By Michael Ottolenghi
The 1990s are often viewed nostalgically in Serie A, as a time when the league dominated European football and star players flocked to Italy. It was also a time of increased stadium violence, but that part of the 1990s is mentioned less often. Last weekend Serie A harked back to those nineties glory days both on and off the pitch.
The big match of the round saw Juve defeat Inter 1-0 at the Juventus Stadium, courtesy of a wonder strike by Juan Cuadrado at the end of the first half. Despite the predictable scoreline, the derby d’Italia was an entertaining affair, with lots of flair on offer on both sides, as well as plenty of chances, penalty appeals and mass brawls. The last brawl saw Inter’s Ivan Perisic sent off and then Mauro Icardi lash out against the referee, earning both Inter players a two game suspension.
But there was also real excitement away from the Juventus Stadium, as two of the teams in contention for European qualification next season recorded massive wins. Napoli’s win was perhaps the most impressive, as they rebounded from a disappointing draw against relegation-threatened Palermo to defeat Bologna 7-1. The goalfest saw hat tricks from both Dries Mertens (who now has 16 and leads all strikers in the league) and Marek Hamsik, and a goal from Lorenzo Insigne. Combined with injured striker Arkadiusz Milik’s return to the squad after knee surgery, Napoli are sure to provide plenty more entertainment this season, if not to close the 6 point gap with Juve at the top of the table.
And they will likely be joined by Lazio, fresh from a very big 6-2 away win at Pescara, with 4 goals from midfielder Marco Parolo and one each from Ciro Immobile and Keita. It was an impressive way to rebound from their shock defeat to Chievo the week before, and sets up this weekend’s big match against Milan very nicely.
But before previewing Lazio-Milan we should also note the visible return of the less savoury side of Italian football at the top of Serie A: the ultras and their ongoing confrontation with the authorities. That confrontation has been ongoing for years – for example the Roma ultras current year long boycott of their own stadium in protest at safety measures in their section of the stadium. But it couldn’t have been more visible at the Juventus Stadium last Sunday, where the historic Juventus “Viking” ultra group left their section, just behind one of the goals, completely empty. They were nominally protesting at the authorities censoring a banner they wanted to display, but there have been various revelations of criminal and mafia links in the Juve (and other) ultras group, which may be causing clubs to finally take action against them.
But back on the football pitch, this weekend’s big game will be another throwback to the heyday of the late 1990s, as Lazio host Milan in a Monday night kickoff. Lazio will be energised not only from their win in Pescara, but also by the fact they broke Inter’s winning run by defeating them in the Coppa Italia at San Siro last week. With Simone Inzaghi’s 4-3-3 formation providing plenty of goalscoring chances for Immobile and his fellow strikers up front, and midfielders Parolo and Felipe Anderson getting in on the action, the biancoceslesti will be confident they can finally beat a top team and consolidate their grip on fourth place.
And playing this Milan side should give Lazio a great opportunity to break that streak of not winning against a so-called top team this season. Milan have now suffered 3 consecutive league defeats, the latest a 1-0 home loss to Sampdoria. The rossoneri now lie in eighth place, a full 10 points from their stated objective of Champions League qualification. The Vincenzo Montella revolution seems to be losing its key pieces, with first the departure of M’baye Niang to Watford on loan and then the repeated run-ins with Colombian striker Carlos Bacca, who was visibly displeased when he was substituted last Saturday against Sampdoria. With defensive weaknesses also creeping into the team, Montella will need to transmit to his team some of his past as a Roma striker fabled for his goals against Lazio.