ROME - The first round of Serie A matches after Inter Milan’s coronation last week were a goal-filled affair, with the champions beating Sampdoria 5-1, Roma walloping Crotone 5-0 and Atalanta managing a 5-2 victory away against Parma.
Meanwhile AC Milan beat Juventus 3-0 in what may prove to be a crucial match in the battle for a Champions League spot next season - leaving Milan third and Juventus fifth, but only three points behind.
After a tight first half at Juve’s Allianz Stadium, it was Milan to finally break the deadlock in the first minute of added time, through a brilliant shot curled into the top corner from the edge of the box by Spain’s Brahim Diaz. The second half saw Juve massively step up their attacking efforts though their best chance chances were saved by Milan keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
A penalty for Milan in the 58th minute was missed by Franck Kessie, much to Juve’s relief, though Milan soon put the match to sleep with goals in the 78th and 82nd minute, by Ante Rebic and Fikayo Tomori.
Napoli, competing for the fourth Champions League spot, secured a crucial 4-1 victory away to 17th place Spezia on Saturday. Napoli opened the scoring in the 15th minute with a well-played team goal set up by Giovanni Di Lorenzo neatly finished by Piotr Zielinski. Victor Osimhen just eight minutes later added a second with a solo run after finding himself with the last defender behind him and half the pitch to run into.
Nigeria’s Osimhen, who has now scored seven goals in eight matches, made it 3-0 in the 44th minute, set up by a Lorenzo Insigne free kick which seemed to catch the Spezia defence napping.
Spezia managed to get one back in the second half, Roberto Piccoli snapping up a rebounded shot and sloppy defending on Napoli’s part, before the visitors managed to get their fourth and final through substitute Hirving Lozano in the 79th minute.
Elsewhere on Saturday Fiorentina beat Lazio 2-0, with a Dusan Vlahovic brace denying Lazio their third win on the trot.
Roma’s five past last-place Crotone all came in the second half, giving them their first Serie A win in five matches. Two each from Borja Mayoral and Lorenzo Pellegrini and one from Henrikh Mkhitaryan were the five nails in Crotone’s coffin, whose relegation has by now been guaranteed.
PROCIDA - Italy's capital of culture for 2022, which recently became Italy's first 'covid-free island,' has now become the site of a different kind of record, after Vincenzo Ferri set a new Italian free diving record in the waters off the Phlegrean Island.
After the dive on Sunday morning, Carmine Sabia, the regional councillor for sport, said "This morning the waters of the Carbonchio Bay were the stage for the Italian free diving record. Vincenzo Ferri, known internationally as a world class diver, managed to set the new record bringing the depth from 73 meters to 103.5 meters."
He continued, "the demonstration took place within a ring of boats, rubber dinghies and kayaks that accompanied the feat. The event was organised by the national underwater fishing foundation, with the naval league of Procida as a logistic support, and sponsored by the municipality of Procida, to testify to the strong bond that our island has with the sea and with all the sports disciplines connected to it. The values of our marine tradition are reflected in all these disciplines that are taking shape on our island."
ROME - Despite putting up a good fight, with a 3-2 win over Manchester United in the second leg of their Europa League semi-final, it wasn’t enough to overturn their 6-2 defeat in the first leg, and the home team go crashing out at the final hurdle, losing 8-5 on aggregate.
After a disappointing first leg, Roma were perhaps hoping to inspire something along the lines of their come back against Barcelona in 2018, when they lost 4-1 in the first leg, but they had no such luck.
Thursday night’s match at Stadio Olimpico began with two very good early chances for Roma, but as would become a theme of the night, United were saved by the excellence of their keeper, David De Gea, who made several brilliant, crucial, saves throughout the match.
United’s first major chance came in the 19th minute when Edinson Cavani, who has now scored seven goals in six matches, chipped Roma keeper Antonio Mirante, but hit the crossbar. However, the Uruguayan managed to finally smash one past Mirante in the 38th minute, neatly set up by Fred, to stretch United’s lead to five goals, making a come back seem somewhat less likely.
