Straight from the dark heart of Italy
The Tricolore was flying proudly around Italy yesterday as the country celebrated 105 years of unity.
The green, white and red colours of the national flag also happen to adorn the Scudetto badge awarded to the Serie A champions - and all of a sudden the impending culmination of this year’s title race looks very intriguing indeed.
AC Milan hold a five-point gap over Inter, with Napoli a further point behind - so the chances of a north-south showdown remain alive and well.
However, going into this weekend’s round of games the momentum is very much with the defending champions, who in these celebratory days are being heralded as the savours of national pride after overcoming Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
The Nerazzurri’s season has been given a massive lift by their exploits in Munich and they are now talking up their chances of another glorious Treble-winning season rather than one of transition following the Jose Mourinho’s departure and the failure of Rafa Benitez to adapt to Italian football.
Only five days ago, La Gazzetta Dello Sport where questioning Inter’s domestic dominance with the headline “Ciao Scudetto” (Goodbye Title) after their draw at Brescia but now it took easily be a case of “Hello Again, Title”.
Defending their Champions League crown can take a back-seat for a few weeks - as can the Italian Cup semi-final against AS Roma - leaving Leonardo’s men to concentrate on closing the gap on their city rivals.
The Milan Derby will be played immediately after the international break so for both sides a positive showing is a priority this weekend – and Inter certainly have the easier task. They’re at home to relegation-threatened Lecce on Sunday afternoon, and will already know exactly where they stand as Milan play at Palermo the previous evening.
Neither side can afford to take their eye off the ball, but while there is plenty of euphoria floating around the Inter camp - especially with the news that Leo has an almost full and fit squad at his disposal - it is a different story across town where Massimiliano Allegri is counting the cost of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s petulance last weekend.
The Swede let himself down once again when he swung an arm into Marco Rossi’s ribs as the Rossoneri trailed to by a goal to Bari, receiving a straight red card and a three-game suspension which will include the derby on April 2nd.
There is no doubt that the weight of being the go-to guy for the team is becoming a heavy burden – and even before last weekend’s irritable performance he had been well off form.
The thought of a month’s rest is not something that seems if filling big Zlat with the joys of Spring and he was snappy with anyone unfortunate to get anywhere near him in training, which also included assistant coach Mauro Tassotti who, during a practice game in which he was acting as referee, had the audacity to blow for a foul against the striker.
There was a moment of tough-guy staring between the pair before Ibra stormed off, quickly followed by Kevin Prince Boateng who limped away with a reoccurrence of the ankle injury sustained at Juventus. The Ghana midfielder is now a major doubt for the trip to Sicily.
Napoli, who are home to Cagliari on Sunday evening, are well aware of how crippling a suspension to a vital player can be and during Ezequiel Lavezzi’s three-game absence for his spitting offence against AS Roma, the Azzurri struggled and scored just once.
However, with the tricky Argentine restored to their ranks at Parma, normal service was resumed with El Pocho scoring one and setting up another in a 3-1 victory, which was just as well because Edinson Cavani is going through an Ibra moment having failed to score in the league since mid-February.
While Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri has Lavezzi to pick up the goalscoring slack and Leonardo has proven goal-getter Diego Milito raring to go again, Allegri’s options now seem a little more limited if Alexandre Pato, Antonio Cassano and Robinho fail to gel.
He will be hoping that without the presence of his moody team-leader, the trio can play with more freedom. Championships are won on pivotal moments and this weekend could be one of them.
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