Serie B 2015-16: Half-Time Report

Cagliari look set to bounce straight back into Italy’s top flight after dominating the first half of the Serie B season.

With Serie B currently in the middle of its three-week winter break, marking the exact halfway point of the campaign, there is time at last to take stock of what’s happened so far in the league described in Zero Assoluto’s slightly lame official theme song as ‘the love you never give up’. Italy’s second-tier is a long, long way off being perfect – with the lack of finances compared to a league such as the Championship resulting in a depressing amount of clubs going bust; with the average tenure of managers working in it doing nothing to combat the stereotype of Italian football’s unhealthy sacking culture; with attendances figures several light-years off the tallies reached in the lower leagues of England; and with the recent spate of match-fixing scandals having seen as many teams’ fates decided in the courtrooms as on the pitch, to name but a few problems – but despite its many deep-rooted and practically incurable flaws, it is still possible to smile through it all and enjoy the ride. A bit like a love you can’t give up, really. At least so I’m told.

Provided you focus exclusively on the football, which can sometimes be of an acceptable standard, there is no reason you cannot make a positive experience out of what Serie B has to offer; be it through watching the increasingly high number of young players who are given a chance to kick-start their careers at this level (such as Domenico Berardi and Paulo Dybala in the recent past), marvelling at the collection of teams who are expected to be bad but by some form of black magic end up being quite good (see Carpi and Frosinone last season), or just uncovering some of the weird and wonderful stories of the people who have wound up in this strangest of divisions (such as former MK Dons and Maltese Premier League superstar Igor Coronado, Ivorian civil war survivor Jean Armel Drole or failed X Factor contestant Leonardo Morosini, who spends most of his free time posting videos of himself singing on Instagram). It is a good league to follow if you really want it to be, and here is a long-winded summary of its current state of play with 21 out of 42 games down.

On top of the table heading in 2016 is Cagliari, who deserve huge credit for their season so far despite being red-hot favourites of both the world and his dog since day one. Given the unsightly mess the Sardinians descended into in Serie A last year it was a surprise to many to see them make so many sensible decisions in the wake of their deserved relegation, but for that the praises of President Tommaso Giulini and his assorted backroom staff must be sung loud and clear. As well as overseeing a discreet summer transfer window that saw the bulk of the squad retained but also refreshed in various areas, Giulini had the intelligence to look more than a mere managerial name and entrust Avellino boss Massimo Rastelli with the task of guiding the Islanders to promotion, which has since proven to be an inspired move. There were some Cagliari fans who had not even heard of Rastelli before his arrival in June, but they will be glad they do now, having watched him instil a clear identity and a commendable work ethic into a team that had demonstrated such a pitiful lack of both last season, as the Sardinians’ 12-year stay in the top flight came to an end with a whimper.

Add those attributes to the strongest squad in the league by a comfortable distance and you have a recipe for a resounding success, which is precisely what Rastelli and his players are on course for. Some brief teething problems in defence aside they have been the most complete outfit throughout the campaign, with a robust and reliable base allied to an avalanche of attacking talent that no other side can come even close to matching. With the crowd back on their side, they have also turned the Stadio Sant’Elia back into the impregnable fortress it should have been last season in Serie A, swatting aside 10 of the 11 rivals who have turned up in Sardinia so far.

Given the immense quality and strength in depth at their disposal the only possible stumbling block for Cagliari this season is complacency, and it is here that Rastelli has really earned his stripes so far, tearing into his players before their Christmas Eve clash with Salernitana for a lack of commitment in training and getting the desired response on the pitch. Not even the devastating season-ending injury to captain Daniele Dessena, the beating heart of the team, has managed to throw them off course, which lends credence to Devis Mangia’s post-match analysis of his Ascoli side’s defeat against them in November – “if we’re being honest, this team has no business being in this division.” Provided they can keep their focus, they will not be for much longer.

And yet, despite all of that, Cagliari are only one point clear of second place, because behind them Crotone are creating something quite extraordinary. Like Carpi and Frosinone last year, the Squali have not made a single appearance in Serie A throughout their 93-year history, but the position they have put themselves in at the halfway point would make it downright disappointing if they didn’t pull it off this year. In terms of economics and prestige they are the polar opposite of Cagliari, and that chasm was on show in their 4-0 defeat at the Sant’Elia on the opening weekend of the season, yet their results since that night have been almost identical and have them a full seven points clear of third place, which at this stage is a record for the league in its current format.

They are a club who is well versed in making a lot out of a little thanks to their fantastic President and sporting director, with an extremely astute transfer policy that is facilitated by the fantastic relationships they have built up with Serie A clubs over the years. They have nurtured and launched the careers of players such as Federico Bernardeschi, Danilo Cataldi and Alessandro Florenzi – a list to which we may soon be able to add the likes of Federico Ricci, Eloge Yao and Leonardo Capezzi, all of whom are exploding in an environment which has been proven to be one of the best places around for youngsters to develop.

One of the reasons for this is their commitment to playing magnificent football. This has always been a hallmark of theirs in a league that is often low on innovation, but even greater strides have been made to ensure they entertain this season with the arrival of another unfamiliar name in Ivan Juric. Having spent five years as Gian Piero Gasperini’s assistant before embarking upon his own coaching career, it is no surprise that the Croatian follows his master’s footballing beliefs almost to the letter and employs the same chameleonic 3-4-3 system that is practised by Genoa, but that doesn’t make the end result any less predictable or spectacular. If Cagliari have the most individual quality in Serie B then Crotone possess undoubtedly the strongest collective unit, having scored with more players than anyone else in the division (13) and with a vast majority of those goals coming through meticulously prepared team moves.

While it is their effervescent attacking play that catches the eye though, all orchestrated by Juric and his trusty stopwatch from the sidelines, the defensive solidity and ruthlessness which has begun to shine through in recent weeks cannot be underestimated either. Perhaps that is even more striking from such a young team, a young team that everyone keeps expecting to stumble but simply refuses to do so. Not that anyone with a heart wants them to. Perhaps we’ll know for sure if this team is equipped for promotion after they return from their winter break, when they will host Cagliari on the opening weekend of 2016. They are two completely different footballing entities, but their objective heading into the New Year is exactly the same.

Behind the top two, the play-off picture (which comprises third to eighth in Serie B) is rather less clear. Once again though there are some fantastic stories to be told, with Novara and Brescia giving Crotone a run for their money in the fight to be the story of the season. Marco Baroni’s side are the closest pursuers of the automatic places, despite only having been promoted from Lega Pro last season and beginning the season with a two-point deduction, thanks to an extraordinary recent run of form that saw them pick up 11 wins out of 13, all built upon the defensive organisation for which the former Pescara manager is renowned. On the other hand, fifth-placed Brescia were not even meant to be in Serie B this season after they were relegated last year, but the demise of Parma handed the second youngest squad in the division (second to Crotone, incidentally) a second chance that under the guidance of Roberto Boscaglia they have grabbed with both hands. Boscaglia had never worked outside of Sicily before his sacking at Trapani in January but he has been far from out of place at the Rigamonti, where they are still yet to lose, creating along with Crotone one of the most attractive sides in the league (which perhaps, given the average ages of the squads, is not a coincidence).

Should either of these surprise packages lose momentum however, there are several less surprising names waiting to take advantage. Tucked in one point behind Novara, the team that stands the best chance of the top two are Massimo Oddo’s Pescara, who are bringing themselves right into play after a very wobbly start to the season that saw them win just one of their first five games. Propelled along by the exuberance of another squad jam-packed with youngsters – not to mention the 11 goals of Serie B’s capocannoniere and player of the season Gianluca Lapadula – it’s impossible not to like the Delfini, a joyously irreverent side who often seem to be more preoccupied with enjoying themselves than with winning matches, but are gradually being moulded by the 2006 World Cup winner into something more consistent and concrete.

Two points back meanwhile are Bari, although their current trend is in the other direction. For the majority of the season they have looked the most likely side to gatecrash the top two, albeit not playing quite as seductive a style of football as some of their rivals, but a recent run of four defeats in five has culminated in a disappointed President Gianluca Paparesta pulling the trigger on coach Davide Nicola, the man who masterminded Livorno’s promotion season in 2013. On the face of it the decision seems both severe and ill-advised, even if the ex-Genoa and Torino player did not have the desired effect when arriving midway through last season, but with the backdrop of a highly exacting fan base that often views winning 2-0 as a missed opportunity to win 3-0, perhaps it is not all that surprising.

Elsewhere one cannot rule seventh-placed Cesena out of the equation either, although if Massimo Drago’s side wish to bounce straight back into Serie A they will have to find a reliable striker in the January transfer window, before rectifying the alarmingly poor away form that has seen them take just 7 points from a possible 30 so far. Level on points with the Seahorses (although only due to Cesena having had one point deducted for financial wrongdoings) heading into the New Year are Avellino, who along with Perugia have sprung into contention just when it looked like they were running out of time. Both are latecomers to the party after frustratingly inconsistent campaigns, having both seemingly managed to find the right compromise between attack and defence, although in that regard they are diametrically opposed.

Avellino have had no trouble scoring goals under new boss Attilio Tesser – a disproportionately high number of which have been Goal of the Season contenders, such as this, this, this or this – but their defensive leakiness has been strangling their vast potential, while the obsession for clean sheets that effectively got Pierpaolo Bisoli the sack at Cesena last season has deprived Perugia of carrying any attacking venom, leading to four goalless draws from their opening seven games and a few questions being raised against him. Due to eighth-place being enough to get you into the play-offs though, you can’t fully rule out one of Trapani or Virtus Entella sneaking in through the back door either, although their seasonal objectives are somewhat more modest than that. Whoever makes the cut, we are almost certainly going to be kept guessing until the 42nd and last weekend of the season.

Serie B andata

Further down the table, there are three teams that stick out like a sore thumb in the bottom half. Spezia, Livorno and Vicenza all set off with slightly different targets and expectations, but what unites them together is just how much they have all under-performed up until now. Replacing Nenad Bjelica with Mimmo Di Carlo appeared to have given Spezia’s season the shot in the arm it needed after a bizarre 5-1 defeat at Cesena had propelled them into a seven-game winless run, culminating in the historic victory over Roma in the Coppa Italia, but since then one of the strongest and least Italian squads in the division seems to have taken their eye off the ball again, leaving them in a lowly 12th place that belies the copious talent at their fingertips. Livorno’s season meanwhile is turning into an unmitigated disaster, with wantaway President Aldo Spinelli’s decision to sack Christian Panucci looking worse and worse with each week that passes. Having guided a moderate group of players to four wins from their opening four, the former Milan and Roma stalwart deserved far better treatment than he got to correct an initial slump, but instead an out of touch Bortolo Mutti was called upon and the wait for a win now stands at ten games.

As for Vicenza, who unexpectedly retained Pasquale Marino as manager after an unsavoury summer that saw him resign and then return, the table is even more worrying than for 16th-placed Livorno, with the Biancorossi all the way down in the ominous relegation play-off (or ‘play-out’) spots thanks to their inability to turn possession into victories at home. Having reached the semi-finals of the promotion play-offs last season another positive campaign was on the cards, but the departure of top-scorer Andrea Cocco – who strangely enough has had a terrible season thus far at Pescara – has turned them into a highly predictable team without any cutting edge, just as their boss had feared it would.

The other big story down in the bottom half is Hernan Crespo, whose first senior managerial job at Modena has been tough going so far. A positive run of form in the run-up to Christmas has given the Gialloblu some much-needed breathing space above the drop zone, but the second half of the season will be another uphill struggle for the former Chelsea and Inter striker, whose side are fully behind their star-studded coach but have an unbelievable difficulty scoring goals. It’s not exactly a problem Crespo has had in the past, but football can be strange like that sometimes. Ultimately, with the players at his disposal he is doing as much as could be expected for him, but given his traumatic start to 2015 at Parma he is probably having the time of his life all the same.

As for the relegation places he is working so hard to avoid, one of the automatic spots is almost certainly going to be filled by Como, who despite an early managerial change have won just twice all season and are nine points off total safety – despite the best efforts of their bomber Simone Andrea Ganz, son of journeyman centre-forward Maurizio who has clearly taught him everything he knows given the similarities in his game. Alongside them, Roberto D’Aversa’s Virtus Lanciano outfit are going to struggle to stay up as well based on current evidence, especially given that they are about to sell some of their big players in the January transfer window, while Salernitana will follow suit if they don’t work out soon how to get through a match without either conceding or having someone sent off. Claudio Lotito’s second team have been found particularly wanting in the disciplinary area this season with eight red cards to their name already; a problem rather colourfully demonstrated by the extraordinary brawl that broke out at the Stadio Arechi, after Cagliari’s Andres Tello had had the temerity to celebrate scoring the clinching goal for his side in typically Colombian fashion. On Christmas Eve of all days, with the President of the league watching in the stands. Honestly guys.

Occupying the other play-out place a point clear of Vicenza are Latina, who very rarely play badly but with so many erratic players can hardly ever convert their performances into points, while the other three teams yet to be mentioned – Ternana, Pro Vercelli and Ascoli – have all had very similar seasons. Each underwent an early managerial change (although in Ternana’s case it was a resignation) after poor starts, each have enjoyed an upturn in fortunes since choosing replacements and each can now be optimistic of beating the drop, although they could all also do with appreciating the value of the occasional draw, which in this division is rather high indeed.

By now the table appears to have taken something resembling a definitive shape, with teams just about beginning to establish what their real objectives for the year should be. But in a league as tight as Serie B, with so many potential promotion and relegation spots at stake, a run of three straight wins or defeats is all it takes to completely change the complexion of a team’s season, which means everybody should be kept on their toes right until the flag falls on Friday 20th May. That and also that everything written above could turn out to be completely insignificant. Let’s hope for just the former.

Serie B Mid-Season Awards

Biggest Surprise: Crotone

Biggest Disappointment: Spezia

Best Player: Gianluca Lapadula (Pescara)

Best Youngster(s): Stefano Sensi (Cesena), Jean Armel Drole (Perugia), Rolando Mandragora (Pescara)

Best Manager: Ivan Juric (Crotone)

Best Goal: Andres Tello (Cagliari) vs Virtus Lanciano

Strangest and Most Suspicious Goal: Simone Andrea Ganz (Como) vs Modena

Most Touching Goal Celebration: Leonardo Morosini (Brescia)

Worst Miss: Pablo Gonzalez (Novara) vs Crotone

Best Game: Bari 4-3 Spezia (Matchday 1). Although Y vs X – the clash between two sides who still nobody knew the identity of less than a fortnight before the start of the season, due to two separate match-fixing cases taking the entire summer to resolve – would have run it close.

Best Slalom: Massimiliano Gatto (Pro Vercelli) vs Virtus Lanciano

Best Brawl: Salernitana vs Cagliari

Best Francesco Totti impersonation: Matteo Ardemagni (Perugia)

Best Sergio Ramos ImpersonationFrancesco Zampano (Pescara)

Top XI (4-3-1-2): Marco Storari (Cagliari); Stefano Sabelli (Bari), Eloge Koffi Yao Guy (Crotone), Luca Ceppitelli (Cagliari), Davide Faraoni (Novara); Leonardo Capezzi (Crotone), Davide Di Gennaro (Cagliari), Nicolas Viola (Novara); Diego Farias (Cagliari); Ante Budimir (Crotone), Gianluca Lapadula (Pescara)

5 Questions for Serie A to Answer This Weekend

Rudi Garcia faces a make-or-break weekend as Roma travel to face Napoli, with Milan and Palermo also in severe need of a positive performance.

1. Do Roma need a new manager to kick start their season?

There are few places in Europe where a team would be able to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League, and still get submerged by an avalanche of boos from their own supporters at the final whistle. On Wednesday night though, after a desperate and downright disturbing goalless draw at home to BATE Borisov, that was the reception Roma were fortunate enough to receive at a half-empty Stadio Olimpico.