A period of intense attacking pressure by Roma, with several good chances, finally turned profitable in the 56th minute when Edin Dzeko headed in what seemed like a mis-hit shot by Pedro.
Just three minutes later Roma managed to snatch the ball from defenders on the edge of the United penalty area, allowing Lorenzo Pellegrini to set up Bryan Cristante to hit it first time past De Gea into the far corner.
Further De Gea saves kept Roma scrabbling for more, before a beautifully weighted Bruno Fernandes ball into the box caught the Roma defence ball watching and was headed into the back of the net by Cavani to make the score 2-2.
With the match practically over, Roma did manage to secure a consolation goal in the 82nd minute, through the 19-year-old debutant Nicola Zalewski, smashing the ball through De Gea’s legs - a goal which was, however, put down on the scorecard as an own goal thanks to a heavy deflection off United defender Alex Telles.
Though winning the match 3-2, the crucial 5-8 score on aggregate was the main takeaway from a disappointing night for Roma.
ROME - It has been announced that Portuguese manager José Mourinho is to take over at Roma next season, after the club made it known on Tuesday morning that current manager Paulo Fonseca, also Portuguese, would leave at the end of the season, after two years at the club.
Roma have struggled recently, going six matches without a win, and their current position of seventh in Serie A is not up to their usual standards. From 2013 to 2018 they finished no lower than third.
Mourinho is thought by many, particularly Chelsea fans, to be one of the best managers currently plying their trade, though has been out of a job since April when he was sacked by Tottenham - a sacking that the club managed to bury in the middle of the Super League furore.
His time at Tottenham was disappointingly trophy-less for someone who has won at least one trophy at every club he’s managed, including three Premier League trophies (with Chelsea), two Scudetti (with Inter Milan) and a La Liga (with Real Madrid).
Roma’s Portuguese general manager, Tiago Pinto, is thought to be a big fan of Mourinho, contacting him a week after his sacking from the North London club, and after meetings with the club’s president and vice-president, Dan and Ryan Friedkin, in Portugal, he was given a three year contract, despite not having stayed at a club for longer than two and a half seasons since leaving Real Madrid in 2013.
Mourinho has also been promised a big say in club transfers, and he and Pinto will begin rebuilding the squad for the start of next season.
Following Juventus’ unseating as the long time reigning champions, Roma will no doubt be energised in their ambitions to compete for the Serie A title next season. Mourinho said of Roma’s ambitious plans, “It is the same ambition and drive that has always motivated me and together we want to build a winning project over the upcoming years. The incredible passion of the Roma fans convinced me to accept the job and I cannot wait to start next season.”
ROME - Just four round from the end of the Serie A, the top of the table has rarely been so tight, with Atlanta, Juventus and Inter Milan all tied on 69 points and Napoli sitting just behind on 67. Inter Milan, however, with their 2-0 victory over Crotone on Saturday and Atalanta's draw on Sunday, have secured their first Scudetto in 11 years, the 13 point margin too big for any of the next three to catch up in the four remaining matches.
Inter’s Serie A victory, their 19th, has ended Juve’s nine year reign at the top of the table, and they have now overtaken AC Milan in terms of number of Scudetti, with only Juve above them on 36. After their victory, huge crowds gathered in Milan’s Piazza Duomo to celebrate the team, who haven’t lost in Serie A since January 6.
Roma, meanwhile, who lost 2-0 to Sampdoria, have now slipped to nine points behind neighbours Lazio and are seeing their chances of European football next season suddenly under threat, being seventh, with Sassuolo just two points behind in eighth.
Their loss to Sampdoria on Sunday, their sixth match in a row without a win, was marred by two huge chances that slipped through their fingers. Already 2-0 down after 65 minutes, thanks to goals from Adrien Silva and Jakub Jankto, Roma’s Borja Mayoral had a goal disallowed by VAR in the 68th minute for an offside during the build up, and just three minutes later Edin Dzeko missed a penalty.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Atalanta, who have only lost once in their last 14 Serie A matches, drew 1-1 away to Sassuolo. The game started badly for Atalanta after goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini was given a red card in the 22nd minute for a heavy tackle outside the box on Sassuolo’s Jeremy Boga who was through on goal. Robin Gosens gave Atalanta the lead just ten minutes later, though a Domenico Berardi penalty in the 52nd minute provided the equaliser. Plenty of action followed soon after, with VAR denying Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli a goal in the 64th minute, before Marlon was sent off for a second bookable offence, giving Atalanta a penalty, which was then missed by Luis Muriel.
