Last weekend in Serie A it was time for the season’s first Milan derby, while AS Roma travelled to Juventus. Especially the former match didn’t live up to its billing in terms of the quality of play but both were heated affairs where the defences made the biggest difference: commanding performances from Phillip Mexes and Giorgio Chiellini for Roma and Juve respectively on Saturday night proved key, while Alessandro Nesta was back at his best on Sunday. The same could not be said about Inter’s defence in general and Marco Materrazzi in particular who played his first competitive game since the Champions League final in May.
Derby della Madonnina: Benitez gets his tactics wrong
AC Milan stamped their authority in the season’s first Milan derby by coming away with a 1-0 victory, thanks to a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty on the fifth minute. Inter have dominated the last three outings but this time Milan were clearly the better, more organised and hungrier side, in the end holding on to a victory despite playing with a man down for a half an hour after Ignazio Abate’s dismissal.
Inter can always defend their woeful showing against their city rivals by citing their long injury list as the reason, but the fact is that they never looked like having enough ideas, or even enough industry, to break down a resolute Milan defence. It was puzzling that Inter didn’t even try to take advantage of Milan’s obvious weaknesses in wide areas. With so much congestion in the centre of the park with Massimo Ambrosini, Gennaro Gattuso and Mathieu Flamini patrolling the area effectively, one would’ve expected Inter to try to penetrate through the wings where Milan are at their most vulnerable.
Samuel Eto’o played wide for much of the first half and Wesley Sneijder during the second but the attempts to play through them were more isolated efforts from the two players than coordinated team moves. It didn’t help that there were few full-backs at Benitez’s disposal but by leaving Davide Santon, a natural full-back of true quality, out and playing four central defenders at the back (including Materrazzi), Benitez was simply erring on the side of caution. Inter’s attacking players were left isolated since their midfielders was concentrated on keeping shape and possession, or at least trying to do that, and not actively seeking ways to break through. Inter desperately needed movement in wide areas but no help was forthcoming because Cristian Chivu and Ivan Cordoba, who were playing as full-backs, lack attacking quality and rarely ventured forward. Eto’o looked threatening during the first fifteen minutes, earning the first booking for Abate, but was then put in check by the Milan defence. Furthermore, it is alarming for Inter that Benitez is getting nothing out of Diego Milito (who, granted, is still lacking match fitness), so pivotal to Jose Mourinho’s strategy. Milito started in the centre of Inter’s attack but rarely saw any balls or made space with his cleaver runs before he was substituted for Goran Pandev at half time.
Despite all the injuries, with an attacking line-up including Sneijder, Eto’o and Milito, one is entitled to expect something more than the nothing Inter showed on Sunday. Benitez’s reputation as a tactical mastermind is being put into question in the most tactical league in Europe; he was even struggling with his substitutions as twice the wrong player was getting ready to come on, only to be call back on the bench. From their last eight Serie A matches, Inter have gathered only 10 points and have scored a paltry five goals so Benitez, who has made a habit of getting his tactics wrong in recent weeks, must come up with some fresh ideas quick and get Milito fit to save Inter’s sinking season.
Milan at relative ease
Milan, on the other hand, controlled the match quite easily despite Inter enjoying 58 per cent of possession. Their central defence with Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva looks solid and the midfield trio put in a fine performance of defensive organisation and grit. Even Gattuso, who had to be taken off at half time for the fear of him receiving a second yellow card (which was definitely on the way), looks the inspirational ‘Rino’ of old, huffing, puffing and tackling at will. A bit reckless perhaps but fun to watch.
Milan’s attacking strategy of playing long balls behind Inter’s defence might not have been the most sophisticated but made sense when faced with a slow defence line playing high up the pitch. The first time this worked was already on the fifth minute as Zlatan sprang free of his marker and was clumsily brought down by Materrazzi inside the box. The Inter old boy smashed the ball emphatically into the net from the spot. Even if Milan’s attacking blueprint lacked nuances, they at least had one. The few time Milan went forward in numbers they clearly had more ideas and movement than the lacklustre home side.
Juventus-Roma: a deserved draw, a decent game and a cracker from Iaquinta
Both Juventus and Roma have found balance in the last few weeks after the tumultuous start to the campaign. Juve especially have a new-found stability after coach Luigi Delneri inhibited some of Juve’s attacking urges by switching Claudio Marchisio to the left side of midfield (in a more central and defensive role) and instilling Alberto Aquilani as a playmaker beside Felipe Melo in the middle. Against Roma Simone Pepe was playing on the right and put in a huge effort in both directions as he provided aid for the inexperienced full-back Frederik Sörensen.
Roma saved their season in the derby victory against Lazio two weeks ago but still looked a bit unstable at times. Despite this, it was the visitors who looked livelier in the first half an hour but Juve gradually got more control as Aquilani started dominating the midfield with his movement and passing. It wasn’t surprising that it was the former Roma player who provided the assist for Juve’s goal. Aquilani coolly put the ball between the legs of Leandro Greco and crossed inside the box from the right for Vicenzo Iaquinta to volley the ball into the far corner.
Francesco Totti then scored his first league goal from the spot on the n minute to put Roma level after Pepe handled the ball inside the box. Juve perhaps were the better side but in the end it was all level in Turin as Roma continued their good form with a performance they can build on.