The Giallorossi have not made it to the last 16 since Claudio Ranieri took them there five seasons ago, but the manner in which that achievement was rubber-stamped has done nothing to dispel the air of crisis and confusion that is beginning to suffocate Rudi Garcia and his players. On the contrary, given the sufferance they were subjected to in the second half by the Belorussian Champions, the unease has increased. Had it not been for two miraculous late saves from on-loan keeper Wojciech Szczesny, coupled with Bayer Leverkusen’s inefficiency in front of goal against Barcelona, there would have been even less for the under-fire Garcia to cling onto in his post-match media duties – although if that performance is as much as this team is currently capable of, frankly it would have been better for them not to go through given some of the teams they risk being drawn against.

If you were Garcia in this position, you like him would point out that Roma have just met their first big target of the season, and that they are only five points off the top of Serie A despite experiencing a moment of extreme difficulty. In other words, it shouldn’t be enough to compel someone to abuse their own team. Unfortunately for him, the criticism he currently faces cannot be rebuffed as simplistically as that. In short, the problem is that three games have now come and gone since Roma were humiliated at the Camp Nou against Barcelona and the fans are still waiting to see any kind of reaction from the team, for which Garcia must be held responsible.

Against BATE, his team confirmed that at the moment they possess neither a clear style of play nor an ounce of mental strength, which is extremely concerning when you rewind 12 months and recall how last season fizzled out so desperately. Ominous parallels are emerging with the way they crumbled after the 7-1 defeat against Bayern Munich, and it is precisely this that leaves Garcia with so little support this time around, because for the second time in a year you get the distinct impression that he does not know how to revive a team that is currently scared of its own shadow every time it steps out onto the pitch.

It feels like a long time ago that Garcia won his first 10 matches in charge of Roma and carried a city that was practically on its knees when he arrived to a triumphant second-placed finish in Serie A. But that’s because it was a long time ago. Since then a whole season and a half has passed, and he has not demonstrated any kind of flexibility in his tactical or technical solutions when things go against him, which means his team is now incredibly predictable and reliant upon individuals to pick up results. When Roma lose, quite often his solution is to blame somebody else, instead of facing up to the deep structural problems that exist within this team, and they only seem to be getting bigger as time goes on. Combine this hubris with his apparent inability to motivate his players and you can see why Garcia has not had the backing of Romanisti at any point during 2015, who for a long while have had him typecast as an undignified outsider who routinely refuses to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

On Sunday, Roma travel to play Napoli in the midst of a five-game winless run across all competitions, where defeat would see them lose even more ground in the race for a Scudetto they were universally expected to win in the absence of a strong challenge from Juventus. As it is, they would actually be overtaken by the resurgent Bianconeri in that doomsday scenario, should they themselves defeat Fiorentina later on in the day, which would serve to underline just how massive a waste this season is on course to become.

Garcia has not dragged Roma into this state of crisis by himself, but that does not change the fact that he is getting far less out of this squad of players than you sense somebody else could. With the relationship between club and fans currently at an all-time low for a myriad of non-sporting reasons, he is not the biggest problem the club face at the moment, but he is increasingly becoming problem, and failure to produce a reaction out of his players this weekend would only heighten the feeling that, with him in charge, this season really cannot be recovered in time for anything meaningful to be achieved.

2. Is Mauro Icardi now surplus to requirements at Inter?

Following the disquieting events of last Saturday night in the centre of Milan, Mauro Icardi will be looking forward to thinking about nothing but football again as Inter travel to face Udinese this weekend. The Argentine is reportedly set to start at the Stadio Friuli in Roberto Mancini’s ever-changing attacking line-up, and it should be a welcome return to normality for the Nerazzurri captain, as the unexpected table-toppers look to capitalise on their four closest rivals all playing against each other the following evening. Unfortunately for him though, a starting place in this brand new team is no longer the dead cert it was last season, when his 22 goals were enough to make him the youngest capocannoniere in Serie A since a fresh-faced Paolo Rossi took the honours back in 1978.

Mancini reiterated again in his pre-game press conference on Friday that Icardi’s current lack of goals should not be seen as any sort of problem, but despite Inter’s supreme start to the campaign there is still something which is not quite right at the moment. He has found the net just four times in 13 games so far this season, and although that still makes him the team’s current leading goal-scorer, the growing feeling around San Siro is that Maurito no longer fits into a side that he once used to keep afloat almost single-handedly. The arrival of fantasista twins Adem Ljajic and Stevan Jovetic during the summer appears perversely to have worked against him, with the service he once received in the opposition box being slashed due to the increased number of offensive solutions now available to the team. The awkward truth is that Inter’s performance against Genoa last weekend, for which Icardi was dropped in favour of the more mobile Rodrigo Palacio, was by far their most convincing attacking display of the season.

As things stand the league table makes this seem little more than a spout of growing pains, but if Inter are truly serious about mounting a Scudetto challenge this year then this is a puzzle Mancini is going to need to solve. Icardi is going to need his team-mates’ help to rediscover his magic touch, but sooner or later his team-mates are going to be in need of him too, and for the good of Inter’s season he cannot just be tossed to one side. A big team without a bomber they can depend upon has no chance of exploding for real.

3. Are Milan actually going anywhere yet?

24 points in 15 games under Pippo Inzaghi; 24 points in 15 games under Sinisa Mihajlovic. Despite €80m’s worth of good intentions during this summer’s transfer window, Milan find themselves in exactly the same position they were in at this stage last season, and that campaign ended with a 10th-placed finish and another sacked manager. If Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘categorical imperative’ of returning to the Champions League this season is indeed to become reality, Inzaghi’s more experienced successor will need to cut out performances like the one that earned the Rossoneri a solitary point from their trip to Carpi last weekend, otherwise that ship has already sailed with seven points separating themselves and third place.

To Mihajlovic’s credit, the impression you get from Milan’s performances is that he is in fact slowly improving this team, but whenever they have taken a definitive step forward this season it has always been accompanied by two in the other direction. Where at the start they attacked fairly well and defended with extreme difficulty, they now boast a solid defensive unit alongside an offensive department that continues to misfire, with last Sunday’s goalless draw becoming the seventh time in 15 league matches that they have failed to score. If progress really is being made in the midst of this then nothing but maximum points will suffice from their next three games, which pit Milan against three sides right in the thick of the battle to stay in the division, starting with rock-bottom Verona this Sunday. The Veneti would appear to have next to no chance of causing an upset in their current state, but many would have said the same about Carpi seven days ago, which served as a timely reminder that nothing can be taken for granted with this club anymore.

At Milan you are never too far away from an argument at the best of times, but not beating the likes of this Hellas team at home is the kind of backwards step that genuinely would be worth kicking up a fuss about. Mihajlovic stated in his post-game interview last Sunday that the worst is still yet to come for him this season; slip-up again here and it may not be too much longer in arriving.

4. Are Vincenzo Montella and Sampdoria really a match made in heaven?

The Aeroplanino was brought in to help his former club take flight again, but Vincenzo Montella has experienced nothing but hair-raising turbulence since he agreed to become the new coach of Sampdoria. The Blucerchiati have played three games since their much-loved ex-player replaced the somewhat maltreated Walter Zenga, against Udinese, Milan and Sassuolo, and they have lost all of them. Badly. The losses at the hands of the latter pair in particular were extremely concerning, exposing all the weaknesses of a team in the midst of a complete identity crisis, outlining to Montella just how daunting a task he faces to get this group of players playing the type of football for which his Fiorentina side were so widely admired.

For the moment, he insists he is not having second thoughts on his decision to return to the Marassi, but the early signs suggest this is far from the perfect match it might have seemed before a ball was kicked. Montella’s brand of football is almost as stylish and classy as he was as a player when it is executed properly, but the squad he has inherited here do not appear in the slightest bit equipped to carry it out. Getting everyone to pass the ball daintily is one thing when you have Borja Valero and Gonzalo Rodriguez at your disposal, but it is literally a completely different ball game when Fernando and Erwin Zukanovic are your points of reference. With speedsters like Eder and Luis Muriel up front and the pinpoint precision of Emiliano Viviano’s left foot in goal, this team is designed to exploit spaces on the counter-attack and looks totally at odds with what Montella would ideally ask his players to do, and it will be an interesting test of his managerial credentials to see if he can adapt his ideas to the less-gifted men he is working with.

His CV suggests he will more than likely manage to carve out some degree of success here in the end, but Monday night’s Crisis Derby against Lazio takes on heightened importance in light of the disastrous performances they have produced so far. The seatbelt signs are going to need to remain on for the foreseeable future.

5. How realistic a threat is relegation to Palermo?

During the course of the summer, Maurizio Zamperini decided to sell both Paulo Dybala and Andrea Belotti without replacing them adequately, therefore making the squad at coach Giuseppe Iachini’s disposal considerably weaker. At the end of the transfer window, when Palermo had signed an unfit Alberto Gilardino and three unproven youngsters in their place, Iachini stated this very fact, and he has since proved to be right, but he had still infuriated his President with his dishonourable words, who was convinced to have supplied his coach a group of players competitive enough to repeat the 11th-placed finish they had cemented last season.

From then on the writing was on the wall, with the two men unable to see eye to eye over what the objective for this season should be, and before long the inevitable had happened, when Zamparini fired Iachini after he won a game he had been told he had to win to avoid being fired. Several members of the Palermo squad then took to the internet to voice their sizeable displeasure at the decision, which prompted Zamparini to insult them in public before he then appointed former Rosanero boss Davide Ballardini for a second spell at the club. Ballardini has since overseen one draw and three defeats in charge of the team and is now facing the sack himself, with one of those defeats coming against third-tier side Alessandria in the Coppa Italia and leading Zamparini to freeze three players out of the squad (Enzo Maresca, Luca Rigoni and Fabio Daprela), accusing them and a handful of others of ‘playing against their own coach’ in the process.

The result is that Palermo’s game at home to Frosinone this weekend, on top of being potentially decisive for Ballardini’s future in the dugout, is a bona fide relegation six-pointer, with the two sides separated by just one point as they lie either side of the dreaded dotted line. All of this nonsense could have been avoided had the club acted more wisely in the summer, but acting wisely is never in fashion for long when Zamparini is involved, and the ructions he has created now leave his team in genuine danger of a second relegation in three seasons. If the players don’t give the correct response on the pitch this weekend, there’s a pretty good chance in this toxic environment that they never will. At least not until Iachini is re-appointed next week, that is.

Antonio Conte may be able to smile for the moment but his real test begins here

Conte Italia

As the final whistle blew inside Baku’s new National Stadium on Saturday evening, it was little surprise to see Antonio Conte stride purposefully onto the pitch and offer each and every one of his Italy players an intense hug. A 3-1 victory over Azerbaijan, ranked 105th in FIFA’s cryptic world rankings system, may not constitute the finest success of his coaching career, but few results will have been as welcome to him as this one. After over a year of almost constant turbulence since agreeing to replace Cesare Prandelli as coach of the Italian national team, his relief at securing the Azzurri’s place at Euro 2016 was there for all to see.

“It might have seemed easy to qualify from this group,” Conte said moments later, after he’d eventually finished embracing his players, “but in football nothing is easy. There’s only lots of work.” Perhaps he was straying slightly into clichéd waters with that remark, but it was difficult fundamentally to argue. Sympathy will be low on the ground in some quarters, but these last fifteen months have been far from straightforward for him.

Having replaced Prandelli in the wake of Italy’s disastrous World Cup campaign last summer, Conte has effectively been swimming against the public tide since the word go in this job. Despite being the outstanding candidate for the post following his surprise departure from Juventus during pre-season, his appointment was greeted with a degree of scepticism. Many pointed out that he is hardly an ideal fit for international football, with his love for endless mental and physical preparation on the training ground, while others raised concerns of a perceived lack of tactical acumen outside of the domestic game, which had stunted Juventus’ progress in European competition under him – not to mention his ability to embroil himself in a fiery argument.

Rightly or otherwise, Conte quickly came to feel intensely victimised as his new adventure got under way, and it didn’t take long for the world to hear about it. When extra training camps that he had supposedly been promised with his players failed to materialise, after Serie A clubs unsurprisingly claimed there was no room in the calendar for such a liberty, the battle lines were drawn. After a friendly win against Albania in November, he launched an attack on what felt like the entire country for not offering him any co-operation, complaining that the national team was treated like one big inconvenience. Speculation over a premature resignation refused to go away from that point onwards, no matter how much he denied it, before rumours reached a crescendo in March during a bitter row with his former employers, over an injury to Claudio Marchisio that turned out to be non-existent. These are only two examples of the tension that has come to distinguish this tenure thus far, but in reality the friction between Conte and the rest of the world has been constant since he arrived, and it has been a huge distraction from the task he has really had at hand – namely to sort out his country’s national team.

The problem for Conte however was that matters on the pitch were not helping his cause. The Italians have a long and proud history of half-baked qualification campaigns, but to call this latest instalment a slow-burner would be an understatement of its drabness. A solid win away to Norway on opening night aside, there has been precious little to write home about. Insipid performances against Azerbaijan and Malta were soon followed by a miserable display at home to Croatia, who dominated at San Siro and would almost certainly have won were it not for a spout of second-half crowd trouble. Further draws with Bulgaria and England did little to raise enthusiasm in the New Year either, while the less said about last month’s return game against the Maltese the better. If progress really was taking place, as Conte so obstinately claimed, it must only have been visible at a microscopic level.

In the majority of these games Italy were neatly conforming to their global stereotype: tough and tenacious, but at the same time fundamentally toothless. Part of this can be put down to the limited resources Conte has had at his disposal in comparison to his predecessors, but it shouldn’t be an alibi for him either. The struggle to create anything from open play was the direct result of an unnecessarily conservative 3-5-2 system that was unsuitable to most of the players being used within it, with a misfiring forward line and a deeply dysfunctional midfield. Goalkeeper and defence aside, Italy were a team with very few certainties and practically no identity, who certainly weren’t any better than the one left behind by Prandelli (at least, before they collapsed so spectacularly in Brazil). Add that to the general ambient unease and you begin to understand how much of a slog this has been for Conte – although he is far from the innocent victim he claims to be in all of this.

That said, the outlook is not so exclusively bleak today. Conte has done at least some things right – for instance, what cannot be denied is the strength of the group he has created, which with an international manager’s time-scale is not an achievemwnt to be sniffed at. He has never been someone to indulge luxury players, and has accordingly adopted a meritocratic approach in charge of the national side – hard work and self-sacrifice will earn you a call-up to Conte’s Italy; your name will not. Less fashionable players such as Francesco Acerbi, Mirko Valdifiori, Stefano Okaka and Emiliano Moretti have all made their debuts under his watch, while Mario Balotelli has effectively been tossed to one side. Eder earned his first cap at the age of 28 back in March and is now virtually undroppable. And then there’s Graziano Pelle, without a doubt the revelation of the Conte era so far.

The result of such an approach is an extremely strong team spirit within the Azzurri camp, with everyone possessing the right amount of cattiveria when they step out onto the pitch for Conte. In the absence of copious individual brilliance, that sometimes makes the difference in a tight game – and yet recent performances suggest steps in the right direction are also being made from a qualitative perspective. Away to Croatia in June, he mercifully ditched the 3-5-2 formation he used to such effect at Juventus and opted instead for a 4-3-3, taking advantage of the myriad of wide forwards available to him and creating a much more interesting proposition going forward. The 1-1 scoreline was the same as it had been seven months back at San Siro, but the level of the performance was drastically improved. Against Azerbaijan this weekend, Conte went back to his own coaching roots and lined his team up in the 4-2-4 system he had thrived with at Siena and Bari, and again there was an immediate impact. The big tactical difference Conte has made from Prandelli’s rather narrow side is the reintroduction of flying wingers, with their throwback (and distinctly un-Italian) ability to beat their opposing man and send crosses into the centre for people such as Pelle. During the last two international periods there has been a blatant improvement in Italy’s attacking play, and for that credit must go to Conte in his maniacal match preparation.

Without question the best piece of news to come out of Saturday’s game however was the performance of Marco Verratti, who from this point onwards cannot be taken out of the starting XI. Since making his debut for Italy there has always been the impression that he was being controlled by the team he was playing in, with Conte’s unwavering faith in a declining Andrea Pirlo beginning to seriously obscure his development. Against Azerbaijan, roles were belatedly reversed – this time the team was being controlled by him. The sort of freedom he needs to truly shine does not align itself perfectly with Conte’s intensely schematic approach to football, but it’s a fault-line that can be overlooked for now in the best interests of everyone.