Following Atalanta’s tie, Juve’s 2-1 victory over Udinese allowed them to catch back up with the team from Bergamo, though they are currently sitting behind them on goal difference, and AC Milan’s 2-0 victory over Benevento on Saturday brought them to level pegging as well.
Lazio, with a game still in hand, are just three points behind Napoli in fifth after their 4-3 victory over Genoa on Sunday. The goal fest in Rome started with a Joaquin Correa goal in the 30th minute from some brilliant team buildup on the edge of the box. A Cirio Immobile penalty in the 43rd minute added a second, with another coming from Lazio midfielder Adam Marušić, though in the wrong goal, making the score 2-1. Luis Alberto and Joaquin Correa were next up, with goals in the 48th and 56th minutes, providing enough of a margin to mean that the two late goals from Gianluca Scamacca and Eldor Shomurodov weren’t enough to get Genoa any points.
This heavy scoring match is not unusual for Lazio, whose last four matches have had an average of over six goals.
MANCHESTER - Roma have everything to do for their Europa League semifinal second leg after losing 6-2 to Manchester United in their first leg, having been 2-1 up at half time.
On Thursday night at Old Trafford, Roma had an unfortunate start, losing midfielder Jordan Veretout (replaced by Gonzalo Villar) to a pulled muscle in the 5th minute and then conceding a goal just four minutes later - an excellent team goal set up by Edinson Cavani and brilliantly finished by Bruno Fernandes.
Veretout was soon joined in the stands by goalkeeper Pau Lopez and midfielder Leonardo Spinazzola, meaning that Roma had exhausted their substitution allowance with three unfortunate first half injuries.
However, they soon turned the match around, with a Lorenzo Pellegrini penalty in the 15th minute, after an accidental handball by Paul Pogba, and an Edin Dzeko tap-in in the 33rd minute, set up by a brilliant cross by Pellegrini. Going into half time, it looked like United were on their way to a fifth semi-final elimination in European competitions under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani was the man to get United’s Europa League campaign back on the right foot, scoring in the 48th and 63rd minutes, managing both times to find himself in the perfect position for two first tough finishes Roma’s substitute keeper Antonio Mirante.
Things soon went from bad to worse for Roma, after Chris Smalling was ruled to have taken down Cavani in the box, despite the ball already having flown through his legs, and a penalty awarded. Fernandes, United’s Portuguese talisman, coolly slotted it into the top corner, before crossing the ball into the box just three minutes later for Paul Pogba to head home United’s fifth.
Their sixth, what will most likely be the final nail in Roma’s coffin, was a brilliant solo effort by substitute Mason Greenwood in the 86th minute.
This was the first time a team scored six in a European semi-final since 1964, and Roma now have a lot of catching up to do in their second leg in Rome on May 6.
SIENA - When the Palio di Siena didn’t take place on its usual day for the first time since the Second World War, its reigning champion, Giovanni Atzeni, holed up in his backyard stable outside his Tuscan villa, 35 expensive racehorses for company.
“On the day the Palio would have happened, I stayed with my horses,” said Atzeni, 36, the seven-time victor of the notoriously brutal, 500-year-old bareback horse race that was put on ice last year in the wake of Covid. “But my heart pounded as if the race was still on.”
With the Palio likely to be cancelled this year, too, Atzeni now spends most of his days as a freelance jockey, taking part in spectatorless races on the Italian hippodrome circuit, paid for by the government and broadcast by Sky Sports.
But the annual competition, usually held on July 2 and August 16, represents far more than the pyronautics of its death-defying jockeys. It is, rather, the culmination of a year’s worth of impassioned preparation on the part of Siena’s 250,000 residents, and its absence for almost two years has been felt citywide.
