When Valentine’s Day coincides with a crucial weekend in the Serie A calendar, a little romance is to be expected. The only question is where you find it.
Lorenzo Insigne celebrated a winning goal for Napoli against Juventus by revealing a T-shirt dedicated to his wife, Jenny. The Gazzetta dello Sport columnist Luigi Garlando hailed the timing of Inter, nicknamed La Beneamata (The Beloved), waiting all season to go top at this perfect moment. Spezia’s Ricky Saponara pulled down a teammate’s shorts and spanked him on live television.
“I didn’t even realise that was happening,” confessed the player on the receiving end, Giulio Maggiore. “Riccardo likes to have fun. It’s totally fine, though. When you’re celebrating, anything can happen.”
That final sentiment could apply just as well to watching Serie A this season. This was another weekend of upended expectations, starting with Napoli’s 1-0 victory over Juventus. The Partenopei had collected four losses and just two wins from their preceding seven matches, amidst speculation that Gennaro Gattuso’s job was at risk.
Insigne himself had become something of a scapegoat, his missed penalty during the Supercoppa defeat to Juventus held up as evidence of scarce mental strength. At that stage, he had failed to convert any of three career spot-kicks against the Bianconeri. But when Giorgio Chiellini swatted a hand into the face of Amir Rrahmani at a set-piece on Saturday, Insigne cancelled that statistic with aplomb.
A win kept Napoli in the hunt for the Champions League places. It also offered an opportunity to Milan. Beat Spezia, and they would move 10 points clear of Juventus. Such a result would also heap pressure on to second-placed Inter, who faced a daunting fixture against Lazio the following night.
But that is not how things worked out. Instead, it was Spezia who swept a nation off its feet. Vincenzo Italiano’s team sat 16th in the table before kick-off, 28 points behind Milan, yet they dominated the game from the start.
The numbers tell their own story. Spezia scored twice, and hit the woodwork once, while Milan failed to register a shot on target for the first time in 18 months. The images were more vivid still, the Rossoneri reduced to chasing shadows by opponents who played with more intensity and aggression but also more creativity and self-expression.
Less than a quarter of an hour had been played when Saponara hooked the ball away from Ismaël Bennacer on the edge of the box, unbalancing his opponent almost to the point of sending him to the floor face-first. Only a superb reaction save by Gianluigi Donnarumma kept the score level. Before that, Emmanuel Gyasi had already headed a presentable opportunity over the bar.
Spezia pressed high, but strategically, taking turns to attack the ball while making sure all of Milan’s passing outlets were covered. Matteo Ricci in midfield, and Martin Erlic, at centre-back, squeezed the space around Hakan Calhanoglu to cancel their opponents’ preferred path through the middle of the pitch.
That gameplan was not a surprise. The thoughtful and selective pressing schemes of Italiano – a manager with only two previous seasons’ experience in Italy’s professional divisions – have been a hallmark of Spezia’s play all season. Still, it is startling how effective they can be.
Already in this calendar year, Spezia had won away to Napoli and knocked Roma out of the Coppa Italia. The latter game was officially awarded as a walkover, after the Giallorossi made an illegal sixth substitution, but the Ligurian club had prevailed in extra-time regardless.
These results only look more impressive when you consider the resources at Italiano’s disposal. Spezia’s wage bill is the lowest in Serie A this season, while only Milan have fielded players with a younger average age. Nor is there a trusted core for the manager to lean on. He has rotated through 34 footballers in 22 league fixtures, seeking out the right balance between new arrivals and those who brought the team up to the top flight to begin with.
Kevin Agudelo was among those who shone brightest on Saturday, a 22-year-old Colombian winger playing on loan from Genoa and starting in an unfamiliar role as a false nine. It was he who launched the spectacular move that led to Spezia’s opening goal, running down Theo Hernández in the middle of the pitch and stealing possession with a backheel tackle that allowed him to pivot in the same movement and swap defence for instant attack.
After beating Bennacer with his next touch, he fed Gyasi on the right, took an immediate return ball and then released Ricci inside. Alessio Romagnoli’s desperate sliding challenge only pushed the ball into Maggiore’s path for a simple tap-in.
Eleven minutes and one surprising Saponara celebration later, Spezia doubled their lead through Simone Bastoni. Milan’s failure to pick him up from a free-kick on the edge of the box was surprising, but his finish was perfection, fired across goal from left to right and swerving away to stay beyond even Donnarumma’s gargantuan reach.
Italiano defined it afterward as “easily our best performance of the season”. To beat the league leaders in such a convincing fashion was a better Valentine’s gift than most fans would have dared to dream for, but for both goals to come from players who were born locally and began their path to professional football in Spezia’s own academy system only made it more special still.
It was a result celebrated by Inter, too, paving the way for them to vault Milan into first place with a 3-1 win over Lazio on Sunday night. Not an upset, perhaps, but certainly not a result that anyone was taking for granted against opponents who arrived on the back of six consecutive wins.
Romelu Lukaku was the star at San Siro, scoring twice before dominating Marco Parolo on the way to setting up Lautaro Martínez for the final goal. The Belgian now sits level with Cristiano Ronaldo atop the scoring charts on 16 goals. Just behind, on 14, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with whom he will renew acquaintances when Inter face Milan next weekend.
A mural of the two strikers squaring up to one another in their Coppa Italia meeting appeared this week on a wall outside the Giuseppe Meazza stadium. They are butting heads, Ibrahimovic pushing his forehead into Lukaku’s chin, though an unknowing passerby could almost have mistaken the image through Valentine’s Day lenses as a kiss.
There is no love lost between Lukaku and Ibrahimovic, yet there is plenty of romance to be found in the prospect of the biggest Derby della Madonnina for at least a decade. Milan’s two great clubs will go head-to-head on Sunday with Scudetto dreams on the line.
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