In reality though, despite the positive signs, nothing has been achieved yet. Saturday’s win is little more than a starting point for Conte, who will need to wade significantly into the knockout stages in France before his time in charge can be viewed as any kind of success. Some good foundations have been laid, but there are still a handful of tweaks that need to be made to this current squad for it to become a genuine force. Put simply, there are too many good footballers Conte currently isn’t using. Verratti may be on board at long last, but players such as Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne must now be integrated into the set-up as well, if Italy wish to have their say next summer. If not them, there are also the likes of Riccardo Saponara, Franco Vazquez, a reborn Giuseppe Rossi and even – dare one say it – Mario Balotelli to take into consideration, who would all be able to lend a hand in attack. The idea that the talent is not there does not particularly wash, especially given his apparent reluctance to bring through any of the youngsters now at his fingertips. If there is one criticism Conte cannot answer yet, it is his failure to think in the long term, with none of Italy’s U21 squad from this summer’s European championships having yet made their senior debut. Given Conte’s almost certain departure following the Euros, despite the best efforts of the FIGC to offer him a contract extension, these fears will only intensify. By all means enjoy the feast of riper talent at your disposal today, but whose responsibility will it be to deal with the famine afterwards?

For now, as Italy prepare to conclude their qualification campaign at home to Norway on Tuesday, Conte has a moment or two in which he can just about afford to relax – not that he will, of course. His first aim has been met, and the team appears to be moving in broadly the right direction again. Fail to make an impact in France however and all the stress he has endured up until now will have been for nothing. His patience may already have been tested to the limit and beyond, but the reality is that Conte’s real exam only begun in Baku on Saturday night.

Matteo Darmian is not a superstar but he befits the Old Trafford stage as well as anyone

Replacing Rafael da Silva in the hearts of Manchester United fans is a task many wouldn’t even bestow on their greatest of enemies. Over seven strangely glorious seasons in England, the Brazilian succeeded in cultivating a unique brand of what was loosely referred to as defending, which captured the imagination of a curiously smitten Old Trafford crowd. His move to Lyon this week may have cut his playing days at United tragically short, but you can be sure that his memory will live on forever. He produced the kind of footballing razzmatazz that only comes around once in a lifetime, which is not something that can be taught to any old Joe – and certainly not to the unassuming 25 year-old who has just become only the sixth Italian ever to be under contract with the 137 year-old club.

In this regard, Matteo Darmian is already 1-0 down before he steps out to play in front of his new supporters for the first time. He will struggle to ever ‘get’ United to the same stratospherically successful extent that Rafael did, and he is unlikely to ever accrue anything like the cult following of his positional predecessor. What he cannot provide in hyperactive populist nonsense, however, he’ll be sure to make up for with different attributes. Boring attributes such as professionalism, humility, versatility and reliability, to be specific.

It is those very attributes that left many Italians feeling a strange sense of pride when news of this deal broke. Regardless of personal loyalties, it is impossible to begrudge Darmian this opportunity which has presented itself to him – not least if you are one of the besotted Torino supporters he is leaving behind in Italy. During his four seasons as a Granata player, Darmian has slowly but surely become one of the most dependable full-backs in the country, helping the club rise from second-tier nebulosity to the last 16 of the Europa League under the stewardship of Giampiero Ventura. The veteran coach deserves endless credit for the job he has done since taking over in 2011, but it would be wrong to ignore the starring role this man has had alongside him.

Having requested a transfer away twelve months ago, Darmian was told by President Urbano Cairo to sit tight for one more year, at which point all offers for his services would be taken seriously. In the meantime, he would just have to get on with playing – which is exactly what he did. Many of Europe’s great and good have been linked to the 25 year-old in recent months, with Napoli coming close to securing his signature earlier this summer, but ultimately the most concrete proposal and the biggest name emanated from England, and Cairo was not about to break his promise. Above all else, it would have been grotesquely unfair on the man who had represented his club so well for the previous four years. As such, his departure leaves nothing but the sweetest of tastes in the mouth. He has more than earned his chance to shine.

But you don’t have to resort to sentiment to be a fan of this move, because Darmian is more than just a nice guy whose childhood dream has just been realised. His arrival does not even represent the highest profile signing made at Old Trafford this summer, but the lack of a big name shouldn’t act as a deterrent for his new supporters. On the contrary, acquiring his services looks – at least on paper – like an unusually astute move from United.

Of all the plus points he possesses, the quality that must have sold him best to Louis van Gaal is his infinite versatility. For evidence of this, England fans need only recall the two stellar performances Darmian has put in against the Three Lions during the last year – one was at last summer’s World Cup, where he starred on the right of a back four, while the other was in March’s friendly draw, where he shone on the left-hand side of a back five. He believes himself to be a right-footer, but having spent most of last season playing at left-back the qualitative difference between his two feet is negligible. Both can be used to cross consistently, if not spectacularly, and both are put to good use in and around his own box, where his unflappability instils calm in those around him. As a result he fits in perfectly on both sides of a defence, with his relentless energy and forensic tactical awareness enabling him to fulfil his offensive duties without abandoning those going the other way. He is even capable of filling in at centre-back should the necessity arise, having started his playing career there. With such a high standard of technical and tactical flexibility, it’s little surprise that he hardly ever puts a foot wrong on the pitch – and even when he does, he normally ends up scoring anyway.

Perhaps what sets him better to succeed at United even more than Darmian the player, though, is Darmian the person. Adapting to the particular demands of the Premier League – not to mention the particular demands of playing under Louis van Gaal – will not be accomplished overnight, but his supreme work ethic should see him succeed before long. His previous coaches all speak highly of him for this reason; Darmian’s ability to put his mind to whatever task he is set has never been in doubt, and it will be essential in his first few months.

Twinned with this meticulousness, however, is his fierce mental strength. Gianluca Vialli has said previously that Italian footballers grow up eating pressure for breakfast, and it is because of this that Darmian can be expected to handle the level of expectation that comes with playing for United. If you believe Carlo Sabatini, his manager at Padova back in 2010, this is a virtue he has always possessed. “I remember the relegation play-off we played against Triestina – that day he really impressed me,” he said recently in an interview. “It was an extremely delicate game, as losing would have left us facing a rather severe confrontation with our fans, but in that game Matteo played with the personality and tranquillity of a veteran. That day I realised he was going to have a great career.” On top of both that and his master-class in Manaus, you could also cite April’s Turin derby as evidence of his competence under pressure, where he scored and provided the winning assist in Torino’s first victory against Juventus in over 20 years. If United fans want European experience, he’s got that as well – it was thanks to his sweet volley in February that the Granata became the first ever Italian side to win at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames. If he is to fail at Old Trafford, stage fright will not be the cause of his downfall.

If anything is to stop him from succeeding at a club of United’s size, it will be his lack of absolute, breathtaking star quality. That is not to say for a moment he does not possess quality; merely that to compare him to Cafu or Roberto Carlos would be something of a stretch. His detractors will say he is steady and ordinary at best, although that would be a touch harsh. Indeed, Van Gaal has already intimated during the course of pre-season that Antonio Valencia remains the first-choice right-back ahead of him, suggesting even he has his doubts for now. Will Darmian tip the balance in this season’s Premier League title race? It’s pretty unlikely. Will he leave a club legend? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean people can’t come to love him.

At his presentation press conference in Seattle he was only able to utter a few words to the media in English, but they were enough to convey what he is all about. “I’m here to work hard and do my best.” United are not acquiring the kind of extroverted crowd-pleaser they have just let go, but they have found themselves the utmost professional who works with humility and has the weight of an entire country’s goodwill behind him. This club has played host to many names more synonymous than Matteo Darmian down the years, but of all the superstars to have graced the Old Trafford theatre, few have been more deserving of the stage.

Inter: 2014-15 Player Ratings

Don’t worry, it’s over now.

Goalkeepers

Samir Handanovic – 7

Handanovic EmpoliUnbeatable from 12 yards and formidable from pretty much anywhere else, he has laid out a convincing candidacy for any side partaking in next season’s UEFA Champions League. 48 goals conceded in Serie A this season might sound like a lot, but if it weren’t for him Inter could have been faced with something close to triple figures. The Slovenian’s task is routinely made nigh-on impossible by the perpetually brain-frozen defence he plays behind, which makes his rather transparent desire to join a better team entirely understandable. You’d need a 400-page novel to recount all of the occasions on which he’s bailed his team-mates out since 2013.

His rating would be higher than a 7 if it weren’t for the alarming downturn in form he has experienced recently, capped off by a pair of inexplicable howlers he made recently against Juventus and Genoa. It all suggests his mind is already elsewhere. Even if he does renew his contract in the coming weeks, don’t believe that he’ll still be here next season until you see it.

Juan Pablo Carrizo – 4

Even bearing in mind that he’s a reserve goalkeeper, defending the standard of his performances this season is a tall order. The totally wrongheaded decision to persevere with him in the knockout stages of the Europa League eventually had the undesired effect, and hopefully precluded any future appearances between the sticks at San Siro. And then there was the own goal he scored against Cagliari. A return to Argentina beckons. Please.

Defenders

Marco Andreolli – 6

He’ll never be good enough to be anything other than a squad player for Inter, and yet you’d be hard-pressed to find an Interista who thinks badly of him. You’ll never get searing speed or ferocity in the tackle from him, but you can always guarantee reliability. When sparingly called upon this year, he hasn’t let Mazzarri or Mancini down. No mistakes, no complaints, and no fear either when he donned the captain’s armband at home to Genoa in January. A steady pair of hands who perhaps should have been called upon more throughout the course of the season.

And he provided us with Serie A’s moment of the season.

Hugo Campagnaro – 4

One of the many mediocre deadweights recruited by Mazzarri who have helped drag Inter further into the mire, and whose summer departure will not be mourned even for a second. He’s long past his best, and even his best wouldn’t have been of the required level. Not a single redeeming feature, unless you support Celtic. Next.

Danilo D’Ambrosio – 5

A fine example of how far Inter have fallen in recent times is the fact that this guy has made 29 appearances this season. You can entertain the idea that he’s good enough to play for this club if you really, really want, but there’s no point. Don’t bother. Don’t do that to yourself. In defence he’s unspectacular at best, while the thought of him attacking just doesn’t bear thinking about. In a squad packed to the rafters with atrocious crossers of a football, he is quite possibly the worst of the lot. It’s just passing to a team-mate via the air. How hard can it be?

Dodo – 5

A curious season. He was one of the few who genuinely impressed under Mazzarri at the start of the season, but Mancini’s arrival proved to be his undoing. He is clearly of some use when playing on the left-hand side of a 3-5-2, but play him as a conventional full-back at your peril. It did not take long for Mancini to recognise this, and eventually he lost patience when he hauled him off a minute before half-time against Lazio, in what seemed like a deliberate attempt to make a point to the rest of the team. He has the pace of a gazelle and levels of youthful exuberance a puppy would be proud of, but it’s best to look away quickly when the ball arrives at his feet. There’s potential, but it won’t be realised here.

Felipe – 6

He only arrived in February to provide emergency defensive cover until the end of the season, but both he and Inter can be happy with his contribution. Only four league appearances, but each one was of a highly respectable standard. Teams in the bottom half of the table could do worse than to take a punt on him for next season.

Juan Jesus – 5

A few months ago it was possible to envisage him developing into a competent centre-back. Now he looks more like a lost cause.

The problem with Juan is not the raw materials, because they’re all there. The problem is that he doesn’t have a working brain, which makes him one of the most anarchic living organisms ever to have graced a football pitch. Every game with him is a new adventure, in a profoundly negative sense.

What Juan could really do with is a Nanny, who followed him around the pitch at all times, stopping him every so often and giving him a hug, telling him to calm down, asking him why he’d done what he just did and explaining why it would be best for him not to do it again. Unfortunately, instead of Jo Frost, he’s spent the bulk of the last nine months in the direct company of Andrea Ranocchia, and it might just have ruined him for good. Time will tell.

Yuto Nagatomo – 4

Similar to D’Ambrosio, although if memory serves there did used to be a decent full-back inside him somewhere. Missed the majority of the season through injury, which was a blessing of the disguised variety.

Andrea Ranocchia – 3

Ranocchia sad

“Well, it started badly, it tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end the better. Apart from that, excellent.” It’s easy to work out what Captain Blackadder would have made of Andrea Ranocchia. Sometimes you wish you had a bayonet through your neck when watching this guy try to play football.

It would be bad enough if he were just a defender who’d made 40 appearances in the centre of Inter’s defence this season. But it’s worse. He’s the captain. This man is the heir to Javier Zanetti, despite being Pupi’s complete footballing opposite in every sense possible. Unreliable, inconsistent, bumbling, lethargic, slow, clumsy, dim-witted, devoid of any leadership qualities and a complete enemy of the fans. After three, everyone: Amala! PAZZA INTER AMALA!

There is absolutely nothing positive to say about him, other than that it’s incredibly impressive how he manages to make at least one boneheaded mistake in every single game he plays and never get dropped from the team. He must train like Franz Beckenbauer.

Ranocchia is far from Inter’s only problem, but he will remain one of their biggest ones until he is stripped of that armband. There’s no point talking like a champion if you play like a chump. Enough. Is. Enough.

Congratulations on your imminent contract renewal, by the way.

Davide Santon – 7

Santon EmpoliIf Inter are so desperate to have an Italian captain, perhaps they should look for a slightly more left-field solution. Literally, to the left of the field.

What’s good about Santon is that, not only is he a defender who defends like a defender, he’s also a full-back who can cross the ball. Inter have not had either of those things since 1983 – at least it feels that long. And for that, he’s instantly become a fans’ favourite since returning home in January. Nobody’s kidding themselves that they’ve re-signed the next Roberto Carlos, but Santon is comfortably Inter’s best defender heading into next season – in fact, he’s the only one of this year’s crop who’s actually earned his place in the squad going forward.

Whether or not he really was turfed out against his wishes by Mike Ashley is academic now. If he can rid himself of any lingering injury concerns over pre-season, he won’t be getting turfed out of Mancini’s first XI anytime soon. Bentornato Bambino.

Nemanja Vidic – 5

This just hasn’t worked. There have been flashes of the man who was a rock at the heart of Manchester United’s trophy-laden defence, but they’ve been overshadowed by countless clumsy errors, four of which have led to penalties. Being outpaced by Alessandro Matri two weeks ago was the final straw. He remains a confident instigator of attacks with all the leadership qualities that Inter have sought after for so long, but all the noises emanating from the club point to a premature exit this summer. Ah well.

Midfielders

Marcelo Brozovic – 6

A curious player. When he arrived in January, those who’d seen him play regularly in Croatia reported that he wasn’t a great crosser, a tough-tackling midfielder or a venomous striker of the ball – but that he was still extremely talented. And in fact, they were right. He’s the player you only truly notice when he’s not there – “an invisible player”, in the words of Beppe Bergomi. Brozovic brings balance, which is why he had become invaluable to Inter within minutes of making his debut. Whatever his team-mates do, he’ll do the opposite, whether it be positional covering, supporting an attack or ball-winning.

The only thing he can’t seem to do is smile. Easier said than done when playing in this team, in fairness.

Assane Gnoukouri – 7

Where on earth has this guy been hiding?! He only made three first-team appearances this season, but that’s all he needed to prove his potential worth to Inter’s midfield in the coming years – as demonstrated by the fact that he has since been tied down to the club until 2020. Diligent in the tackle and full of what the Italians always refer to as ‘personality’, it’s just as well Mancini came in and summoned up the cojones to throw him in at the deep end. Otherwise we’d have been in grave danger of Zdravko Kuzmanovic starting both Milan derbies this season.

Fredy Guarin – 5

Ever hated one of your own players? Ever wanted to scream abuse into their ear?

