Only minutes before the game, the news was out that he was only starting from the bench. The announcement did not come as a real surprise to anybody. He wasn’t really in the best of forms and even at Manchester City, he was relegated to be a third choice forward. Although his signing was a very high profile one and made headlines across all European media, it would not have been wise to get Balotelli running straightaway in a big match. But then as fate would have it, the regular first choice centre forward Giampaolo Pazzini picked up a knock during the warm-up. And that led Allegri to introduce the problem child of Italian football in this all important encounter against Udinese on Sunday at San Siro.
Balotelli– read the team sheet along with Niang and El Shaarawy in the attacking third and the fans all around the globe were exhilarated to see the young, dynamic, energetic mohawk trio take the centre stage. Balotelli’s arrival has been met with great joy and excitement among the Milan circles and he did not take long in announcing his grand arrival as he put Milan ahead with a stupendous finish from an El Shaarawy ball minutes before the half hour mark to nearly script a legend of sorts. Upon his return to Italy, playing for a club he’s always claimed to be a fan of, Balotelli was once again at his best with his trademark celebration style sans any expression of pleasure, categorically insinuating he’s here to do it week after week and that there’s no reason to be awed already – there’s much more to come.
The moment that bestowed the entire limelight on Mario was so big that not only the fans but even Allegri and his players perhaps forgot the defence was still the same and those problems were far from solved. Milan dominated the entire first half but Udinese had remained patient and were aware that Milan were not going to maintain the same tempo forever. It wasn’t too long in the second half and a deflected effort from Pinzi restored parity and momentarily made fans believe perhaps the night was not destined to be Mario’s.
That was until the referee for the night – Paolo Valeri decided to feature all over the sports headlines for the next day. As Stephan El Shaarawy was trying to create one last chance from the left flank, Udinese defender Thomas Heurtaux perfectly won the ball with a wonderfully executed challenge on the Milan forward but the referee, without any element of reluctance pointed to the spot. The decision was met with stark criticism and deservedly so, considering its impact on the game and perhaps beyond it too as far as Udinese are concerned. However, there’s no prize for guessing who stepped up to the big moment. Balotelli had made this habit of scoring the most decisive of penalties during his stay at City and in his very first game for Milan, he showed this distinctive feature of his game – that is being one of the better penalty takers without losing one bit of composure. His celebration post the winner was reminiscent of Ibra’s famous gesture to the crowd after scoring from the spot against Inter in his very first season for the Rossoneri.
With the win, Milan are now level on points with Inter on fourth position and their turnaround after the disastrous start to the campaign has been remarkable. This momentum might see them claim the Champions League spot eventually but as of now they must take one game at a time. Defensively, there’s still a lot to be desired and the fans might only hope the arrival of Mario brings about the positive vibes that help Milan get better in every department. From now on, Champions League football next season is far from a distant dream for Milan.
What was heartening to see post the game was the reaction of both the managers at the controversial penalty decision. Allegri conceded his team was lucky to have been awarded a penalty from what clearly looked like a clean tackle. His opposite number Francesco Guidolin was of course upset but yet graceful in expressing his thoughts and admitted referees are prone to err.
Balotelli’s arrival was of course the big story from the weekend but it somehow overshadowed one major departure from Serie A. AS Roma finally took the big call and decided enough was enough. Zdenek Zeman’s tenure – never expected to be a long one anyway – has been prematurely terminated by the board after a string of results that might very well jeopardise the team’s chances of playing in Europe next season. Man for man, Roma possess arguably the second best squad in the league and yet Zeman’s crazy tactics that never addressed the defensive issues that the team has faced throughout the season has finally seen the club putting an end to his second spell.
After dropping points on their away trip to Bologna last week, Roma were humbled 2-4 at home by Cagliari in what could possibly be the lowest point in their season so far. It was only a matter of time for the club to announce their decision to part ways with Zeman and they did. Roma now clearly need a manager who can first stabilize this squad that is brimming with enormous talent. A more pragmatic and disciplined approach is the need of the hour. Names of Marco Giampaolo and Laurent Blanc have already been doing rounds. On another note, players like De Rossi and Pjanic might not be too unhappy with the development after all while the same cannot be said about Tachtsidis and Goicoechea.
In the other games, Juventus got back to winning ways beating Chievo 1-2 on their trip to Verona. A delightful strike from Matri put the visitors in front and the lead was doubled before half time by Lichtsteiner. Chievo did look a rejuvenated outfit in the second half but all they could muster was a solitary goal. Napoli too maintained their winning form beating Catania 2-0 courtesy goals from Hamsik and skipper Cannavaro.
The week was a wonderful one for Milan as not only theirs but even the other results turned out in their favour. City rivals Inter were humiliated by bottom struck Siena in their 3-1 defeat. With this result, the Tuscany based side have completed a double over Inter which should raise a question or two against Andrea Stramaccioni after showing great promise during the months of October and November.
Due to their transfer policies that often favour Milan, Genoa are rather sarcastically known as the allies of the Rossoneri but on Sunday they showed this on the field too. An injury time winner against Lazio – one of Milan’s closest rivals for the final Champions League spot – has reduced the gap between the two sides to only three points. Lazio haven’t been experiencing a particularly great period in the season and the lack of depth in their squad might just start to come into fore now as the season reaches a critical phase.
One goal apiece from Toni and Jovetic sealed the deal for Fiorentina who maintain the sixth position on the table after their win over Parma on Sunday. After a high-flying start to the season with all the new acquisitions, Fiorentina have considerably slowed down but they are still a team in contention for the European spot and given the uncertainty of this league, nobody can be ruled out just yet.
Palermo have been having an abysmal season speaking the least but the 23rd round saw them meeting new lows as the home defeat to Atalanta has now put them at the bottom of the table sharing points with Siena. Much as expected, Gasperini has been given marching orders. The club hasn’t dropped any hints yet on the replacement.
In a nutshell, if Robin van Persie scores when he wants, Maurizio Zamparini applies that to his idea of sacking managers.