“Our culture of Palio, it is not only a horse race,” said Siena’s leghista mayor Luigi de Mossi, 66, from his office in the Palazzo Pubblico, the 13th century gothic palace that dominates the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s large, sloping central square. “What the tourists don’t see is the part of the Palio that is kind of an underworld, a relationship in the winter time and spring time between all the contradas. Without it we have lost a part of our identity.”
Certainly, though, the race itself is spectacular, unfolding as a sub-one-minute frisson of adrenaline among ten horses racing haunch-to-haunch around the impossibly tight bends of Siena’s heavily crowded Piazza del Campo, during which they are prone to abruptly fall, crush their riders, or else violently die in some other way.
Riders represent Siena’s 17 historic districts, or contradas, ten of which take part each year. Named for various flora and fauna, such as Aquila (Eagle), Lupa (She-Wolf), Giraffa (Giraffe) and Chiocciola (Snail), they spend the months before each race obsessively preparing. Horses are blessed by a priest before the main event, and victory comes to the first to complete three laps of the heavily crowded Piazza del Campo with its head ornaments intact, with or without its rider, or fantino. Fantini are permitted to whip and shove their opponents off their mounts mid-race, and the only rule is that they cannot grab another rider’s reins.
During the race, humiliating a rival often takes priority over winning outright, and contradas are known to forge byzantine pre-Palio alliances with the intent of undermining common enemies. In backroom meetings, they trade horses, riders and strategies readily. Atzeni, for instance, who was actually born in Germany and has won victories for four different contradas, says he will race for whichever offers the “best horse.”
You’ll find it all at the Palio. Ritualistic violence, often spilling over into regular violence, serves as a release valve for simmering tensions. Effigies representing X year’s loser get strung up on makeshift gallows in the street. Atzeni’s mentor, the former champion Luigi Bruschelli, was jailed after getting caught microchipping horses to make them look like a different breed. An illegal betting operation worth upwards of 15,000 euros and run via a computer server in Wolverhampton was busted by local authorities in 2015.
Yet beyond its role as a sporting event, the Palio serves as an engine of social cohesion, said De Mossi from his large desk in the Palazzo, under a vaulted ceiling adorned with a renaissance work whose name he said he didn’t know. He said that unlike a football game, or a cricket match, the Palio’s preparation involves all the city’s inhabitants at all levels of society, including municipal workers, merchants, and schoolkids.
The involvement runs deep, he said. Neighbourhoods raise flags along their streets representing the insignia of their contradas. Before and after the main event, which usually takes place in mid July and again in mid August, wild district-wide parties and concerts are thrown, large banquets are held, and processions featuring 15th century traditional costumes and drum-beating schoolkids explode noisily throughout the city.
The tourist sector is also heavily involved, accommodating the conspicuously wealthy cohort that appears each year and includes many Brits, among them Helen Mirren, Jeremy Clarkson and Tony Blair, who used to stay during his visits in a nearby castle owned by a Tuscan prince.
All of these elements have held together Siena’s social fabric for decades if not centuries, meaning the Palio’s absence has been felt acutely. Restaurateurs now have no foreign dignitaries to serve, Irish Pubs no catatonic Brits. It’s a bad time for Wolverhampton bookies, and the drummers who make up the core of the processions that normally march through the city in medieval garb, such as Eugenio “Gegio” Vedovini, 20, have little to do.
“The period without the Palio, for a drummer, is very difficult,” said Vedovini. “In my case—and in the case of all drummers, spending days doing basically nothing has been hard.”
Indeed, Vedovini hasn’t taken part in official practice since June 2020, although limited sessions are expected to resume in the months ahead. He worries about his drumming skills fading: The tamburini are a competitive bunch, and becoming good enough to take part in the flagship procession before the Palio, as Vedovini has done, is a source of great pride and prestige. He began at the age of two, and described the experience of marching into the piazza as almost “libidinal.”
“There’s no emotion more beautiful, indescribable,” he said. “If there’s no Palio this year it’ll be a great blow, the Palio is life, we live for it, if you told me last year that the Palio wouldn't run in 2021, too, I would have been disappointed beyond belief. We live it in our blood—but we need to see how the vaccines go.”
