Matchday 6 of the UEFA Champions League wrapped up this week, in an atmosphere of semi-indifference for 3 of the 4 Serie A teams still in contention. Indeed, with AC Milan, Inter Milan, and AS Roma already through to the next round, the only team left fighting for their lives were Lazio, hanging by a very thin thread and hoping in an unlikely win on away soil at the Santiago Bernabéu. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be for the Biancocelesti who were forced to concede a 3-1 victory to the Spaniards, and by the same token were eliminated from Europe completely (not even a UEFA Cup consolation).
In the other matches, Group F still provided a bit of suspense somewhat. Firstly because despite both teams were already qualified, Roma and Man Utd were fighting for the lead of the group. But more importantly (as everyone will surely remember), the Giallorossi were trying to erase that 7-1 defeat in the 2006-07 season at Old Trafford, which still felt like an open wound in the eyes of many Roma supporters, and provided an easy argument for mockery for many Man Utd fans.
Roma 1-1 Manchester United
With tonight’s 1-1 final scoreline vs. Man U, earned their second draw in their last 2 games (after their unfortunate 1-1 tie to Livorno this week-end) but on this occasion, the medicine will have probably been much easier to swallow for the Giallorossi. The most likely reason was because instead of the Amaranto, facing Roma today was Manchester United which is always a tough nut to crack. Of course, every fan couldn’t help but think about the 7-1 rape the Red Devils inflicted on the Giallorossi last season, but the coaches and players knew better: with the qualification spot already in the bank and both teams having tough matches to prepare for in a few days (Roma will be travelling to Torino and United will have to face Liverpool), this was the opportunity to rotate the squads and try out some new players.
At the start of this match Roma were, as dubbed by Gazzetta‘s Riccardo Pratesi, like a “Sleeping Beauty”. While Sir Alex Ferguson had left his entire starting defensive line-up off the gamesheet, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo, those that did step on the field tonight had every intention of demonstrating what they were made of. So the first 10 minutes bore witness to an almost asphyixiating Red Devil domination, who tried to send their strikers through with penetrating passes.
Soon enough though, Roma woke up. It took a little disallowed goal for Francesco Totti (offside on Mançini’s through ball) to shake up the Giallorossi, but after that Luciano Spalletti’s boys were much more alert. In particular, they kept a tight defensive block and were ready to exploit their speed on the ensuing counter-attacks, which forced the Man Utd rear-guard to remain vigilant. Nevertheless, it was Manchester who maintained most of the ball possession, and repeatedly went near to score with John O’Shea (save by Doni) and Wayne Rooney (wide shot from 20 yards).
Eventually United’s efforts were going to get repaid, because on minute 34 Nani delivered a corner-kick right to the Gerard Piqué‘s noggin, and the Spanish defender (given way too much space) adjusted his header past Doni. 1-0 Man Utd.
The Red Devil goal had at least the merit to give the Roma players a serious shake, and the Giallorossi immediately replied with back-to-back opportunities to score: Mançini exploited a Francesco Totti pass and slammed a left-footer onto the crossbar, Francesco Esposito arrived for an open-net header but sent the ball over! Then minutes later, Mançini was once again dangerous and forced Tomasz Kuszczak (back-up for Edwin Van der Sar) to parry away into corner. Worth mentioning that Esposito had missed a similarly (seemingly) easy header, on a perfect Cicinho cross with the score still tied. 1-0 Man Utd at the break.
In the 2nd half, Spalletti inserted Daniele De Rossi for Rodrigo Taddei (who picked up a knock), and moved David Pizarro to a more offensive position in the center. Roma tried to continue their assault onto Manchester’s goal, but it would be the visitors who once again would have the first chance of the half: on a corner-kick delivery, Michael Carrick and Cicinho went for the challenge, the ball looped up in the air and would have entered the net, had it not been for Doni’s prompt deflection into corner.
Roma replied a few minutes later with a powerful 22m shot by Ahmed Barusso (narrowly wide), imitated by Chris Eagles 3 minutes later (instep shot on the run exploiting Nani’s pass, wide from 10m out). Then Manchester blew away their chance to make it 2-0, as Rooney sent a delightful ball through to Louis Saha, but the Frenchman’s 12m one-on-one duel with Doni ended to the advantage of the Roma keeper.
Eventually, Roma found the tying goal in the 71st, exploiting yet another counter-attack: Mirko Vucinic (who had come on for Esposito) directed the orchestra on this one, as he moved forward with great pace, put the ball back for Mançini, and allowed the Brazilian winger to control, and place an accurate shot past Kuszczak’s arms into the net. 1-1.
Nani could have won it for Red Devils, but his attempt at a chipped shot didn’t catch Doni by surprise. But speaking about Vucinic, the Montenegrin was decidedly on form tonight: hitting the post 1 minute after the Roma goal, and otherwise running everywhere up and down the field. Precisely the kind of performance from someone you’d think would NOT put into orbit a chance from 2m out in the 90th minute, but I guess life is full of mysteries. 🙂
The match thus ended 1-1 with a very entertaining half, leaving Roma at 2nd rank spot of Group F. The Giallorossi will now be hoping to avoid some of the European powerhouses, when the playoffs draw takes place on Friday afternoon.