Have some perspective. You could have Fredy Guarin. Without question the most psychologically incompetent player ever to have donned the famous black and blue colours, who possesses all the technical tools to be a star but absolutely no idea how to deploy any of them. A brief purple patch following Mancini’s arrival isn’t enough to overshadow the seven months of nonsensical performances sandwiching it. It makes no difference how much he cares about the club.

Hernanes – 6

Only a 6 because he spent the first two thirds of this season in corpse mode. Had he stretched this belated hot streak out across the entire campaign, Inter might have ended up somewhere that isn’t eighth place. A rather crass pair of somersaults in front of the supporters that used to idolise him aside, it’s been a joy to watch Hernanes over the last two months, for the first time since Lazio raided Erick Thohir’s naïve pockets in January 2014. His ability to kick a dead ball is almost unrivalled.

Surely, even at the ripe-ish old-ish age of 30, he’s done enough to earn his place in Mancini’s plans for next season. Whether or not that’s a good thing in the long term… is another matter.

Mateo Kovacic – 6

Kovacic CagliariA highly strange campaign for Inter’s favourite baby-faced assassin. For the best part of seven months, Mateo Kovacic’s only achievement was to perfect a convincing impression of a lost child; unloved, out of form, starved of confidence and unsure of his best position. It didn’t take a degree in psychiatry to work out he was completely and utterly bewildered by everything that was going on around him. As if by magic, Inter were on their way to letting yet another bright young talent melt in front of their eyes.

Now however, everything has changed again. Out of nowhere, it appears the real Kovacic is back. Since returning to the starting XI for April’s Milan derby, thanks to a catalogue of suspensions, the Croatian has exploded into life again and turned himself into a fundamental component of the team. Is it by chance that he’s found form right at the end of the season when the pressure is off? No, and that’s a big concern. But is it by chance that such a return to form has coincided with him being given a fixed position, on the left-hand side of midfield in a 4-3-1-2? No. Give Kovacic clear and concise instructions and this is what you get from him; a player bursting with potential and personality, whom any club would be completely mad to sacrifice for a modest amount of cash.

So really, I only have one piece of advice for Mancini and the club. Don’t do that. You’d be absolute idiots.

Zdravko Kuzmanovic – 4

Every second spent thinking about this man is a second wasted. There is not a single creative bone in his body, and yet he has managed to hang ominously around the fringes of the first team squad for over two years now. In the bin.

Gary Medel – 6

This man is far from a spectacular presence in the centre of Inter’s midfield, but the total incompetence of the idiots playing around him means that at least for the near future he’s essential. Mancini named him when asked which player he’d been most surprised by since he arrived, which perhaps has something to do with the fact that 78% of the passes he’s played this season have been forward. Inter’s most consistent player of the season.

I don’t believe that statistic either.

Yann M’Vila – 4

I know, I’d forgotten he was here as well. Was he really here? It’s difficult to really be sure. An extremely mysterious four-month stint on loan from Rubin Kazan, which yielded fourteen appearances across all competitions and very little else. It seemed at one point like he might have some latent potential as well. Never mind.

Joel Obi – 5

He scored the equaliser in the first Milan derby of the season. I can’t remember anything else he did. Better contribution than half of the squad.

Forwards

Federico Bonazzoli – 6

Having only turned 18 at the start of May, his first-team opportunities have been understandably limited, but he hasn’t wasted them. Within five minutes of making his competitive debut, in a pressure game at home to Lazio, Bonazzoli produced by far Inter’s best free-kick of the season with a gorgeous delivery right into the heart of the box that procured Rodrigo Palacio’s equalising goal. His confidence on the pitch isn’t lacking, and yet in interviews off it he always comes across as extremely level-headed. Having already been promoted to play in Italy’s under-20 side at the age of 17, he appears to have everything at his disposal to become a future star in the Italian game. Which is why Inter sold him to Sampdoria in January.

Mauro Icardi – 9

FC Internazionale Milano v US Sassuolo Calcio - Serie A

What was your favourite Mauro Icardi moment of the season? Was it when he scored against Juventus for the 1000th time in his career? Was it his panenka penalty against Napoli at the San Paolo, while a laser pen was being shone in his face? Or was it his brace on the final day against Empoli, which brought his goals tally for the season to 22 and made him Serie A’s youngest capocannoniere since 1978?

Or maybe it was when he put pen to paper on his new contract extension, after months of agonisingly slow negotiations, which keeps him tied to Inter until the end of 2019. Sort of. That was certainly the most important Mauro Icardi moment of the season. He is the only player at the club who is of a genuinely world-class standard, with a lethal eye for goal and an increasingly impressive all-round game. Not only is he the team’s go-to man for goals, he is fast becoming the team’s best assister along with Rodrigo Palacio. If Inter get anywhere near that third Champions League spot next season, he’ll be the reason. Il bomber bastardo.

Dani Osvaldo – 6

He played, he fought, he left. Sounds familiar. There was a time when it looked as if he and Icardi might be fostering a nifty strike partnership, but then the Derby d’Italia happened and Mancini quite rightly wanted no more of him. Had he taken his anger out on anyone other than Icardi, he might have had a point. No one attacks Mauro Icardi and gets away with it.

Rodrigo Palacio – 7

Class. Pure class. Something of which this team currently possesses extremely little. Plagued by injury problems in the first half of the season, but better and better and better in 2015. His ability to mess up what look like simple goal-scoring opportunities is still an issue, and may leave him out of a start next season if Mancini has a successful summer mercato, but his tireless off-the-ball movement makes him the perfect foil for Icardi. Still one of the cleverest forwards around in Europe, even at 33.

Lukas Podolski – 4

Perhaps what illustrated the depths to which Inter have now sunk better than anything else was the extraordinary fanfare that greeted his arrival in January. You can put a positive spin on the fact that hundreds of fans rushed to give him a hero’s welcome at Linate Airport if you want, but quite frankly it was embarrassing.

The amount of supporters who saw Podolski as a temporary solution to Inter’s attack was just bizarre. He’s been a pitiful flop in his six months at San Siro, and nobody who’d seen him at Arsenal ever expected him to be anything else. By all accounts an extremely nice man to have around your club, but mascots aren’t top of Inter’s list of priorities at the moment.

At least he’s not prolonging the pain by staying and clogging up the wage bill. Take note, 60% of this squad.

George Puscas – 5

A prolific goal-scoring record at youth team level has not yet been translated into first-team success, but he’ll be one to watch off the bench next season (that is, if he isn’t sent out on loan). Puscas’ handful of senior performances thus far have yielded relatively little, but the fact that Inter’s hierarchy chose to sacrifice Bonazzoli over him in January is indicative of how highly they rate him. Watch this space.

Xherdan Shaqiri – 5

There is signing Lukas Podolski, and then there is signing Xherdan Shaqiri. One represents how far the club have fallen in recent years, while the other offers some hope that finally, after all this time, Inter might be starting to right some of their egregious wrongs when it comes to the transfer market.

His campaign has ended with a whimper after an explosive start to life in Italy, losing his spot in the team to Hernanes Mk II, but realistically he was always going to need these months for a period of physical and tactical adaptation. With a full pre-season under his belt, the sky is his limit.

Managers

Walter Mazzarri – 3

Bad results. Terrible tactics. Pathetic excuses. Never. Again.

Roberto Mancini – 6

Intangible improvement is not enough. Mancini has made Inter feel like Inter again for the first time in five years, but results remain the big elephant in the room. By the standards he himself set after taking over in November, an eighth-placed finish with two meek cup exits is a significant underachievement. He clearly overestimated the ability of both himself and the squad he inherited.

But that is certainly not to say his return has been a failure. We are still nowhere near that territory yet. Mancini is not as fantastic a manager as most Interisti would have you believe, but he has still done plenty of good both on and off the pitch to provide reason for optimism heading into next season. That is when he should be judged once and for all.

Overall Season Rating – 4

Rubbish, basically. Felipe Melo can’t arrive soon enough.

Capital punishment awaits Milanese clubs as two cities come up against their recent pasts

For the first time in over a decade, Roma and Lazio are competing together at the top of Serie A while Inter and Milan have never been more peripheral

One of the buzzwords that has been dominating the Italian media in recent weeks is ‘sorpasso’ – ‘overtake’. It’s been used to refer to the toing and froing that has taken place in Serie A between second-placed Roma and third-placed Lazio, as the race to qualify directly for next season’s UEFA Champions League reaches boiling point.

Four weeks ago, it was the Biancoceleste who were celebrating an overtake after a home hammering of Empoli, coupled with Rudi Garcia’s side being held to a draw by Torino, moved them ahead of the Giallorossi in the table for the first time in nearly two years. That order then held until last weekend, when last season’s runners-up got the better of Genoa and Stefano Pioli’s men were unable to respond away to Atalanta. With the gap currently standing at just one point and only four rounds left to play, one of which pits the two clubs against each other in what has already been dubbed a SuperDerby – and with Napoli poised to punish any significant slip-ups just behind – there are sure to be more punches and counterpunches landed between now and the end of May. Not since 2001 has the city of Rome had it this good.

This weekend, the battle intensifies as the capital duo square up against Milanese opposition. Roma head north to play Milan at San Siro, while Lazio stay south to tackle Inter at the Olimpico. Even with the derby just around the corner, it could be a decisive couple of days in the fight to be best of the rest behind runaway champions Juventus.

But these two games also mark something greater. What’s even more eye-catching about this inter-city double bill is just how much better both Roman outfits now are – and indeed were back in December, when the reverse fixtures took place. The games ended all square, but in neither case was there any doubt who had gained a point and who had dropped two. This time around will be no different: Roma are expected to beat Milan, and Lazio are expected to beat Inter. With that in mind, what this weekend brings into focus with more clarity than ever before is the comprehensive, collective overtake the Italian capital has executed on its more fashionable footballing cousin this year. A SuperSorpasso, perhaps.

There is a topsy-turvy look to the league table at the moment. While Roma and Lazio have locked horns over the right to obtain a guaranteed Champions League berth, Inter and Milan have spent the first half of 2015 scrabbling around at the tail end of the mad dash to secure a spot in the third qualifying round of next season’s Europa League.

That is not normal. The Milan clubs are supposed to be the ones fighting over the genuinely important things in Italian football, with the Roman sides left as little more than glorified also-rans. That’s at least how it’s always worked in the new millennium, until now. Both Milan and Inter have sunk lower than this individually in the past, granted, but hardly ever have the two been stuck at such a low ebb together. Next season is set to become the first ever in which neither side has been involved in European competition, while the city so used to being reduced to the role of bridesmaid finally gets its crack at the big time. The tides have completely turned.

And yet this new pecking order isn’t a surprise in the slightest. For a city that has seen its teams collect six Scudetti, two UEFA Champions Leagues and two Club World Cups between them in the last decade alone, 2014-15 has been a sobering season at San Siro, with both its cotenants set to finish behind both Roman clubs in the table for only the second time in the last 40 years. But these last nine months have been the effect rather than the cause. They are in this position now thanks to a litany of dismally wrong-headed decisions over the past few years, none of which have been learned from.

Given that we are dealing with four different clubs here, it would be remiss to draw too many sweeping conclusions about why Rome is thriving and Milan is suffering, but there are still a series of factors that explain how such a turnaround in fortunes between the clubs of these two cities has been possible.

While Roma and Lazio have begun to take the business of appointing a manager seriously in recent years, Inter and Milan have sought out cheap and cheerful options who have been doomed to sink rather than swim from day one, at which point they have been forced to sack them and change tack mid-season. While Roma and Lazio have acted intelligently in transfer windows by recruiting players with either great potential or proven quality, Inter and Milan’s main mercato strategy has been to stockpile untried and washed-up mediocrity at both ends of the age spectrum. While Roma and Lazio have attempted to create an identity for their clubs from the top downwards, Inter and Milan have buried their heads in the sand and ended up with teams that embody their brand of multifaceted scattergun management. The list goes on, but the theme towering over all of them remains the same: short-term thinking does not work. These things aren’t built in a day.

On that front, chickens are finally coming home to roost, and nowhere better can this season’s new order be seen than in the most recent instalments of their respective stracittadine. January’s Derby della Capitale was a firecracker, as Felipe Anderson and Francesco Totti took it in turns to singlehandedly disembowel their opponents’ defence on the way to a thrilling 2-2 draw. Since then, Roma’s mid-season malaise and an eight-game winning run for Lazio has turned May’s return fixture into one of the most eagerly-anticipated derbies in living memory, perhaps even on a par with the 2013 Coppa Italia Final. Where for so long the only importance ascribable to this game has been intrinsic, now it genuinely means something.

Compare that to last month’s goalless and soulless Derby della Madonnina, a game for which the Gazzetta dello Sport felt the need to produce an article outlining ten reasons why fans should even bother turning up – amongst which were the prospect of seeing Suso make his full debut, and the fact that this was the last chance people would have to travel to the game on the Milan Metro before it had an extra stop added to the end of the line. It’s a match which only little more than a decade ago was taking place in the semi-finals of the Champions League, but now holds no purpose other than to serve as a fine illustration of a city at the height of its footballing irrelevance, no matter how spellbinding the pre-match choreography is from both sets of supporters. This is the real humiliation for Inter and Milan supporters: their clubs are now what they have spent the last decade mocking Roma and Lazio for being. Regressive, rudderless entities who claim to be big clubs but actually have nothing but local pride at stake.

Of course, treating Rome and Milan as two finite footballing entities carries its risks. No two clubs are ever the same, and it is entirely possible that each of these teams could experience a completely different season next year to the ones they are about to finish. Roma’s form has tailed off horribly in 2015 and face an extremely large upheaval of the playing staff in the summer. Lazio have benefited hugely from not being in European competition this season, and lack Champions League experience from top to bottom. Inter have finally embarked upon something approximating a ‘project’ under Roberto Mancini, and are making baby steps in the right direction for the first time since they won the treble under Jose Mourinho five years ago. Milan might well be under new ownership next year for the first time since 1986, and with a correct managerial appointment in the summer also have the potential to start climbing back up the table. This new order isn’t set in stone.

What is clear though is that this season, Milan and Rome have exchanged footballing identities, and it isn’t a fluke. Roma and Lazio have done good things in recent seasons and now both are being rewarded for it, and vice versa. The natural order might begin to reassert itself again if Inter and Milan’s upcoming rebuilding projects are successful, but quite when the city will be in a position for both its clubs to qualify for the Champions League again is anyone’s guess.

For now, all eyes in the capital are transfixed by the scramble for Europe as the countdown to derby day continues. It’s been so long since their two sides shared the Serie A limelight to such a blinding extent, and losing out at this stage after making so many huge strides is likely to take some getting over. Whoever does come off second best between now and May, however, can take solace from the fact that they and their bitterest of neighbours are currently what Inter and Milan have been for the past 10 years. At long last, as this weekend’s double date is set to demonstrate, they are the city that matters. That’s one sorpasso they can both take some pride in.

Serie A Saturday: as it happened

Roma and Lazio strengthened their grip on the Champions League places, Cesena came from three goals down to earn a point and Inter plunged themselves further into crisis

Final Scores: Atalanta 1-2 Torino, Cagliari 1-3 Lazio, Genoa 1-1 Udinese, Inter 1-1 Parma, Palermo 1-2 Milan, Sassuolo 1-0 Chievo, Verona 3-3 Cesena

Earlier: Roma 1-0 Napoli

Later: Fiorentina v Sampdoria (1730), Juventus v Empoli (2000)

1600: So, Lazio are now seven points ahead of Sampdoria in fourth as Sinisa Mihajlovic’s side await their game with Fiorentina tonight. Roma’s win means there’s now a lot of points to make up for them, Napoli and Fiorentina. Torino and Milan’s wins consolidate their positions in the top half, while Inter slip even further off the pace after a quite appalling draw with Parma. That’s now 4 points the Ducali have taken off them this season – and they only have 10! Cesena are still just about alive in the survival race, closing to within four points of Atalanta after their loss to Torino. Everyone above them should really be safe, with at least a 10-point gap heading into the last 9 rounds. Thanks for following.

