Straight from the dark heart of Italy
It's a black and white Christmas in Serie A, with all the gifts landing under the Juventus tree.
At the start of the month Napoli were just two points behind the league leaders and defending champions, but as Italy heads into a two-week winter break that gap has opened up to eight points and Lazio are now Juve’s closest rivals.
Rivals would probably be too strong a word as the chasing pack look to be battling for second and third while the Old Lady strolls on at the top of the table.Antonio Conte’s men set an Italian league record of 94 points for the calendar year – shading the Fabio Capello-led Juve that collected two points fewer in 2005 – thanks to a late 3-1 win over Cagliari at the bleak house that was the Ennio Tardini on Friday evening.
The match was switched from Sardinia to Parma's stadium 400 miles away a mere 48 hours before kick-off, following the increasingly familiar and depressing scenario of local authorities deeming Cagliari’s stadio Is Arenas not up to standard to host a high-profile match.
It was effectively a home game for Juve. Cagliari could only muster 71 fans in one section of an almost deserted ground in which most of the noise came from Conte’s booming voice from the touchline.
He was none too pleased to see his team trail by a goal and miss a penalty when Arturo Vidal blazed over, although the tone of his voice changed after the equaliser from former Rossoblu frontman Alessandro Matri with 15 minutes remaining.
The same player hit the second in added time when Cagliari were down to 10 men after Davide Astori had been sent off. Mirko Vucinic then stole Christmas off Sebastian Giovinco when he tapped home the diminutive forward's goalbound shot.
Better late than never: Matri (r) and Vucinic celebrate
There was little festive cheer off the pitch either. Cagliari owner Massimo Cellino complained that Juventus had been behind the switch in venue; the theme that the northern giants in Milan and Turin held too much influence in the corridors of power was then taken up by Zdenek Zeman after AS Roma demolished a demoralised-looking AC Milan.
In fact, the Milanese clubs made life a lot easier for Juventus by their lacklustre performances on Saturday: Inter were held at home by second-bottom Genoa, surviving going a goal behind from former Juve youth star Ciro Immobile to draw level five minutes from time through Esteban Cambiasso.
The winter break gives Massimo Moratti time to contemplate bowing to coach Andrea Stramacconi’s request for reinforcements as the Nerazzuri fell nine points behind the leaders and were leapfrogged by Lazio, who won at Sampdoria.
Stramaccioni believes that a couple of extra players can propel his side into 2013 in better shape which is something that seems highly unlikely across town at Milan.Even two late goals when they were already trailing 4-0 at Roma couldn't hide the defensive failings in Massimiliano Allegri’s side, especially from crosses and set-pieces.
Last seaon’s runners-up are now seven points off a Europa League spot but there may be some positives in the New Year for Allegri, with funds made available after the impending sales of Alessandro Pato and Robinho. Apart from their deep-seated feelings of saudade, the boys from Brazil believe that the only way that they will have a chance of making the World Cup squad for 2014 is by grabbing the headlines back home.
Milan suit Adriano Galliani will not be looking forward to a Christmas spent in South America overseeing the transfer of two of his favoured players. Galliani has ruled out the arrival of Mario Balotelli on a loan deal but the man with a wonderful record on the transfer market needs to rediscover his mojo by landing signings worthy of Milan’s traditionally high standards.
He could certainly take note of Fiorentina and Roma’s approach to unearthing defensive talent such as Marquinhos at the Giallorossi and Gonzalo Rodriguez for the Viola.
Fiorentina boss Vincenzo Montella will look forward to Stevan Jovetic remaining fit after the playmaker netted twice in the 3-0 win at Palermo to take the Tuscans into joint third with Inter. For their part, Roma could yet be the real threat in the second half of the season and Zeman’s gifted side head to Napoli on January 6th.
Napoli will hope that they may claw back a point from their two-point deduction for their part in failing to report an alleged attempt to rig the outcome of a match against Sampdoria two years ago. Club captain Paolo Cannavaro and reserve first-teamers Gianluca Grava have been banned for six months as part of the investigation after they were accused of being aware of potential wrongdoing.
It had been an unsettling week for the Italian Cup winners, having been knocked out of the competition by Bologna who only four days previously produced a shock win at the San Paolo in the league. Walter Mazzarri looked pretty uninspired in both matches and there was little change in their demeanour at Siena but they still managed a 2-0 win.
However, Conte will not allow any complacency to creep into the Juventus camp and the squad will have little time to put their feet up over the festive period. Tellingly, the record breakers are the first team back on the training pitch this Friday, leaving the rest with even more catching up to do.
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