to with feigned outrage as the “joga feio”: defensive robustness. The 7 goals leaked in the last 2 games have indeed exposed a recurring theme of this season, underscored by injuries, that of a certain (i.e. occasional) frailty in Inter’s defense. For these last two games, this should not really be so surprising to any informed observers of the game. Lucio, the current remaining (functioning) pillar of the nerazzurre defense from last season (the other one being Samuel), was absent from both games due to suspension, and a significant portion of the team was fatigued from its international duty commitments. Not as much could be said for either Milan’s or Schalke’s squads.
This is not to take any credit away from the performance of these opponents as indeed congratulations are in order, and especially for Schalke who exhibited the same kind of steel and composure at San Siro as Inter had done in the Allianz Arena two weeks before that. The aim is rather to highlight the specific current main challenging area for Leonardo’s team. The paradox illustrated by the two games that seems to escape most of the critics is that Inter – in terms of the features of its football system – has slipped not because of its supposed main and only quality (i.e. defensive and collective solidity) but rather due to its relative absence, at least in relation to its two winning opponents. If Milan is doing so well this season, it is not so much because of its attacking flair: true they have scored 54 goals so far, but both Inter and Udinese better that with 56 goals so far, and Napoli is not far off with 50. What is distinguishing Milan this season is their defensive strength, as exemplified by the lowest total of goals conceded at 22, 7 less than the next best Lazio who currently has taken in 29. The point is equally demonstrable on the flip side of the coin, namely the attacking front, as Milan failed to score against Tottenham Spurs over 180 minutes and has therefore found itself out of Europe once again. Inter, on the other hand, scored two brilliant goals on Tuesday, one of which may end up as one of the most spectacular goals of the season (Barça’s second goal against Shakhtar Donetsk, by Daniel Alves, being quite impressive too, by its audacity and elegance of execution).
So this opera is far from over. What the champions must now do is regain their composure at the back and recreate the collective spirit of Nou Camp last April in tandem with the one that enabled them to put 4 past Milan on August 29, 2009. This challenge starts tomorrow against Chievo. For more inspiration, the nerazzurre (and their fans) can help themselves by watching recordings of that inspirational performance, or that of Deportivo la Coruna in April 2004 who scored as many against Milan in the second leg of the Champions League quarter final to see them out of the competition. After all, isn’t Schalke actually called Schalke 04? If that isn’t destiny calling, I don’t know what is.
Initially I was planning to wax lyrical about how Leonardo has been a major contributor and certainly a guiding inspiration for team’s rebound from the profound collective and personal malaise instilled by the faceless and profoundly antihuman régime of the goateed fatso from Anfield. On second thoughts (and I have had time to reflect since Tuesday), I do not feel the need to do that. Just as in January when they had to pick themselves up, these are the defining moments of champions DNA – finding the conviction and the resilience in the face of adversity. And we relish at that. Bring it on.
Is it a dream? Is it possible? My heart’s pace has not yet slowed down (and that’s not only because I was doing fitness biking during the game). Such comebacks are the stuff of legends. But could it be that a so called moribund catenaccio-only Italian team (and worse of all, that of José Mourinho), that pertaining to the supposedly declining Italian football as it is so common to hear nowdays (be it from the ever provocative Kaiser before the game, a nameless journalist in Le Temps or even from friends on Facebook), is capable of producing such drama and character?
It may be the Brescians who are of the Leonessa but even they won’t tonight deny that the lion’s heart was all black and blue tonight. The team that José built and that Leonardo is carefully tending to has demonstrated once again its incredible character and heart in fighting back from what possibly the worst nightmare scenario at halftime, achieving on foreign soil what only one other team had managed to do in European competitions past.
And each one played his part. Including Julio Cesar, whose second blunder (over the two legs) put a heavy dent into the nerazzurris aspirations after the game had gotten off to a seemingly great start with Eto’s first goal on the night, a typically swift pounce on a through ball at the limit of offside. The Brazilian goalkeeper and his team – along with the fans – had to suffer further humiliation when the 2nd Bavarian goal went in, a deft touch by Muller following an unintended deflection by Thiago Motta.
But it wasn’t enough to kill the hope and the spirit. This team’s lettres de noblesses in suffering have already been written in countless games that have helped to forged a unique fighting spirit: from Ukraine to home against Sienna, this team does not give up easy. Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate at halftime, not only did they pick themselves up and continue to fight, but did so with the composure of a winning team, not one looking at an early exit. Not once did they abandon the identity and discipline of play that had brought them results in the past. The same patterns that seemed so vain in the first half were repeated in the second, but ever more resolutely, starting with the back pass to Andrea Ranocchia following ball recovery, slightly forward on to Thiago, sideways to Maicon to create breathing space, again in to the center to Cambiasso, then wide again onto the other side for Chivu, then Sneider, then Eto’o, and so on.
Is there any one of them that stands out more than the other? Of course Eto’s ball possession, athletic stamina and technical skill will have journalists from Catalonia to Tokyo drooling in admiration; of course Sneijder’s determination and aggression will enter into textbooks; indeed yes, Ranocchia is phenomenally mature for a young player his age; and Julio Cesar was decisive in preventing Bayern from equalizing more than once; and the list goes on. But no: this game is the victory of a team that stood as a unit. And importantly, that includes the work and support of a patient young coach for whom this was certainly the most important test of his budding career, that stood by them and supported them through thick and thin, and especially Goran Pandev, whom it would have been easy to replace earlier on the basis of his misses this weekend as well as some glaring errors during the game. I can’t help but be reminded of a similar night in the spring of 2004 when a young Portuguese coach similarly stunned the old aristocracy of Europe with a surprise steal at Old Trafford.
Atone and grovel now for forgiveness at the feet of your only survivor and potential savior, Italy. You, as well as all the Barça brown nosers, have been given a demonstration in what football is all about: not a one sided execution draped in smug sense of aristocratic entitlement, but drama, grit, fighting spirit, discipline, flair, goals, attack and defense.
P.S. Manchester United returned to this season’s form with a sufficient but somewhat fragile win over Olympique de Marseille seeing them through to the quarter finals.