1556: To recap: Atalanta 1-2 Torino, Cagliari 1-3 Lazio, Genoa 1-1 Udinese, Inter 1-1 Parma, Palermo 1-2 Milan, Sassuolo 1-0 Chievo, Verona 3-3 Cesena. Which all means this for the Serie A table:

Classifica 2

1554: Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It’s crisis time at Inter, because it’s ended 1-1 at San Siro. Parma, Cagliari and Cesena have now all avoided defeat away to the Nerazzurri this season. Torino, Sassuolo and Lazio have all seen out their wins now.

It’s all over. We made it.

1552: Cesena have salvaged a point when it looked impossible, as it ends 3-3 in Verona. Elsewhere, Milan have claimed their first away win since they went to play Hellas back in October.

1551: Red card for Torino! It’s unlikely to make a difference but Migjen Basha has been given his marching orders for a second booking. All over in Genoa, where it’s ended 1-1.

1550: GOAL!!! Cagliari 1-3 Lazio (Parolo): All over, finally, in Sardinia as Marco Parolo scores from a drilled free-kick. Lazio are moving well clear of the chasing pack in third.

1549: Giampaolo Pazzini goes close to securing the win for Milan, but Sorrentino denies him.

1547: Atalanta are pressing for an equaliser in Bergamo but Torino are repelling their attacks pretty well at the moment. Cesena will move one point closer to them as things stand.

1546: Tick tock tick tock…

1544: Inter are 5 minutes away from failing to beat any of the sides in the bottom three at home this season. A new low.

1541: GOAL!!! Palermo 1-2 Milan (Menez): He’s done it again! Palermo were only level for 10 minutes and now they don’t have long to save themselves, because Jeremy Menez has just run the length of the pitch and lifted the ball beyond Sorrentino.

1540: GOAL!!! Verona 3-3 Cesena (Succi): IT’S HAPPENED! It’s 3-3! And it was 3-0 15 minutes ago! Mandorlini is absolutely furious on the touchline but Cesena have pulled off a ripsnorting comeback here, and maybe there’s time for the winner. Maybe. They really do need to win this, without wanting to be a grumpy gumbles.

1538: 10 minutes left, and once again neither Milanese side is winning at the moment. Lazio are moving clear in third and the relegation tussle is staying exactly as it is. There’s still time though, as Senad Lulic replaces Miroslav Klose in Sardinia. Quite how Cagliari are only one goal behind in this game is anyone’s guess.

1535: GOAL!!! Verona 3-2 Cesena (Brienza): Blimey. Maybe that goal from Carbonero will matter. Franco Brienza has spent his entire career down at the wrong end of Serie A, but he knows how to strike a ball as he’s demonstrated here – what a free-kick from 25 yards that is. Er, Verona haven’t won this yet…

1534: Goaaa- no! It’s been cleared by Albin Ekdal! Lazio looked nailed on for a third as Felipe Anderson and Keita broke free, but the latter’s shot was hacked off the line by the substitute and 10-man Cagliari are still alive, somehow…

1532: GOAL!!! Atalanta 1-2 Torino (Pinilla): Game on? Maybe, maybe not, but either way this is another wicked strike from the man they call Pinigol. In similar fashion to when he scored against Cagliari, the Chilean has produced a stonking acrobatic effort from inside the box and it’s 2-1 in Bergamo.

1531: GOAL!!! Verona 3-1 Cesena (Carbonero): Cesena have pulled one back through a lovely strike from Carlos Carbonero, but it won’t matter.

1531: GOAL!!! Palermo 1-1 Milan (Dybala pen): But Paulo Dybala cares not, and the Argentine has just scored Palermo’s first goal in 500 minutes! Milan have dropped 21 points from winning positions this season and they might be about to lose two more…

1530: Penalty for Palermo! Paletta has fouled substitute Belotti as Palermo broke forward, and they have a brilliant chance to end the drought! Looked a soft penalty mind…

1529: MISSED! Horribly so! Biglia goes for a completely different style of penalty to the one he scored previously, and the ball soars over the bar. Oops.

1528: Red card for Sassuolo! Federico Peluso has been dismissed for a second bookable offence as Chievo continue to pile forward, and…

Red card for Cagliari and another penalty for Lazio! Keita’s been brought down in the box again, only this time it was by Modibo Diakite and this time he’s sent off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity.

1527: GOAL!!! Genoa 1-1 Udinese (Thereau): No they’re not. Ah dear. Sylvan Widmer’s cross is missed by inches by Guilherme, but it runs through for Cyril Thereau to tap in from three yards. All square.

1526: Genoa thought they’d scored a second against Udinese a few minutes ago, but for some reason it was ruled out. They’re looking good to win this game though.

1523: GOAL!!! Verona 3-0 Cesena (Toni): 15 up for the season for Luca Toni, and it’s game over at the Bentegodi. Jankovic is the man to set him up again, this time on the counter-attack, crossing for the 37 year-old to volley in from close range. Easy street.

1521: Parma are playing much better than Inter at the moment. This is not a misprint. In Bergamo, Atalanta’s Rolando Bianchi has just come on to face his former side for the final half hour. Atalanta aren’t making much headway in the second half though.

1519: GOAL!!! Cagliari 1-2 Lazio (Biglia pen): Up steps Lucas Biglia from the spot and the Argentine makes no mistake, sending Brkic the wrong way and restoring Lazio’s advantage. That, incredibly, is their 37th goal scored by a midfielder this season.

1518: Penalty for Lazio! Lorenzo Crisetig tripped Keita Balde as he galloped into the box and there’s little doubt about that one.

1515: Destro’s right foot was just offside as he ran through on goal, so it’s a good call from the officials. Andrea Belotti replaces Robin Quaison for Palermo, who are now rapidly approaching 500 minutes without a goal.

1513: Juan Jesus crosses for Kovacic at San Siro, but the substitute heads wide from 12 yards. There’s a slight hint of offside about that Marco Sau goal by the way, but the assistant and referee both agreed it was legal. Speaking of offside, Mattia Destro has just been denied his third goal in a Milan shirt by the assistant’s flag. Milan are playing pretty well now though.

1511: Giuseppe Vives stings the palms of Sportiello in Bergamo but Torino remain only 2-0 up.

1509: GOAL!!! Cagliari 1-1 Lazio (Sau): All square in Sardinia! Zdenek Zeman’s favourite student Marco Sau has levelled for the home side, although he needed a rather hefty slice of luck along the way. A long ball over the top picked him out, before his shot took a sizeable deflection off the leg of Mauricio and looped over Federico Marchetti. Still, they all count and that’s an unexpected development…

1507: And now Gabriel Paletta has wasted a free header from a following corner. Ooh, hang on…

1506: Milan are on the front foot early in the second half at Palermo, Luca Antonelli going close from a corner. They’ve not won back-to-back matches since October but it’s on the cards at the moment.

At the moment.

1505: Mateo Kovacic has replaced Puscas at half-time for Inter, where the game is belatedly back under way. Nothing to speak of anywhere just yet.

1502: Anyway. Whatever that was about has now finished, and we’re off again. 45 minutes for Inter to put right the wrong of their first-half; 45 minutes for Torino, Lazio, Genoa, Milan, Sassuolo and Verona to hold onto and perhaps extend their respective advantages.

1500: Roberto Mancini has been stood in the San Siro tunnel for the last two minutes, staring out onto the pitch. Doing some soul-searching, it appears. He looked a bit existentially troubled. Conceding to Parma can do that to you.

1455: Sassuolo’s penalty was for a foul on Berardi by Alessandro Gamberini, and yes, it was the right decision. Never in doubt. Highlights of that half? Quagliarella’s goal, Vazquez’s miss and Quagliarella’s goal.

1450: The as-it-stands table makes pretty decent reading for Roma and Lazio fans:

Table ais

1447: Aaaaaaand it’s half-time all round. Time to breathe.

1444: GOAL!!! Inter 1-1 Parma (Lila): CLAMOROSO A MILANO! Or not, because this is Inter we’re dealing with after all. The away side have reacted really well to falling behind and now have the equaliser they were looking for, as Andi Lila heads home from a perfectly-weighted Silvestre Varela cross. A nice team move all round, but Roberto Mancini looks mad.

1442: Edgar Barreto scores for Palermo but it’s been ruled out, I think rightly, for offside on Luca Rigoni. Palermo have now gone… er, ages without scoring. I can’t remember how much exactly it is.

1440: GOAL!!! Atalanta 0-2 Torino (Glik): Meanwhile in Bergamo, Europe’s top-scoring defender is on the score sheet once again as Torino double their lead. A corner dropped invitingly for skipper Kamil Glik, and the Polishman wasted no time in roofing it from close range. Clinical.

1438: GOAL!!! Palermo 0-1 Milan (Cerci): Ha! I won’t do that in future. It’s scruffy as heck but Pippo Inzaghi won’t care, as Milan lead with their first attack in quite a while. Marco van Ginkel sprints to the by-line and drills a low ball in towards the near post, where Stefano Sorrentino fumbles it onto Alessio Cerci’s knee and into the net. It’s Cerci’s first goal since arriving on loan from Atletico Madrid in January, so he’ll be milking that regardless of how it was scored.

1435: Each of the bottom four are behind and being dominated at the moment, which means… nothing changes. RE the Vazquez miss earlier, I might not have given Diego Lopez the credit he deserved for the way he came out and closed the angle, just as Dybala squared it for his partner in crime. Still a bad miss though. Milan haven’t shown much going forward so far, which is surprising, to someone, probably.

1431: GOAL!!! Verona 2-0 Cesena (Gomez): Ah, Cesena. Verona double their lead and it’s deservedly so, as Juanito Gomez flummoxes Daniele Capelli and bends a lovely shot beyond Nicola Leali into the corner. Trouble, trouble and more trouble for Mimmo Di Carlo.

1430: GOAL!!! Cagliari 0-1 Lazio (Klose): I was just thinking that Lazio were taking their time in making their dominance count, but they’re ahead on the half hour after yet more magic from Felipe Anderson. The Brazilian wonderkid dances past two Cagliari defenders with delightful ease before squaring for Mauri, who spins adroitly in the six-yard box to set up Miroslav Klose for the kind of tap-in he’s spent the last 15 years of his life scoring. Big goal in the ‘race’ for third.

1427: GOAL!!! Inter 1-0 Parma (Guarin): Well that was inevitable. Parma held out for 25 minutes at San Siro but for the umpteenth time this season they’ve fallen behind, and the bad luck in this goal is befitting of their campaign as a whole. Fredy Guarin lets fly from 25 yards after being set up by Gary Medel and a hefty deflection completely deceives Mirante in the Parma goal, leaving the ball to bounce in at the near post.

1425: MISS! A horrendous miss! Palermo should have just ended their goal drought as Dybala cut the ball back for a completely unmarked Franco Vazquez, but somehow the Italy international rolled the ball wide from six yards. Unbelievable.

1422: GOAL!!! Sassuolo 1-0 Chievo (Berardi pen): Chievo have finally conceded again, for the first time since February, and it came from the spot as the ice-cool Domenico Berardi rolls Sassuolo into the lead. I didn’t see what it was for, so to be nice let’s just assume it was the right decision.

1421: Penalty for Sassuolo!

1420: GOAL!!! Atalanta 0-1 Torino (Quagliarella): WHACK! What a goal from Fabio Quagliarella! Marco Sportiello has made more saves than any other goalkeeper in Serie A this season, but he could do nothing about the rocket of a free-kick that just flashed past him off the bar. Wow. Torino lead!

1419: GOAL!!! Genoa 1-0 Udinese (De Maio): … It’s not anymore. From the home side’s next attack, a deep cross drops to Sebastien De Maio after a fortunate ricochet and the defender fires Genoa ahead. Meanwhile…

1419: Tino Costa is next to try his luck against Orestis Karnezis from a free-kick, but the Greek shot-stopper flew across his goal just in time to push it wide. Still 0-0 in Genoa, but…

1417: Francesco Acerbi has the chance to head Sassuolo in front from a corner at the Mapei, but he got his contact with the ball all wrong and the chance is wasted. From the resulting goal-kick, Chievo break to devastating effect and Riccardo Meggiorini almost scores a sensational goal on the volley. Unfortunately, it hit the bar and we’re denied an exciting moment from one of Europe’s least exciting teams.

1415: As I say that, Shaqiri goes close at the near post but Antonio Mirante had it covered. In Palermo, Paulo Dybala attempts one of his trademark curling left-footed classics to deceive Diego Lopez, but it’s wide of the far post.

1413: Torino are dominating Atalanta at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia but without any clear-cut opportunities to show for it yet. The same can be said of Inter at San Siro, where excitingly teenager George Puscas has been given a start by Roberto Mancini, ahead of Lukas Podolski.

1411: Traversa! Diego Perotti is unlucky not to give Genoa the lead at the Marassi as his free-kick skims the crossbar.

1410: What a save from Gonzalo Brkic! Lazio are in control at the Sant’Elia and the Cagliari keeper has just pulled off a wonderful stop to deny Biancoceleste skipper Stefano Mauri with his left leg.

1408: Stefano Sorrentino saves from Menez as the ball falls to the Frenchman on the edge of the box. At the Bentegodi, Hellas are battering Cesena in the opening stages and could already be two or three goals clear.

1406: Sergio Floccari goes close twice in quick succession for Sassuolo but it’s still goalless in Reggio Emilia. Silvestre Varela meanwhile has had the first shot on target of the game at San Siro, but Samir Handanovic dealt with that pretty comfortably. Palermo are calling the shots early on at the Favorita, with Milan happy to play on the break for now.

1404: GOAL!!! Verona 1-0 Cesena (Toni): But he doesn’t always miss! Jacopo Sala won the ball back for Verona right on the edge of the Cesena box, he slid in Bosko Jankovic down the wing and the Serb squares it for Toni to steer in at the near post. Simple stuff, and that’s very much bad news for the visitors.

1402: The first meaningful chance of the day comes to Luca Toni at the Bentegodi, but he scuffs it wide from a tight angle. Meanwhile, no one has turned up at the Mapei stadium for Sassuolo-Chievo. Evidently the home fans weren’t convinced by Di Francesco’s claim that they’re not safe yet.

1400: We’re up and running all over the place. Make this as hectic as possible, teams of Serie A.

1357: Let’s do this.

1355: Right then. Five minutes until whistles are blown all around Italy. Here’s how the table looks heading into the aforementioned seven fixtures:

Classifica

Given that Fiorentina and Sampdoria are facing each other in one of the late games today, this is a magnificent opportunity for Lazio to consolidate third after Napoli’s defeat. It’s hard to see them not doing it either, he says with ill-advised conviction.

1349: Verona v Cesena

And finally, a game that falls most definitely into the category of ‘Must Win Or At Least Don’t Lose Unless Atalanta Win’ for Mimmo Di Carlo’s Cesena. It looked for a while as if the Seahorses might be able to save themselves from the drop in a most unlikely feat of escapology, but with 10 games left and a 5-point gap I’m not so convinced anymore. When you consider that Luca Toni has scored as many goals on his own in 2015 (8) as Cesena’s entire front-line has all season, it’s hard to back them with any conviction. Verona meanwhile sit 16th in the table, but a win today will get them over the line for another season following a run of 8 points in 4 games, which has relieved the pressure that was gathering on Andrea Mandorlini’s shoulders. The last four games between these sides have ended all-square, which would be of little use to today’s visitors.

Verona: Benussi; Sala, Moras, Rodriguez, Pisano; Hallfredsson, Greco, Brivio; Gomez Taleb, Toni, Jankovic

Cesena: Leali; Perico, Capelli, Krajnc, Lucchini; Pulzetti, Giorgi, De Feudis; Brienza; Defrel, Djuric

1345: Sassuolo v Chievo

On paper this looks like the least interesting game of the bunch, even if Eusebio Di Francesco is insistent that Sassuolo are not safe yet from the drop. (They pretty much are, barring miracles from Cagliari and Cesena.) This one is a clash between two sides who are level on points but in entirely different runs of form: Chievo have only lost 1 of their last 7 outings, while the Neroverdi have only won 1 of their last 7 outings. The Flying Donkeys haven’t conceded in any of their last four games but don’t score many themselves, so expect this to be low-scoring and just generally a bit bad. They’ll both stay up though.

