Juventus has often struggled this season after playing mid-week in Champions League. Their 3-0 thumping of Chelsea was followed up with a dismal 1-0 defeat against AC Milan while the 0-1 away victory of Shakhtar in Donetsk was followed by an unconvincing 0-1 win away against basement boys Palermo. The pattern was repeated last weekend when Juventus visited Roma. The capital club was in dire straits having failed to win a single match in 2013 which has seen the mercurial Zdenek Zeman get the sack. Juventus was completely dominant when the teams met in first half of the season and form book suggested that AS Roma was in for some trouble.
Things were however, totally different at the Stadio Olimpico. Conte retained most of the starters from the Celtic clash and this proved to be a major mistake. Celtic might not have created many clear cut chances in the Champions League match but their drive and relentless pressing of Juventus is not betrayed by the final scoreline. The Hoops were extremely physical in their approach and Serie A teams rarely face such hustle and bustle in the league. Thanks to that draining encounter against Scottish champions Juventus players, especially the likes of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Andrea Barzagli and Stefan Lichtsteiner looked totally out of sorts. The first half was even as chances were few and far between – Stekelenburg palmed away Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick which was the best opportunity in first half.
Things totally changed in second half as signs of fatigue were getting more and more visible. Things that rarely happen in Juventus matches recently started happening in second half – Arturo Vidal barely slid into tackles in midfield, Andrea Pirlo started misplacing passes, Barzagli was turned over multiple times and the Juventus defence offered very little resistance to Roma’s counter attacks. Roma had created a number of scoring opportunity in second half but were repelled by the efforts of Gigi Buffon in goal. A Roma goal was looking inevitable and it came via a typically venomous shot from the talismanic Francesco Totti. Totti’s shot from outside the penalty box was hit with so much power that it bulged the net before Buffon could even attempt to save it. Totti’s goal seemed to have deflated an already haggard Juventus side and Conte’s team failed to find an equalizer. Along with Totti another thorough bred Roman, Danielle De Rossi had a wonderful game as he kept Juve’s storied midfield quiet with some clattering tackles. This was the first time Roma had beaten Juventus at Stadio Olimpico since 2003/04 season.
One must remember that this season is a learning curve for Antonio Conte as well. Conte has never managed a side in Europe as a result of which he has often struggled to rotate his squad properly. He has to learn quickly to balance a packed schedule should Juventus want to find success like Marcelo Lippi or Fabio Capello eras.
The damage from Juve’s latest slip-up was controlled considerably when Napoli drew at home against Sampdoria. The Azzuri did manage to cut Juve’s lead at the top to a single point but they wasted a golden opportunity to further close the gap. Napoli dominated the match and were slightly unlucky to see Marek Hamsik’s shot bounce off the frame-work. The Blucerchiati continued a wonderful run of form which has seen them lose just once in 2013. During this purple patch Sampdoria has beaten Juventus in Turin, thumped AS Roma 3-1 and have taken points off AC Milan. Sergio Romero was in inspired form for Sampdoria and was largely responsible for Napoli’s inability to convert their 62% ball possession into goals. Hamsik’s night became even worse later when he was reportedly mugged at gun-point while going to pick up his wife at airport. The law and order situation in Naples has always been in the news and the likes of Cavani and Lavezzi have been mugged or robbed in past.
Along with Sampdoria, AC Milan is another team which is in a wonderful run of form this year. Their capture of Mario Balotelli may eventually prove to the best piece of business in winter transfer window. “Super Mario” has hit the ground running and scored his fourth goal for AC Milan in first three matches, first man to do this since German legend Oliver Bierhoff in early 1990s. The Rossoneri have moved up in the table steadily and now find themselves in third position ahead of Fiorentina, Lazio and Internazionale. Few would have pictured this turnaround some months back when AC Milan was languishing in 14th position while Fiorentina and Inter were being touted as title challengers.
Fiorentina and Inter did face off against each other in a late Sunday kick-off. Vincenzo Montella and Andrea Stramaccioni, two managers who had garnered rave reviews in first half of the season have failed completely to stop the downward slide of respective teams in 2013. On Sunday, home advantage topped the scale towards Fiorentina as the Viola ran riot to register a convincing 4-1 win as Stramaccioni was left bemoaning of an “ugly” Inter. Last week, Inter were hit by more bad news with Diego Milito, their top scorer, being ruled out for 9 months due to an ACL tear. Given the recent form of these two teams and AC Milan’s, it looks highly likely that Allegri’s team would end up in top-3 when the season ends.
Unfashionable southern side Catania continued their Cinderella story by sewing up their third consecutive home win after a solitary goal victory over Bologna. Former Juventus player Sergio Almiron picked up a knock early in the match but nonetheless scored the match-winner. The Elefanti sit on 7th position, ahead of AS Roma and Udinese. Catania have a difficult set of matches coming up in next few weeks which includes away trips to Parma and Juventus.
Stefano Sorrentino’s return to Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi didn’t prove to be an entirely satisfying trip as Palermo’s relegation fears increase with each passing round. The former Coppa Italia finalists are now second from bottom and have not won a match since beating Catania in the Sicilian derby on 24th November. Maurizio Zamparini’s over tried and over tested method of sacking coaches have not managed to fix issues with a squad which is strong enough to do better. Next three rounds will be extremely crucial for the Rosonero as they face off against Genoa (home), Torino (away) and Siena (home). Palermo need to collect at least four points from these fixtures, should they want to retain their status as a Serie A side next season.
Strugglers Cagliari travelled to Stadio Adriatico to take on Pescara on the back of the news that their president Massimo Cellino was arrested for a possible violation in the construction of the club’s Is Arenas stadium. The former Serie A champions curved out an invaluable 2-0 away win with a brace from Marco Sau. With Pescara in relegation zone with 21 points, this win can eventually prove to be a relegation six pointer for Cagliari, who now move to 14th place with 28 points. Pescara, last season’s runaway Serie B champions are not placed comfortably to avoid relegation.