There were a few, subtle, lost-in-translation moments during Joe Hart’s introductory press conference for Torino this month. When the club president, Urbano Cairo, hailed his new signing’s physical presence, the interpreter swapped the word “tall” for “high”. Happily, nobody took this honest mistake for a comment on how the player might like to unwind.
Later on, an Italian journalist asked Hart whether he thought Torino could qualify for Europe. But the interpreter put the question more vaguely, asking simply whether he thought that the Granata could have a strong season. “Of course,” came the reply. “We believe heavily in what we’re doing here.”
Perhaps Hart would have answered just as emphatically even knowing the full context of the question. Or maybe he understood fully what he was being asked, using the limited Italian he has learned so far. But certainly few other people would have concluded that Torino looked capable of a top-five finish, as they laboured to a 0-0 draw at home to Empoli two days later.
Hart did everything required of him in that match, blocking one near-post shot from Vincent Laurini and taking a ball off the toes of Manuel Pucciarelli when the latter was clean through on goal. The same could not be said for his team-mates up front, who barely created a single chance in 90 minutes.
Another goalless stalemate followed in Torino’s next match, at newly-promoted Pescara. Hart, after his debut blunder in Bergamo, had now kept two clean sheets in two matches – a strong effort, when you consider that Torino sold their best two central defenders and right wing-back Bruno Peres over the summer – and yet still had not tasted victory in Serie A.
He could have been excused, at this point, for wondering what kind of season he had signed up for. Hart had confessed at the same introductory press conference that he did not know much about Torino’s squad before he joined. When pressed to name a team-mate whose technical skills had stood out during his first few days of training with the club, he sidestepped the question – praising Torino’s back-room staff instead.
Whether he realised it or not, though, Hart had been working with an incomplete squad. By the time he joined up properly with Torino, following the September international break, his new team had lost its most important player to injury.
In two games before Hart’s arrival, Andrea Belotti had scored four times. He also missed a pair of penalties, but only after winning both of them himself. Torino just barely lost 3-2 to Milan at San Siro, then thrashed Bologna 5-1 back at home.
An old-fashioned No9 trapped in a 22-year-old’s body, Belotti seemed only to be improving in this, the most prolific year of his career. He made his debut for the Azzurri – now coached by his former club manager Giampiero Ventura – during August’s friendly against France, and might have played in the World Cup qualifier against Israel if he had not gone down with a strained thigh.
Belotti made his return off the bench during the draw with Pescara. To have him back for the start of Sunday’s appointment with Roma was vital. Even at full-strength, this would have looked like a daunting fixture. Torino had not beaten the Giallorossi at home since October 1990.
The assumption was that Hart would have his hands full. Roma had scored 13 goals in five games, whilst Torino’s unfamiliar defence had been undermined further by injuries. The 21-year-old academy graduate Antonio Barreca was set to make his second-ever start at left-back.
It was Barreca who played Edin Dzeko onside in the fourth minute, obliging Hart to step out sharply and punch a bouncing ball off the toe of his former Manchester City team-mate. Moments later Radja Nainggolan was given space to rocket a shot just wide from the edge of the D. For Torino, it appeared a long day was in prospect.
And then Belotti went and scored at the other end. He had laid a pass off to Iago Falqué on the edge of the box in the eighth minute, only to see his team-mate’s effort saved. But when the ball came back in from Joel Obi on the left, Belotti rose to thump a header beyond Wojciech Szczesny at the back post.
The striker turned and sprinted away, hand held up in front of his face with palm open and fingers splayed to impersonate a rooster’s comb. As a kid, Belotti would often spend time down at his aunt’s poultry farm, but his trademark celebration actually started out life as a nod to his best friend, Juri Gallo – whose surname translates as “Rooster”. Nowadays, Belotti himself is nicknamed “Il Gallo”.
He continued to bully Roma’s defenders, teeing up Falqué to hit the post in the 14th minute. Szczesny had to react sharply to keep out Belotti’s near-post shot as half-time approached, after Hart had done the same to thwart Dzeko for what might have been Roma’s best chance.
Shortly after the interval, Belotti earned his side a penalty – his foot clipped by his former team-mate, Bruno Peres. This time, he allowed Falqué to take it, and to bury his shot into the bottom right corner. Roma answered swiftly, winning a spot-kick of their own. Francesco Totti, who will turn 40 on Tuesday, converted for the 250th goal of his Serie A career.
But there would be no comeback. Instead, in the 65th minute, Belotti set up Falqué yet again, rolling a short square ball into his path on the edge of the area. The Spaniard’s shot took a cruel deflection up off Federico Fazio’s boot, sailing over Szczesny at a trajectory that left the keeper with no chance.
The game finished 3-1, with Hart’s greatest contribution over the final half hour being the yellow card that he collected for time-wasting. That is not a criticism, but quite the opposite. Roma, despite owning almost 70% of possession, struggled to create clear-cut chances precisely because Hart was in full command of his area and his defenders.
It is early days yet, but such assuredness at the back, paired with Belotti’s ruthlessness up front, certainly bodes well for any European hopes. The striker has scored once for every 56 minutes that he has spent on the pitch this season in Serie A.
At full-time, Torino’s manager, Sinisa Mihajlovic, described his players as “11 bulls”. Perhaps something had been lost in translation here, too. Torino had worked and won as a team but even still, nobody could doubt that a Rooster was the star of the show.
• Before we move on from Roma, let’s pause to say a quick ‘Auguri!’ for Totti tomorrow. Luciano Spalletti said over the weekend that he would like to buy the striker Dr Emmett Brown’s DeLorean for his birthday, so that Totti could choose for himself whether to go back to the past to revisit his greatest moments, or to skip ahead to the future and find out what’s coming next. A thoughtful gift, though one assumes it would still be insufficient to appease the player’s wife, Ilary Blasi, who described Spalletti as a “little man” during a scathing passage of her interview in Monday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. Suffice to say, she has not forgiven the way that the manager treated Totti after his return to Roma last year.
• No blockbuster goal this time around, but can I still get away with stealing somebody else’s joke about Quattro Pezzi Sacri by (Simone) Verdi after the Bologna player followed up his three sumptuous strikes in as many games with a lovely assist during the 1-1 draw with Inter? For those who might have missed it, I wrote about Verdi here in midweek.
• I am overdue to give a nod in this column to Gregoire Defrel, whose goal on Sunday was already his seventh in all competitions for Sassuolo this season. The consistency with which Eusebio Di Francesco continues to turn up scorers after losing them through either through sales (Simone Zaza) or injury (Domenico Berardi) is astonishing.
• Are Juventus and Napoli pulling away from the pack already? The Bianconeri were not a pretty sight as they slogged to a 1-0 win away at Palermo, but in the end the result is all that matters. (Indeed, Massimiliano Allegri claimed that the shabby display was a good thing, as it would stop his players from getting complacent before their Champions League game in midweek.) Napoli can feel more satisfied with a 2-0 victory over Chievo – not only for the performance, but also the fact that Manolo Gabbiadini grabbed his first goal of the season.
• A first Serie A start, and a first Serie A goal for Giovanni Simeone – son of Atlético Madrid manager Diego. Very well taken it was, too, even if Genoa were unable to parlay it into three points against Pescara.
Results: Torino 3-1 Roma, Genoa 1-1 Pescara, Inter 1-1 Bologna, Sassuolo 1-0 Udinese, Lazio 2-0 Empoli, Fiorentina 0-0 Milan, Palermo 0-1 Juventus, Napoli 2-0 Chievo.