Sassuolo: Consigli; Vrsaljko, Cannavaro, Acerbi, Peluso; Brighi, Missiroli, Biondini; Berardi, Floccari, Floro Flores.

Chievo: Bizzarri; Frey, Gamberini, Cesar, Zukanovic; Schelotto, Radovanovic, Izco, Birsa; Meggiorini, Paloschi.

1343: Palermo v Milan

Milan head to Sicily today looking for a first away win since October, but their season’s finished regardless of whether or not they manage to find it. Pippo Inzaghi may try to convince you that the Rossoneri are about to embark upon a new 10-game season, but don’t listen to him. He is the only man for whom said 10 games are of any importance whatsoever, as his future is likely to be decided based on how well he does in them. All the important issues at the club between now and May will take place off-field, with increasing rumours of an impending takeover. No one is really bothered about what happens here, as Sulley Muntari demonstrated yesterday, so perhaps it’s a good opportunity for Palermo to arrest a worrying run of results. Beppe Iachini’s men haven’t scored a goal of any kind in over 7 hours of football, since Paulo Dybala put them ahead against Lazio on 22 February, but a win will take them above today’s opponents and relieve the minimal pressure the manager might be feeling. He is at the behest of Maurizio Zamparini, lest we forget.

But as I said, nobody really cares about this game. It’s more mid-table than a parasol hole.

Palermo: Sorrentino; Rispoli, Gonzalez, Vitiello, Lazaar; Rigoni, Jajalo, Barreto; Vazquez, Quaison; Dybala.

Milan: Lopez; Abate, Paletta, Mexes, Antonelli; Van Ginkel, De Jong, Bonaventura; Cerci, Destro, Menez.

1339: Inter v Parma

A clash between two sides who haven’t managed a single win between them in over a month. Should be good. Roberto Mancini is insistent that his side still have a “60% chance” of qualifying for the Europa League, but even with a win today it’s pretty much impossible to imagine Inter repaying his faith. They’re improving, but they’re still pretty bad, and that’s why they’re 10th heading into the final stretch. But it could be worse. Parma’s fate was sealed a long, long time ago thanks to events on and particularly off the pitch, and between now and May, they exist only to ruin other teams’ seasons by taking points off them. What a thoroughly dispiriting existence that must be. Still, that’s better than how it’ll be after May, when they won’t exist at all.

I’m joking, of course. Or am I?

Inter: Handanovic; Santon, Ranocchia, Felipe, Juan Jesus; Guarin, Medel, Brozovic; Shaqiri; Palacio, Puscas.

Parma: Mirante; Gobbi, Costa, Mednes, Feddal; Jose Mauri, Jorquera, Lila; Nocerino, Varela; Belfodil.

1335: Genoa v Udinese

A game that means almost nothing, but one between two sides who love to share goals. Both of the previous two meetings between Genoa and Udinese have contained six goals, with Gian Piero Gasperini’s men having triumphed 4-2 at the Friuli back in November. The Grifone are without a win in four and as a result are not going to qualify for European competition next season, while their opponents are unbeaten in 3 after a dodgy spell and took a creditable point against Fiorentina before the international break. If nothing else, this should be fun.

Genoa: Lamanna; Roncaglia, Burdisso, De Maio; Edenilson, Tino Costa, Rincon, Bergdich; Iago Falque, Borriello, Perotti

Udinese: Karnezis; Heurtaux, Wague, Piris; Widmer, Guilherme, Pinzi, Kone, Gabriel Silva; Thereau, Perica

1334: Cagliari v Lazio

Two sides in extremely different form collide at the Sant’Elia today. Lazio come into this match in the midst of a remarkable six-game winning run, which has seen them rocket up to third in the table as their rivals have faltered. And they’re not finished yet either; Stefano Pioli’s side now have an automatic Champions League qualification spot in their sights (which is currently held by their bitter capital rivals), as they chase down their club record of nine victories on the spin. That, of all people, was set by Sven Goran Eriksson back in 1999. For Cagliari, life is less rosy. Stunningly, Zdenek Zeman’s returned has not changed anything, and the Sardinians are now 5 points off safety with Lazio, Genoa and Napoli to face in their next three games. It ain’t looking good. Zeman said yesterday that Lazio are currently playing the best football in the division, and it’s tough to see his side doing anything about that today. Cagliari are without a win in 8 games, while Zeman personally is enduring a 10-match run without victory (if you include the back end of his first spell in charge this season), which all points to one thing: Serie B. Or a remarkable victory today. We’ll see which.

Cagliari: Brkic; Balzano, Rossettini, Diakitè, Avelar; Dessena, Crisetig, Joao Pedro; Farias, Sau, Cossu.

Lazio: Marchetti; Basta, de Vrij, Mauricio, Braafheid; Biglia, Parolo; Candreva, Mauri, Felipe Anderson; Klose

1330: Atalanta v Torino

One for the nostalgists, this. In Bergamo today we have a clash between the two oldest managers in Serie A, as Edy Reja (68) pits his extensive wits against Giampiero Ventura (66). The latter’s need is somewhat greater than the former, his Atalanta side currently sat 5 points off the drop zone with 10 games still to play, but the man whose coaching career started absolutely yonks ago (1979 to be precise) will have been quietly encouraged by what he’s seen since he replaced Stefano Colantuono a month ago. The Bergamaschi haven’t managed to win in that time (or in any of their last 7 games, in fact) but they haven’t managed to lose either, with 3 draws in Reja’s 3 games on the bench so far, and he reckons victory both today and away to Sassuolo next week would put them within touching distance of safety. In the words of Mark ‘Lawro’ Lawrenson, I think they’ll be OK. Torino meanwhile are still harbouring outside hopes of gatecrashing the European places above them, but that won’t happen. Just giving you a heads up.

Atalanta: Sportiello; Biava, Stendardo, Bellini; Zappacosta, Migliaccio, Cigarini, Carmona, Dramè; Maxi Moralez, Pinilla

Torino: Padelli; Maksimovic, Glik, Moretti; Peres, Gazzi, Vives, El Kaddouri, Molinaro; Maxi Lopez, Quagliarella

1325: Right then. 1 down, 9 to go. Here’s how the rest of today looks (times are BST):

14:00: Atalanta v Torino, Cagliari v Lazio, Genoa v Udinese, Inter v Parma, Palermo v Milan, Sassuolo v Chievo, Verona v Cesena

17:30: Fiorentina v Sampdoria

20:00: Juventus v Empoli

And here are the teams and talking points that matter from each of the seven upcoming kick-offs.

1321: But first, a brief nod in the direction of the day’s early kick-off, because it was, as they say in Italy, a “Big Match.” And it was a Big Win for Roma as well, who secured their first league win at home since November (!) with a nervy 1-0 win over Napoli. That makes Rudi Garcia’s side a little more comfortable in second ahead of the rest of today’s games, who prevailed thanks to a first-half strike from Miralem Pjanic. Napoli meanwhile are in horrid form. Rafa Benitez’s side played pretty well today, but they’ve now lost each of their last four away games and as such are rapidly falling out of the race for the Champions League spots. They stay fifth, five points off third (and now with a game less). Eek.

1315: 

That’s right. Saturday. And this isn’t just any Saturday: it’s Easter Saturday. And this isn’t just any Easter Saturday: it’s an Easter Saturday on which there is a full round of matches from Serie A.  And this isn’t just any Easter Saturday on which there is a full round of matches from Serie A: this is an Easter Saturday on which there is a full round of matches from Serie A and 7 of the 10 games are kicking off at the same time. One has already been played  and are two are to be played later tonight, which leaves a big fat 7 for Italy’s traditional Easter Saturday 3pm slot. I’m giddy here. Thank the high heavens for Diretta Gol. 45 minutes separate now and said 7 games, which is just enough time to talk up each individual match

Milan 3-1 Cagliari: as it happened

Pippo Inzaghi finally secured another win in unconvincing fashion as Cagliari edged closer to the relegation trapdoor

Final Score: Milan 3-1 Cagliari (Menez 21, 78 pen, Mexes 49; Farias 47)

2139: FULL-TIME – Milan 3-1 Cagliari: PEEEP! PEEEP! That’s it. It’s all over at San Siro, and Milan have, well… won. They didn’t play that well, and the penalty they were awarded to secure the points was absurd, but at least they’ve won, for just the third time in 2015. It moves them up to 7th in the provisional table, ahead of Inter amongst others, but let’s not draw too many conclusions from tonight because nothing has changed – unless you’re a Cagliari supporter, in which case you’re now even more doomed than you already were. Zeman will like some of the stuff they played, but they are their own worst enemy on so many occasions and have probably left themselves with too much to do at this stage. Serie B beckons.

So, does Pippo stay? I think it means he does, but if they lose against Palermo after the international break then I’m sure we’ll be straight back to this weekly ‘win or bust’ scenario. Looking forward to it already.

90+4 mins: Blimey. Are Milan trying to make sure this win doesn’t look too convincing? Cerci again scampers clear on the break as Cagliari seek a consolation goal, but Brkic wins the 1-v-1 battle. Pazzini was completely free alongside him to score into an empty net, but would you have passed to him after what he just did?

90+2 mins: Well now. Milan launch a 3-vs-1 counter-attack and Cerci does the right thing by squaring for a completely unmarked Pazzini, but somehow the substitute doesn’t score. He just passed it into Brkic’s midriff from six yards. Goodness.

90 mins: Four minutes separate Pippo Inzaghi and a 9th league win of the season. He’s safe. For now.

88 mins: Nigel de Jong’s first performance in four weeks has been a good one, as the Dutchman is taken off with two minutes to go. Michael Essien is on for a cameo, which is about as much as he deserves in his current state.

86 mins: Ceppitelli heads past the far post from a free-kick.

84 mins: Farias skies one miles wide from inside the box. Cagliari look beaten now. The TV directors have just shown another replay of the penalty incident, which gets worse every time you see it. Ah dear.

82 mins: Lovely Cagliari move, that. Joao Pedro slides the ball out to Cossu on the right, but the substitute can only bend his shot wide of the far post. They’re staying well and truly in trouble if this scoreline remains the same.

80 mins: That really is an extraordinarily bad decision from Tagliavento, and it’s probably going to keep Inzaghi safe from the sack for another couple of weeks. It wasn’t even close!

78 mins: GOAL!!! Milan 3-1 Cagliari (Penez): He has that nickname for a reason. That’s now eight successful spot-kicks from the Frenchman this season, which takes his overall tally up to 15. Game over, as the banner in the empty Curva behind the goal quite helpfully states.

77 mins: PENALTY TO MILAN! No, wait, is it? The referee might be about to change his mind. Not sure.

Nope, he isn’t, but my word he should have. Cerci is brought down by Ceppitelli after being slipped through on the break, but the foul was quite blatantly outside the box. Blatantly. Poor Cagliari.

75 mins: Off the bar! Cagliari finally create something with Milan sitting back and it very nearly pays off, but Joao Pedro can only find the top of the woodwork from Sau’s cut-back. Agonisingly close.

73 mins: Ekdal breaks from a Milan corner and gets pulled down by De Jong, who takes a booking for his troubles. Giampaolo Pazzini is next to enter the fray for the Rossoneri, and it’s Destro coming off after an extremely frustrating night. Little to no service whatsoever, again.

70 mins: Inzaghi’s first change sees Honda replaced by Alessio Cerci, which is receiving a few whistles from those who have turned up tonight. At least he’s not brought on a defender…

68 mins: The problem for them is that absolutely nothing is happening.

66 mins: Andrea Cossu replaces a disappointing M’Poku for the visitors. 25 minutes for Cagliari to earn some points they really could do with quite badly.

63 mins: 

60 mins: Cagliari keep getting caught on the break and just about surviving through luck instead of design. Not gonna work for another half-hour.

57 mins: Destro is this close to setting up Van Ginkel to score a third, but Brkic jumps on the ball just in time. Menez is playing very well now after an anonymous opening 15 minutes.

56 mins: Menez heads for the by-line and squares the ball, but a couple of lucky deflections save Cagliari and the danger is cleared. The visitors then break but Mexes is on hand to mop up. Impossibly stretched game at the moment.

53 mins: Poli’s cross is cleared as Milan keep the pressure on and win another corner. Surely, surely, surely they cannot screw this one up.

51 mins: Farias was booked somewhere in all that, presumably for dissent. How stupid Cagliari are to equalise and then defend like that from a corner. You just cannot give Philippe Mexes that much time and space in the box.

49 mins: GOAL!!! Milan 2-1 Cagliari (Mexes): Ha! Milan win a corner very soon after conceding and as the ball breaks loose to Mexes at the far post, the Frenchman steadies himself and unleashes a perfect volley into the ground and up into the far corner. He’s made amends already. Not a bad start to the second half, it must be said.

49 mins: 21 points dropped from winning positions.

47 mins: GOAL!!! Milan 1-1 Cagliari (Farias): Oh. Who could possibly have seen that coming? Not Milan’s defence, certainly, as it’s just been well and truly Zemaned almost straight from the restart. They were committing men to an attack and suddenly the visitors broke as Honda lost possession, and two incisive vertical passes later Farias is inside the box. With Abate caught up the field, he takes the opportunity to humiliate Mexes in a tragicomic one-on-one battle courtesy of a sharp turn in the box, before slotting the ball beyond an outstretched Diego Lopez. No less than they deserve, really, given how well they started.

2049: Joao Pedro is about to come on at half-time for Cagliari, which isn’t particularly surprising. He should probably have started. Gonzalez is going off. Off we go again. Hold on Milan!

2045: AS THINGS STAND: Cagliari will stay four points from safety, while Milan will move temporarily from 10th to 7th. And Pippo will stay.

2035: Philippe Mexes has just spoken briefly to Sky Italia at the side of the pitch, and said the word ‘confidence’ a lot. He’s learned well from his manager.

2033: HALF-TIME – Milan 1-0 Cagliari: And that’s that for 15 minutes. Cagliari started this game extremely well and have been getting significantly worse ever since, while the exact opposite can be said of Milan. Still, they’ve lost 21 points from winning positions this season so this ain’t over yet.

45+2 mins: Alejandro Gonzalez is booked for a sloppy foul out wide, but the resultant free-kick is wasted. Silence at San Siro.

45 mins: Two minutes of added time at the end of the half. A lot of sterile possession from the home side at the moment, but a 1-0 win is all they require tonight.

43 mins: A neat bit of skill from Diego Farias creates a chance for M’Poku to aim for goal from close range, but the Belgian misses the ball completely and it’s caught by Diego Lopez. He’s been pretty impressive since signing on loan from Al-Arabi in January, but has only scored once in that time. Not Zeman-y enough.

42 mins: Ignazio Abate stretches to keep a long diagonal from De Jong in play, but he can’t manage it. Milan look less terrible than they did half an hour ago though.

40 mins: Honda tests Brkic from 25 yards but it’s an easy catch for the Serbian. A shoutout at this point to Modibo Diakite, who’s playing a lot better than you’d expect any Zeman defender to play so far.

38 mins: Inzaghi applauds earnestly on the touchline as Menez plays in Antonelli, only for the Italian to stray offside. Up the other end, Danilo Avelar fires just wide from distance. Cagliari are being given a lot of space in front of Milan’s defence to do just that.

35 mins: Menez lays the ball off to Marco van Ginkel in a surprisingly selfless act, but the Dutchman blasts it over the bar. He’s been extremely unimpressive this season on loan from Chelsea, but tonight is the first time he’s started two league games in succession due to injuries and whatnot so he deserves a bit of slack. Poli has recovered by the way, so no substitution is needed.

32 mins: Keisuke Honda takes it, and promptly proves that he shouldn’t have. Goal-kick.

31 mins: Noise. It’s overrated in football grounds, I feel. Crisetig picks up the first booking of the game from referee Paolo Tagliavento, taking Menez out as he darted infield. He’s getting into his stride now. Milan free-kick, about 25 yards out in a central position.

28 mins: Diego Lopez catches the ensuing corner as Milan continue with 10 men.