Carlo Piperno, 60, a representative of the low-slung Lupa contrada, said there had also been a damaging effect on law and order. While Siena is generally known as a crime-free city, he said, with restrictions on freedom of movement “mini-gangs” from out of town began harassing passersby in the Piazza del Campo last year. He said it was only after lockdown eased and large-scale gatherings of tambourine-players returned that the gangs disappeared. “Just being there, with this presence, the contrada made sure that the boys from the mini gang weren’t there.”
All of this made last year’s decision to cancel the Palio uniquely difficult, said Piperno, who was present at meetings between the contradas and the mayor’s office relating to the matter. “There was a sense of great bitterness and disappointment,” he said. “But ultimately it was unanimous.”
And the prospect of doing it de minimis, with the race but without the crowds, was inconceivable. Roughly 1,700 spectators typically crush together in the Piazza del Campo, supplying an electric atmosphere.
“It’s simply not possible to do a small Palio,” said Piperno. “The race itself can be done, but you lose the sense of the Palio. The preparation involves everyone, and you live it in the days and months before and after. It’s impossible to do it differently—if you do, it’s not the Palio.”
“A football match can be played without the public,” said Giampiero Cito, 44, of the Aquila contrada, who was also present at the meeting. “But with the Palio that doesn’t make sense—its magic comes from the people, the spectators, the atmosphere.”
There were, at least, ways in which Siena’s unique urban makeup was beneficial during the pandemic. Sienese say that from the very beginning the contradas came into their own, providing aid to vulnerable people, carrying out grocery shops and home care, as well as supplying hospitals with necessary equipment and bulk-buying masks to deliver to the general population.
“Neighbouring cities like Florence and Grosseto had to pay thousands of euros for masks and medical equipment,” said de Mossi, the mayor. “I didn’t have to spend a penny.”
Mayor de Mossi and the contradas are waiting until May before ratifying a final decision on whether this year’s Palio will proceed as normal, but given Italy’s achingly slow vaccine rollout the likelihood of that happening is low.
There are also questions hovering over the future of the Palio, which animal rights activists, or animalisti, condemn for the longstanding practice of summarily putting down horses who are injured mid race. The group Animalisti Italiani has urged Siena to use the pandemic as an opportunity to put an end to the competition for good.
“People who think they defend the animals in general probably they don’t know the tradition,” de Mossi scoffed, claiming that the city provides horses with a veterinary clinic, as well as a “horse resort” where retired horses finish their days until they pass.
As to whether the likely second suspension of the Palio could threaten its future, Sienese baulk, describing its pull as being of an almost cosmic nature. Cito, of Aquila, doubles as a creative director at a PR firm, but when the Palio takes place he says he becomes “primitive.”
"It’s something that belongs to the bottom of our consciousness,” he said. “It is not rational. When there’s a victory it’s like an orgasm, it’s impossible to control. I’ve seen old men crying, adults fighting with each other.” He said his earliest recollection of the Palio was as a toddler, seeing his mother yell as the race began.
Indeed, the race is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of Sienese civic life that in some quarters preparation for it, even with the pandemic still raging, goes on unimpeded.
There is Vedovini, the drummer, who several times a week heads out to a secluded garden behind his contrada’s headquarters to practice banging his big drums. In late April, meanwhile, the jockey Atzeni travelled to the small Tuscan fortress town of Monteriggioni with four horses—Zio Rosas, Aurus, Tristezza, and Viso D’Angelo—to have them assessed for the Palio as if it would be taking place, parading them before veterinarians, the mayor, and a smattering of journalists—though far fewer than usual.
“Siena is preparing to do the Palio, as always,” said Atenzi, explaining that merely going through the motions helps maintain civic pride in the city. “This is very important.”
There is no chance of it ending for good, agreed Piperno, of Lupa. “It’s like if you have a brother and you don’t see for a year, you’ll still see him—he’s your brother.”
“There is a Sienese saying that those who are born here are ‘elastic,’” he added. “The city is almost a physical force, and it always pulls us back.”