PSV 0-1 Inter Milan
The question that Roberto Mancini and all the Inter fans should be asking themselves at this point, is the following: is the Inter team of this moment good enough to make it all the way to the CL final in Moscow? Can they maintain their absolutely relentless streak of decisive performances, and important victories? Evidence seems to suggest so: the 1-0 away win to PSV Eindhoven is just further proof that Inter’s resources seem to have no limit. When called into action, even the backup players seem to find every ounce of motivation to make it big, and it’s no coincidence the Nerazzurri have only lost 2 games out of 21 so far in the season, utterly dominated Group G of the UEFA Champions League, and are set for a repeat of ther 2006-07 Serie A Scudetto.
Believe it or not, Inter had not fielded a 3-striker formation for over a year (last season’s away game to Cagliari), but tonight coach Roberto Mancini decided to put some faith in his offensive performers, and promoted Julio Cruz to yet another starting role in the team. Pairing him in attack were Hernán Crespo and David Suazo, a perfect combination if you think about it (power and speed) and it was no coincidence that the first chances Inter obtained came from the speedy incursions of the Honduran striker (first a through ball for Santiago Solari deflected by Gomes, then a shot by Cruz saved on the line by Mike Zonneveld).
Real Madrid 3-1 Lazio
Like KwSport adequately put it, this match could be titled “M like ‘Madrid’, but not like ‘Miracle’“. Up to the first 30-40 minutes of play, any Lazio/Serie A fan watching the match unfold at the Santiago Bernabéu stadium, must have been sinking really low in his/her sofa. The Biancocelesti were not only down by 3 goals, they were being schooled by an absolutely ruthless Merengues team who took everything away from their opponents, and gave back nothing in return. Then the late goal by Goran Pandev in the 2nd restored some dignity in the Italian team, especially because Lazio came repeatedly very close to a second tally (and even missed a goal from the spot). Out of the Champions League? Yes. Out of the UEFA Cup? Yes. With a little dignity left? Somewhat.
Lazio started this match with a clear objective in mind: victory at all costs. Unfortunately for them, those costs proved to be… well… very costly. Playing offensive soccer vs. a Real Madrid team which, like many times this year, made their defensive set-up a veritable weak spot … well that’s a good idea. However, you also have to be careful that your chosen playing mentality will not turn against you (especially in Lazio’s case, because the Biancoceleste defense isn’t exactly the team’s forte either).
Who was going to dominate this game became rapidly clear in this match. In fact, it only took 13 minutes before the Blancos came marching in high in numbers on the left flank, which allowed Brazilian striker Julio Baptista to get to the edge of the box and place a very carefully aimed shot low onto the far corner of Marco Ballotta’s goal. The 1-0 Real Madrid score turned into 2-0 two minutes later, when a Robinho set piece delivery turned into a perfect assist for Raúl (completely forgotten by Ledesma who ought to have been marking him), and the Madrid captain had little trouble in beating Ballotta for the second time.
AC Milan 1-0 Celtic
In a match that was played one week early (due to the Rossoneri’s upcoming FIFA Club World Cup commitments), Milan capped the Group Stage of their Champions League campaign with a victory, 3 points which give Carlo Ancelotti’s team the first spot in the Group D rankings. The one who’ll be doing the most of the celebrating however is Pippo Inzaghi, author of European goal nº63 tonight, thus overtaking Gerd Müller in the all-time topscoring charts. However to be quite honest, other than Inzaghi’s career-spotlight goal, there wasn’t much entertainment to be seen tonight at the San Siro.
Tactically, Ancelotti kept all the promises he made to the press the day before: usual starters in midfield, back-up players in defense. As a result, Nelson Dida left his place to Zeljko Kalac in goal, while the back-line was composed of Cafu, Daniele Bonera, Dario Simic, and Giuseppe Favalli. Inzaghi started up instead of Gilardino up front. Meanwhile, Gordon Strachan decided to play with only one striker as well, but contrary to expectations it wasn’t Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (I just love writing that name in full) but Scott McDonald instead. The Scot’s choice to give up one striker and field a 5-man midfield left little doubt on Strachan’s intentions for this match: beat the Italians at their own game, the ‘catenaccio’.
Unsurprisingly, the 1st half was a rather drab spectacle to watch: Celtic forming a thick defensive line both in midfield and defense, and Milan trying (albeit not very hard) to maximize on their dominant ball possession and find space where they could. A draw would mathematically send the Bhoys through, regardless of the result of Shakhtar-Benfica… hence the little motivation to take any major risks. So, the result of all this? A few accelerations by Kaká (who at the start of the match, unveiled his newly-acquired Golden Ball award to the San Siro faithful), a mid-range shot by Seedorf, an effort by Inzaghi on Favalli’s cross. Not much in other words, except the annoying injury to Simic in the first half hour of play, which forced the Croatian defender to be replaced by Kaladze.
Marco Pantanella writes on the mCalcio blog