27 mins: Panic stations in the home defence as Cagliari advance menacingly towards them with a round-shaped thing at their feet, and the end result is that Andrea Poli is down in some considerable pain. He might have taken a kick from one of his own team-mates as they tried to clear the ball, which would be incredible even for Milan.

24 mins: OK, now we’ve all got over our outrage let’s continue with the game. Milan look a little bit more confident now, but Cagliari aren’t going to change their approach and still have a good chance of causing them problems. They had another chance just before going behind, but Milan managed to scramble it clear at the far post.

21 mins: GOAL!!! Milan 1-0 Cagliari (Menez): But that was more like it! He’s not been in the game so far but Menez has broken the deadlock with a wonderful goal, cutting inside Donsah and curling the ball around Brkic as the Ghanaian failed to close him down. It’s a thing of beauty that’s completely out of context with how the game has gone so far, but BT Sport co-commentator Paul McVeigh has decided that what’s actually important is that Menez didn’t celebrate it, so let’s all lambast the Frenchman for that instead. WHAT A PIECE OF IDIOT.

20 mins: Destro launches a counter-attack on his own and quickly gets crowded out. I’m still amazed Roma let him go, with a record of one goal scored every 132 minutes in Serie A. He deserves better than this team.

19 mins: Just a shame that their passing is beyond woeful at the moment. Nobody appears to be able to find their target, and I’m not sure Jeremy Menez has touched the ball once in the opening 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Sau is down injured but should be OK to continue.

16 mins: Alejandro Gonzalez’s awful stray pass almost puts his side in danger as Antonelli springs into life again, but ultimately nothing happens. Meelan are in the game now.

14 mins: We might be waiting a whi- ah no, here we go. Ceppitelli is in action again as he beats Mattia Destro to Milan’s next corner, clearing the danger by heading over. If anyone is to score past Gonzalo Brkic tonight then it’s likely to be the Italian, given that he’s scored 4 goals in 4 games against Cagliari before today.

11 mins: Some good covering from Nigel de Jong brings the next Cagliari offensive to an end, after a couple of risible attempts to clear the ball from Philippe Mexes and Gabriel Paletta. It’s a 0-0 hammering so far, but let’s just wait until Cagliari have some actual defending to do before judging this match.

9 mins: Now it has. Hooray! Luca Antonelli sprints down the left in typical fashion and wins a corner off Luca Ceppitelli. It comes to nothing, but let’s not run before we can walk here.

8 mins: The ball has literally spent about three seconds in the Cagliari half so far, and that was when their centre-backs were passing it between each other in the centre circle.

6 mins: And now they should be behind. Lorenzo Crisetig, on loan from Inter, cuts the ball across perfectly for Zeman’s Favourite Student Marco Sau in the box, but he pumps it wide from 12 yards. Bad miss.

5 mins: Not sure Milan have touched the ball in the Cagliari half yet.

2 mins: Cagliari win a free-kick within 90 seconds and Paul-Jose M’Poku wallops it into the empty Curva. Fascinated to see who out of The Team Who Can’t Defend and The Team Who Won’t Defend comes out on top tonight. This will not end 0-0.

1946: PEEEEEEP. Cagliari, with nine players stood on the halfway line as always, get the game under way as they kick from left to right.

1943: Teams are coming out at San Siro, which looks about as full of fans as it always does. The boycott’s worked then. Milan haven’t had this few wins (8) after 27 games in a season since 1984 but Pippo needs one badly tonight. Apparently. Unless Berlusconi and Galliani subject him to more public torture by postponing the inevitable again. Galliani has just spoken to Sky Italia and reiterated that Pippo is his man, who he hopes does well in these final 11 league games, but he also noted that 35 points from 27 outings is ‘extremely little’.

1939: Milan team news: two changes from the side that lost to Fiorentina late on last week. Michael Essien is replaced by Nigel de Jong, who’s back from injury, while Andrea Poli returns from suspension to take the place of the injured Giacomo Bonaventura, who scored a quite wonderful (but unintentional) goal in that 1-1 draw back in October. For Cagliari, Zdenek Zeman has made four changes from the side that drew with Empoli: Nicola Murru, Antonio Balzano, Daniele Dessena and Joao Pedro are out, replaced respectively by Alejandro Gonzalez, Danilo Avelar, Albin Ekdal and the magnificently-named Ghanaian wonder-kid Godfred Donsah. The omission of Joao Pedro is rather surprisingly given how well he played last week, but Ekdal is a worthy replacement, having scored a hat-trick in that demolition job of Inter the last time they were at San Siro. Kick-off in 5 minutes.

Oh, and by the way: this game is effectively going to be played behind closed doors, because Milan’s Curva Sud published a statement yesterday (translation here) in which they told everyone to boycott the match. Instead, where the ultras would normally be stood, there is a sign that reads ‘Game Over. Insert a coin and save AC Milan.’ Which is nice.

Game Over

1935: TEAMS – Milan v Cagliari:

Meeeelan (4-3-3): Lopez; Abate, Paletta, Mexes, Antonelli; Van Ginkel, De Jong, Poli; Honda, Destro, Menez. Subs: Abbiati, Gori, Albertazzi, Alex, Bonera, Bocchetti, Muntari, Essien, Mastalli, Suso, Cerci, Pazzini.

Cagliari (0-0-10): Brkic; Gonzalez, Ceppitelli, Diakite, Avelar; Donsah, Crisetig, Ekdal; Farias, Sau, M’Poku. Subs: Colombi, Cragno, Pisano, Murru, Rossettini, Conti, Dessena, Joao Pedro, Husbauer, Cossu, Cop, Longo.

Referee: Paolo Tagliavento

1930: Good evening and welcome to the latest edition of The Game Filippo Inzaghi Absolutely Definitely 100% Must Win To Avoid The Sack Until Silvio Berlusconi Realises There Is No One Better To Take Over And Leaves Him In Charge For Another Week After All. That’s what I’m calling it anyway.

Really though. This is getting a bit silly now isn’t it? Let’s recap what’s happened in the last couple of months at Milan. First, they had to beat Lazio in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia for Inzaghi to keep his job. They didn’t, but he stayed anyway. Then, they had to beat Cesena for him to keep his job. They did, and he stayed. Then, they had to beat Verona for him to keep his job. They didn’t, but he stayed anyway. Then, they had to avoid defeat against Fiorentina for him to keep his job. They didn’t, but he stayed anyway. Tonight, they face relegation-threatened Cagliari at San Siro and Inzaghi, a man Louis van Gaal might refer to as an ‘ex-legend’ amongst the Rossoneri faithful, has been told he must win in order to keep his job. Yeah right. If he’s managed to remain in charge this long despite failing to heed three of his last four final warnings, there’s no reason to believe the papers this time around.

That said, if not tonight it’s going to happen eventually. We all know poor Pippo has no future at this club in a managerial capacity, partly because Galliani and Berlusconi are only capable of thinking in the extreme short-term but partly also because he’s just so out of his depth at this stage in his career. Watching him on the touchlines of Italy this season has been a painful experience, as the man who had so much goodwill towards him within the club last summer has gradually pushed himself toward the brink, making mistake after mistake without appearing to ever learn from them. It’s going to end in tears at some point, because Milan are getting worse not better under Inzaghi’s management, and for that reason maybe we should take seriously the reports that a bad result this evening might finally see him out on his suave backside. That and also the fact there’s an international break after this weekend, which would give them a healthy amount of time to sort a replacement out. A win is a must.

If we’re talking purely in terms of the table though, this game is a lot more important for their opponents, because while Milan’s season is already over (they’re 10th and 10 points off a European spot at kick-off), Cagliari are staring Serie B squarely in the fizzod as their players take to the San Siro pitch tonight. Four points might not sound like much, and perhaps it isn’t, but the psychological hammer blow that was the 93rd-minute equaliser they conceded to Empoli seven days ago – coupled with their quite incredible decision to sack Gianfranco Zola and rehire Zdenek Zeman because they didn’t want to start paying anyone else – means it’s pretty hard to mount a case for them surviving at the moment. If you ignore the headlines, they’re the ones that desperately need a result here – and actually, it might be within reach. They took a point off Milan in the reverse fixture back in October, and on their last trip to San Siro they smashed Inter 4-1. Could Zemanlandia strike again? Maybe. If it does, you can stick that fork in Pippo and direct him to the nearest exit.

Kick-off: 7.45pm.

Fiorentina have finally hit form and are facing Spurs at just the right time

Mario Gomez has rediscovered his knack in front of goal and will be key to Fiorentina’s chances of success in this season’s Europa League.

First, a warning. Marry the phrase ‘UEFA Europa League’ with any adjective carrying remotely positive connotations at your peril. If the last five years of impossibly moribund Thursday night football should have taught us anything, it is that this downtrodden tournament – a tournament whose claim to being the world’s greatest club competition would be weak even if it were the only one left – is not supposed to be fun.

But to every rule there normally comes an exception, and in this season’s round of 32 Tottenham vs Fiorentina may well be it – a meeting of two improving sides whose seasons have finally gained direction and momentum, and who both stand a realistic chance of going all the way in this sordid competition. Just as this tie does.

Spurs should not be scared of La Viola. They have a group of players whose potential is finally being unlocked after flattering to deceive for so long, they have a bright manager who will ensure they are fully prepared for whatever might be thrown at them, and they have Harry Kane. But they should be wary – and more wary than one might have expected them to have to be back in December when the draw was made, because they are about to come up against a Fiorentina outfit who are in the best shape they have been in all season.

Granted, they didn’t start the season well. After AS Roma legend Vincenzo Montella had guided them to a second successive fourth-place finish in Serie A since taking over in 2012 – as well as overseeing their run to the Coppa Italia Final – the target this time around was clear. They wanted to secure the third and final Champions League qualification spot that had narrowly eluded them on both occasions, while also having a significant run in the Europa League. Their quest for the latter started well, qualifying from a weak group after just four matches, but domestically their frustration was mounting with every week.

It wasn’t hard to spot the problem. With Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Gomez, Federico Bernardeschi and Juan Cuadrado all suffering injuries at various stages in the first few months of the season, Montella’s attacking options were decimated, and the result was that goals were miserably hard to come by. His possession-based style of football ensured that Fiorentina were routinely dominating games with their opponents pinned back inside their own half, but with barely any attacking threat to accompany it. During their first 11 Serie A matches they found the net just 10 times, which left them with the fifth-worst attack in the division. Before that, during their first five they had only managed to score twice, despite averaging 59% possession and racking up a withering 85 shots on goal (albeit, only 26 of those were actually on target). At home their struggle was even more pronounced, Montella’s men failing to score in four of their first six league outings at the Stadio Artemio Franchi and winning just three of their first nine. The upshot was that La Viola were marooned in 11th as club football paused for the November international break. Their season was stuttering badly.

Since their 1-0 loss at home to Napoli however, the story has changed. Some players returned from injury, while others found consistency and gained confidence from back-to-back wins over Verona and Cagliari. A perfect storm began to brew and they’ve yet to look back. Fiorentina will arrive at White Hart Lane pitch in the midst of an eight-match unbeaten run across all competitions – or, to phrase their upturn in form differently, having tasted defeat in four of their first 11 Serie A matches they have lost just one of their following 12. Saturday’s impressive 3-1 victory over Sassuolo leaves them in a position they are familiar with – fourth, and just four points behind third-placed Napoli – while they are also about to face a two-legged Coppa Italia semi-final against Juventus.

Montella’s tactics are no different to what they were in August but now they are making their territorial superiority count. In the 12 league games which have followed the Napoli defeat on 9 November they have averaged over two goals per game – compared to fewer than one in the preceding 11. That is the main difference between Fiorentina then and Fiorentina now. Rossi and Bernardeschi might still be missing through long-term injuries, but in their absence Mario Gomez has returned from his own lay-off and rediscovered the magic touch in front of goal, with five goals from his last four appearances in all competitions. Alongside him, 21 year-old Khouma Babacar has learned on the job in impressive fashion and is currently the club’s top goal-scorer, grabbing his second brace of the season at the Mapei stadium on Saturday.

Then there is the issue of Juan Cuadrado leaving for Chelsea in the January transfer window, which so far has not been an issue; Fiorentina have scored nine goals in the four games they’ve played since the exciting but inconsistent Colombian departed for the Premier League. If anything, Montella’s attacking hand has strengthened over the past month, having used the rest of the mercato to make three promising loan signings. Mohamed Salah has gone the other way to Cuadrado and wasted no time making himself at home, scoring his first La Viola goal on his first start at the weekend. The Egyptian did not have the confidence of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea but doesn’t appear to have lost the attributes that brought him to West London in the first place, and will have fond memories of facing Spurs in this competition after tormenting them in a Basel shirt two years previously.

Former Fiorentina marksman Alberto Gilardino and ex-West Ham front-man Alessandro Diamanti have also both come in from Guangzhou Evergrande, but neither have been included in La Viola‘s updated Europa League squad and will therefore be taking no part in this tie. In Salah, Gomez and Babacar though Montella has enough attacking armoury with which to plot a way past Spurs, and they are all ready to start on Thursday night. Assuming he uses the more effective, more dynamic 4-3-3 formation that he has reverted to in recent weeks though, he could also turn to Joaquin on the left, the 33 year-old Spaniard whose pace continues to belie his birth certificate. That should be enough for Pochettino’s side to be dealing with, but all is not necessarily lost should those men misfire; Salah’s strike on Saturday saw him become Fiorentina’s 17th different goal-scorer this term. The responsibility has been shared well.

Behind the forward line not that much has changed since August, with a solid defence and a midfield jam-packed with creative talent. One of the distinctive features of a Montella side is that there are no conventional defensive midfielders, which frees up space in the team for as many ball-playing midfielders as possible. Borja Valero, once of West Brom, was dropped briefly earlier in the season but is once again a mainstay in the centre of the pitch, while the excitable Mati Fernandez is the club’s top assister this campaign with six to his name. It’s difficult to say who else will be playing alongside those two, but whoever Montella opts for the style of play will remain the same; they will all look to get on the ball, play short passes and force Spurs back towards their own goal. The strength of such a purely creative midfield is that, when on song, Fiorentina are a gorgeous team to watch and produce some of the silkiest football in Europe – but it’s not always on song. The weakness is that it can be easy to play through them, with pockets of space often opening up in front of a defence that is rarely offered sufficient protection. It also means they are often slow starters, as they attempt to play their way into games without having established the right to do so. Only 5 of their 52 goals this season in all competitions have come inside the first 15 minutes, which could be when Spurs find some joy.

In defence, Montella can be pleased with the options he has. Gonzalo Rodriguez and Stefan Savic are both in form and likely to play, while club captain and self-confessed Steven Gerrard fan Manuel Pasqual’s appearance on the bench at the weekend suggests he will be starting too. There is also a strong chance Micah Richards will make an appearance, and it would be deserved for the Manchester City loanee, whose game-time in Florence has been disappointingly limited so far despite consistently good performances. If not then Marcos Alonso or Nenad Tomovic could also feature, but on current form neither would deserve to. As for the man between the sticks, Romanian international Ciprian Tatarusanu should start in goal after taking over from original first-choice Neto, who has been frozen out of the squad after announcing he would not renew his contract in the summer – a decision which has gone down remarkably well amongst the Fiorentina supporters. 

It’s hard to ever feel completely comfortable watching Fiorentina’s back-line, with each of its members possessing the capacity to commit unspeakably bad individual errors, but the fact they have the third best defence in Serie A behind Juventus and Roma tells a convincing story. They don’t ship many goals. That, combined with a sleek midfield and a burgeoning attack means this tie will not be easy for Tottenham. A draw or an away goal would be enough to leave Montella’s men well poised to strike in the return fixture at the Franchi, especially with the Capital One Cup Final looming for the visitors just three days later.

They will not be favourites, but they do have enough in their current guise to make it through and progress deep into this tournament. It should be close, and it should be beautiful to watch. Assuming that’s possible in the Europa League.

