Week 31 was all about big clashes both in terms of the title race and the competition for European places. Saturday night provided a cracker as league leaders AC Milan hosted Inter in the most important Milan derby in years. On Sunday, the stakes didn’t drop any lower as third-placed Napoli, within three points of the Rossoneri and a single point behind Inter, entertained fifth-placed Lazio. While these two fixtures deservedly took most of the attention, there were still the small matters of the Sicilian derby and the match between AS Roma and Juventus.

Milan take Inter apart with creative attacking

Saturday night presented the perfect opportunity for the high-flying Inter to go past their city rivals for the first time this season, and take the driving seat in terms of the title race. While Inter had been near impeccable in recent rounds, Milan had lost at Palermo and dropped two points at home to bottom-placed Bari in their last two fixtures.

 

Milan's proactive attacking opens Inter defence in build-up to 1-0 goal

However, it seemed that the international break came at a perfect time for the home team. Milan looked like a team reborn right from the start as they took the game to Inter with confidence. The hosts, without attacking spearhead Zlatan Ibrahimovic, played an inventive and high-paced attacking game and took the lead already on the first minute of the match. With Inter fielding a 4-2-3-1 formation against Milan’s 4-3-1-2, it was perhaps a bit surprising that Milan’s domination was largely due to taking advantage of the wide areas. Robinho, Alexandre Pato and Clarence Seedorf intelligently shifted positions and took turns to drift wide during Milan’s attacking build-up. Their fleet-footed movement in attack was poison for the away team’s slightly static defence as it constantly opened gaps for forward runs from deeper positions. Milan’s 1-0 goal came courtesy of exactly such a move (see image): Seedorf cut inside from the left of Milan’s attacking third, played a cross-pitch pass to Gennaro Gattuso who exchanged passes with Pato in the centre, and released Robinho inside the penalty area (the Brazilian, playing as a second striker, started his run from a very deep position). Julio Cesar was able to save Robinho’s effort but Pato was there for the rebound to score the opener.

Milan’s proactive attacking approach wouldn’t have worked had they not had control of the midfield. The hosts had numerical advantage in the centre of the park (4 v 3) and the whole midfield (Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Gattuso and Kevin-Prince Boateng) put in a tireless collective effort (Mark van Bommel was particularly impressive).

Milan dominated throghout the match and recorder a deserved 3-0 victory with two goals from Pato and one from Antonio Cassano, who then got sent off after picking two extremely foolish yellow cards (some people just never learn). But this didn’t spoil Milan’s party as the Serie A leaders took a giant step towards their first title since 2003-2004.

Storari saves Juventus with a performance of the season

Traditionally a Roma-Juve (sixth and seventh respectively) match would’ve been one of the highlights of any Serie A season, but at the moment both teams are struggling badly and are desperate for points to keep hopes of European football alive. This match may not have been given top billing but it turned out to be quite a spectacle. With a combined thirty-two shots and plenty of excellent goalscoring opportunities for both sides, it was pure entertainment from start to finish.

Despite the fact that Juve packed the midfield with five men (granted, Milos Krasic and Simone Pepe were perhaps supposed to play in wide attacking roles), Rome dominated possession and exposed the weaknesses of the static Juve defence (this being said, in the end, the home defence looked pretty shaky as well). The main man for Roma was Francesco Totti who has show signs of the Totti of old in recent weeks by scoring six times in as many matches. The Roma captain was effective in the lone striker role that he made his own during the Luciano Spalletti era, often dropping deep to link play and facilitate the forward runs of Mirko Vucinic and Jeremy Menez (who again was largely ineffective).

Despite being the better side and testing Juve’s stand-in keeper Marco Storari to the limit several times, the home team were unable to turn domination into goals. In the end, Juve were somehow able to sneak a 2-0 victory (with fine goals by Krasic and Alessandro Matri who scored his sixth in nine games for Juve). The visitors, however, owed it all to Storari who pulled a string of unbelievable saves. After a performance like this even Gianluigi Buffon should feel a bit anxious about finding himself on the bench in the next match.

Meanwhile in Serie A:

Napoli-Lazio 4-3: Edison Cavani continued his implausible form by scoring another hat-trick (his fourth this season) and singlehandedly keeping the Partenopei’s Squdetto dream alive. Napoli were trailing by two goals on the hour mark and scored the winner on the 88th minute which speaks volumes about their never-say-die attitude. Cavani now has twenty-five goals to his name in Serie A which is exactly half of Napoli’s goals this season. They may be the uninvited guests at the championship party, but if Milan leave the door open even slightly at the top of the table Napoli may just take up the invitation and end up being the last ones to leave.

Catania-Palermo 4-0: Catania routed to a 4-0 victory in the Sicilian derby which was enough for Maurizio Zamparini, the Palermo president, to fire Serse Cosmi and reappoint Delio Rossi (fired in February). So business as usual at Palermo.