Palermo 3-1 Napoli: as it happened

Palermo took advantage of Rafael’s early howler to claim a seventh home win of the season and bring Napoli’s four-game winning run to an end

Final Score: Palermo 3-1 Napoli (Lazaar 14, Vazquez 36, Rigoni 65; Gabbiadini 82)

2137: FULL-TIME – Palermo 3-1 Napoli: And there you have it. What a terrific response from Palermo to last week’s disappointing defeat against Inter, who’ve comprehensively out-played Napoli tonight and claimed three well-earned points. Rafa Benitez has a lot to sort out after that, his side never recovering from their goalkeeper’s early howler and falling to a third defeat on the road this season. They were too slow and too predictable, but third place should still be theirs come May as long as they respond properly. Now wasn’t that more fun than going out and socialising? Thanks for following.

90+4 mins: Palermo have a free-kick inside the centre circle. Nearly done here.

90+1 mins: We’re into four added minutes at the Favorita, as Gabbiadini is again correctly adjudged to be offside, although again he missed anyway.

87 mins: Gargano tries to pick out Maggio on the far side but the pass isn’t accurate enough. The camera cuts to Higuain and Hamsik on the Napoli bench, who are both scowling like they’ve just been jilted on Valentine’s night.

86 mins: Zapata curls one along the floor into Gabbadini, but the Italian is offside. In hindsight, he should have started. Last change for Palermo: Mato Jajalo is on for Edgar Barreto, who’s been excellent this evening.

84 mins: Suddenly there’s a smidgen of panic pervading through the Palermo back-line, and there’s a brief shout for handball that goes unnoticed. Could they?

82 mins: GOAL!!! Palermo 3-1 Napoli (Gabbiadini): That was odd. De Guzman takes the resultant free-kick quickly and substitute Gabbiadini inadvertently flicks it into the far corner, as everyone tries to work out what happened. It was like nobody saw that happen, the goal greeted by absolute silence because they were all concentrating on something else. Is it a lifeline for Napoli? Probably not, but they’ve got an incentive to up the anti now.

81 mins: Palermo are 10 minutes away from picking up a seventh home win in nine, not to mention ending Napoli’s four-game winning streak. Still time for Bolzoni to pick up a yellow card for a barge on Callejon.

78 mins: Andelkovic deflects a Zapata effort a whisker wide, as Andrea Belotti replaces Franco Vazquez. He scored twice against Napoli in September’s reverse fixture.

76 mins: Dybala is in his element against Albiol tonight, swivelling and swerving around the Spaniard as if he’s mocking his immobility. This game is now officially Over, Napoli having totally failed to react to Rafael’s first-half howler.

74 mins: Callejon is offside, except he isn’t because he was actually level. No matter, the cross was appalling anyway. Higuain’s evening is over as Duvan Zapata replaces him. No doubt who’s won the battle of the Argentine forwards tonight.

71 mins: Strinic’s cross hits the side-netting. He’s not been good tonight, and Higuain’s reaction to that latest mistake demonstrates as much.

69 mins: Iachini makes his first substitution of the game, as Quaison is withdrawn in favour of 21 year-old Ivaylo Chochev. For someone who’s hardly featured in Serie A since signing from AIK in the summer, the Swede has made a right nuisance of himself tonight. Meanwhile, Walter Gargano has come on for David Lopez, which suggests Benitez has given up. Either that or he’s just lost the plot.

68 mins: Can’t see Napoli getting back into this now. Their second-half onslaught hasn’t really arrived and now they look a beaten team.

65 mins: GOAL!!! Palermo 3-0 Napoli (Rigoni): Wow. Albiol concedes possession with risible ease inside his own half and sets up another Palermo counter-attack, Dybala taking control of the ball. He floats a gorgeous ball towards the far post where Vazquez is lurking, whose header across goal is inch-perfect and allows Rigoni to blast into an empty net. Palermo have surely won this game now, and they thoroughly deserve it. What a super, super goal that was as well.

63 mins: Oh that looked like 3-0 and game over. Rigoni knocks the ball down for Vazquez, whose sweet half-volley looks goal-bound until Rafael touches it behind. He’s made up for his howler earlier with that. Almost.

62 mins: That’s an important interception from Miguel Britos, denying Vazquez a tap-in as Dybala squared for his compatriot on the break. They are frighteningly in-sync. If you bought one you’d surely have to buy the other.

60 mins: Half an hour left and Maggio is very nearly played in down the right wing, but the pass was marginally overhit. They’re improving bit by bit in this second half, but Sorrentino hasn’t had a save to make in a long time.

58 mins: Gabbiadini crosses with Higuain waiting but Terzi clears. Corner to Napoli, but it fails to beat the first man. Rigoni is booked moments later for a bad, bad lunge on the substitute.

56 mins: De Guzman could also have been off there by the way, having aimed a couple of kicks towards Rispoli from the ground. Anyway, we continue with 11 vs 11 and Napoli have got nowhere with this comeback so far.

54 mins: Should Andrea Rispoli have been sent off there? Probably not, but the ex-Parma full-back was trying his luck there, barging De Guzman to the floor after suffering a challenge he didn’t think much of and getting booked. Handbags ensued thereafter but it was all over pretty quickly. Here comes the change, and it’s the captain Marek Hamsik who’s making way… That’s bold from Rafa.

52 mins: It’s Callejon, and it curls onto the roof of the net. Nearly. In news that will surprise no one at all, Manolo Gabbiadini is getting ready to come on.

51 mins: Terzi handles the ball on the floor and Napoli have a free-kick in a pretty dangerous position. Just outside the box and slightly to the right. Callejon? De Guzman? Higuain? Let’s see who steps up for this.

49 mins: Maggio’s cut-back for Hamsik is intercepted by Rigoni. Palermo then break again, as they did for much of the first half, but nothing comes of it.

48 mins: Not a lot so far.

2049: PEEEEP! Off we go again. Let’s see what Napoli have got by way of response.

2048: Right then, the teams are coming back out ahead of the second half and no half-time changes have been made. Palermo are moving up to seventh as things stand, with Napoli staying four points off Roma in third. But there are 45 minutes to go.

2043: Soo then… What do Napoli need to do to turn this round? Not letting in shots from 39.5 metres would be a start, but that aside they’ve been too sluggish all over the pitch. Hamsik and Callejon (and thus Higuain) have been peripheral at best due to the numbers Palermo are keeping behind the ball, which will only change if they can start moving them about by passing quicker. Also, Dybala and Vazquez are having a field day on the break up on the other end. I suspect we’ll be seeing Manolo Gabbiadini before too long.

2036: Look! History has been made, and you would have missed it were you out celebrating Valentine’s Day. 

2032: HALF-TIME – Palermo 2-0 Napoli: And that is the last meaningful action of the half, which has gone spectacularly to plan for Beppe Iachini’s side. Palermo don’t tend to pull off big results against big opposition, but they’re more than on their way to claiming a scalp tonight. They were lucky that Rafael forgot how to catch a football on the quarter-hour, but since then they’ve completely justified their advantage. Napoli have passed too slowly and been exposed on the break, which is normally what other teams do against them. They ain’t gonna close the gap to Roma playing like this.

43 mins: Corner to Napoli, after Sorrentino catches Christian Maggio’s cross the wrong side of the white line. Higuain is offside when the ball is eventually swung in.

41 mins: Oooh. Higuain is booked for a late challenge on Terzi, and that means he’ll miss Napoli’s next game. I don’t know who it’s against, go and look it up for yourself.

Oh, it’s Sassuolo, Dave Farrar just said it.

39 mins: Brilliant save. Higuain takes three Palermo defenders out of the game with one adroit turn and fizzes one towards the bottom corner, but Sorrentino gets down in time to push it behind, before roaring in triumph tinged with anger at his defence.

38 mins: And now Napoli are the ones looking uncertain in possession, where before Palermo’s first goal it was them who kept making errors. They are destroying the Partenopei on the break at the moment.

36 mins: GOAL!!! Palermo 2-0 Napoli (Vazquez): But that wasn’t! What a goal! Robin Quaison spins away from Jorginho in his own half and then pings a pass over to Dybala on the far side, on another counter-attack Napoli can’t deal with properly. He waits for a little as his partner in crime Franco Vazquez catches up, and then rolls it sideways for El Mudo to crack a fierce shot past Rafael from inside the D. Eek!

34 mins: This is soberingly one-paced from Napoli.

32 mins: Hamsik dances his way into the box in what must be his first meaningful contribution tonight, but a wonderfully timed tackle robs him of the ball just in the nick of time. For someone who’s Good, he plays Bad quite often.

30 mins: But they’ll need to keep their concentration, unlike they did there… someone whose number and name escapes me falls over on the ball and allows De Guzman through for a shot on goal, but he kicks it into the turf and has to watch the ball roll wide of the far post. He’s not very good at shooting, I’ve discovered recently.

27 mins: Still going well for Iachini. Napoli can’t break through the massed ranks sat (well, stood) in front of them, no matter how much they ping the ball about. Being played at their own game here.

24 mins: Dybala wins his side a free-kick after inviting Raul Albiol to clobber him. This is going well for Iachini.

22 mins: MISS! That should be 2-0! It’s Palermo who are doing all the ruthless counter-attacking in this match and Francesco Bolzoni has just squandered a golden chance to double their lead, dragging his shot wide after being set up by Dybala. That would have been the 19th goal they’ve scored in the opening half-hour of matches this season (out of the 35 they’ve scored in total), but as it is they remain stuck on 18.

19 mins: Palermo have retreated again since scoring, leaving Napoli no chance to play their ruthless counter-attacking game. And that’s probably how the home side will play the rest of this game.

17 mins: Napoli fans don’t really like Rafael and it’s pretty clear why now. Rafa will be used to that kind of clownery though, having managed Pepe Reina for the last 10 years. Hang on, chance! Palermo almost give the away side an equaliser with some atrocious defending from a wide free-kick, but Sorrentino gathers in time.

14 mins: GOAL!!! Palermo 1-0 Napoli (Lazaar): … Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Palermo have taken a relatively undeserved lead, and it’s almost entirely the fault of Napoli keeper Rafael, because… oh my. That is bad. Achraf Lazaar, one of the finest young full-backs in Serie A at the moment, tries a ridiculously optimistic shot from nigh-on 40 yards, and the Brazilian makes a full five-course Valentine’s meal of it, allowing it to squirm hideously under his hands and into the net.

13 mins: A miskick bounces kindly into the path of De Guzman and the Canadian wallops one towards goal, but Stefano Sorrentino parries it to safety. Moments later…

11 mins: Higuain involves himself for the first time tonight, winning Napoli a free-kick. Callejon tries to slide him in quickly as Palermo organise themselves, but Claudio Terzi is alert to it and clears the danger.

9 mins: That’s more like Palermo. Franco Vazquez, nicknamed ‘Mudo’ (‘mute’) because he’s very quiet, darts towards the by-line and looks for team-mate Dybala in the middle, but Rafael stoops at his near post and collects the cross.

7 mins: Rispoli does well to deny Swansea City loanee Jonathan De Guzman the chance to cross from the by-line, forcing the Canadian to settle for a corner that Andelkovic heads behind. From the next corner, Palermo break and tempt Jorginho into a very early booking, which the Brazilian is less than impressed with.

5 mins: Dave Farrar is commentating for BT Sport. This game cannot possibly go wrong. He’s fantastic.

4 mins: Napoli win a free-kick in a promising position, but January signing Ivan Strinic ruins the chance to pressure the Palermo defence with a cross so bad I hope it keeps him awake in bed tonight.

2 mins: Yep, Palermo are indeed going four at the back, which is unusual for them. Iachini suggested he might do that in midweek, possibly due to injuries and suspensions in defence. If they’re to win tonight they’ll have to know exactly what they’re doing in this new system, as well as making sure they don’t do anymore of this in front of goal. Dearie me Dybala.

1946: PEEEEEEP. Paolo Mazzoleni puts whistle to lips and tonight’s visitors get us under way, who are in this half kicking from right to left. Or left to right, if you’re reading this from the stand opposite the TV cameras at the Favorita, but that’s unlikely.

1945: The handshakes are over, Iachini’s legendary cap is in place and Rafa’s glasses are on. Let’s do this.

1942: Permutations: Palermo can go 7th with a win tonight, while Napoli can move to within a solitary point of Roma with victory, which would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago. Personally I fancy them to do just that, although few teams have had fun visiting Sicily this season. This is a real test of their Champions League credentials.

1939: So, the headlines from that: Beppe Iachini makes four changes to the XI that started at San Siro six days ago. Fabio Daprela, Michel Morganella, Mato Jajalo all drop to the bench, while Costa Rica international Giancarlo Gonzalez is suspended. Their replacements are by Sinisa Andelkovic, who’s back from suspension, Andrea Rispoli, who’s just signed from Parma, Francesco Bolzoni and Swedish forward Robin Quaison, who’s only played 114 minutes of Serie A football before tonight. It looks as if the Sicilians are shaping up in a Christmassy 4-3-2-1 formation tonight as well, which is a departure from their regular 3-5-2. Vazquez and Dybala remain in the side though, which is all that matters.

For Napoli, there are 5 changes: out go Faouzi Ghoulam, Gokhan Inler, Walter Gargano, Manolo Gabbiadini and the suspended Dries Mertens, while in come Ivan Strinic, Jorginho, David Lopez and Jonathan de Guzman and Jose Callejon.

This game finished 3-3 back in September, by the way. Goals are coming, I can feel it.

1934: TEAM NEWS – Palermo v Napoli:

Palermo: Sorrentino; Rispoli, Andelkovic, Terzi, Lazaar; Bolzoni, Rigoni, Barreto; Quaison, Vazquez; Dybala. Subs: Ujkani, Milanovic, Joao Silva, Emerson, Della Rocca, Chochev, Ortiz, Jajalo, Daprelà, Morganella, Bentivegna, Belotti

Napoli: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Britos, Strinic; Jorginho, David Lopez; Callejon, Hamsik, De Guzman; Higuain. Subs: Andujar, Colombo, Henrique, Gabbiadini, Koulibaly, Ghoulam, Gargano, Inler, Zapata.

Referee: Paolo Mazzoleni

1930: PREAMBLE – It may be Valentine’s Day, but why entertain the company of other people when Saturday night Serie A is the sumptuous alternative. And it’s not just any edition of Saturday night Serie A, it’s an edition that pits together two of the only in-form teams of the division since the turn of the year. Palermo may have been beaten by Inter at San Siro last week but they haven’t tasted defeat in their last eight games at the Stadio Renzo Barbera (or La Favorita, if you’re against modern sponsored stadium names), of which they have won six – a run which has seen the Sicilians rocket up into the top half of the table – past both Milan clubs – and keep manager Beppe Iachini in a job, when the sack had looked more likely around October-time. Weirdly though, club president and the ultimate mangiallenatori Maurizio Zamparini decided against pulling the trigger, and has been rewarded for doing so.

But Napoli are on just as much of a roll as tonight’s hosts, and perhaps even more so. Rafa Benitez’s side have won four games on the spin and six of their last seven Serie A matches, the only blip coming at home to runaway leaders Juventus last month, and as a result they are – out of nowhere – closing in on second-placed Roma, who currently hold the last automatic Champions League spot. Fancy that. The Europa League knockout phase kicks off next week but they’re unlikely to be distracted by that tonight, even if cup competitions are all Rafa lives for these days. The performances accompanying such a run of form still haven’t been consistently brilliant, but really, I don’t care about that, and neither do you.

But it’s not just in-form side vs in-form side to be looking forward to here, because this clash also presents an intriguing match-up of ‘Argentine forwards who are in fantastic form but aren’t quite as good as either Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero so are unlikely to ever play regularly for Argentina’, as they’re commonly known. In a league dominated by Argentine goal-scorers (just take a look at the current capocannoniere standings for proof of that), the specific Gaucho marksmen in question are Palermo’s Franco Vazquez and Paulo Dybala, whose on-pitch relationship has blossomed to extraordinary effect after relatively modest campaigns in Serie B last season, and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain, who’s always been pretty decent. It should guarantee goals and a whole lot of nice attacking play, which I’m pretty sure Valentine’s Day has never, ever provided.

Oh, and of course Palermo play in pink, so if you want you can use that to convince yourself that you’re still doing your best to embrace this commercialised claptrap of a day.

Kick-off in Sicily: 7.45pm (UK time).