Roma show title credentials despite loss to Juventus
Big football matches often fail to live up to their billing, and they’ve done so more miserably in Italy in recent years than anywhere else. Armed with several of the country’s best players, Juventus have almost uniformly steamrollered everyone in their path, and last season the bianconeri smashed the Serie A points record en route to their 30th official league title – and third in a row.
But Sunday’s massive clash between Juventus and their biggest title rivals Roma was anything but the sterile, predictable encounter we’ve come to expect. Five goals were scored, three penalties awarded, two red cards shown and even one imaginary violin played. And while Juve still eventually sneaked to a 3-2 victory over Rudi García’s side, it was the most uncomfortable they’ve looked domestically in a long time.
The game was no advertisement for fair play and gentlemanly conduct, and Roma captain Francesco Totti’s post-match implication that Juventus had paid the referee for their three controversial goals will no doubt have left Serie A officials smashing their heads against their desks. But while Totti’s implication may earn him a slap and a few games on the naughty step, Roma’s broader sentiment is significant. They’re angry to have lost because they’re now genuine title contenders.
Juve were portrayed as trailblazers when they became the first Serie A club to build and own their stadium in 2011, but in reality, it was hard to see anyone ever managing to follow in their footsteps and reestablish themselves as a genuine powerhouse in Italy’s unhealthy economic environs. Serie A had become a one-horse race. But with some clever management, Roma have managed to achieve what seemed impossible.
Sure, the giallorossi are still playing their home games in the unreasonably large Stadio Olimpico, and they still have to navigate their way through notorious Italian bureaucracy before breaking ground on the site of their new stadium. But their return to the Champions League has given them the capital to strengthen and deepen their squad – and they’ve done so in such a way as to guarantee their competitiveness, even before they start reaping the financial rewards their own stadium would bring.
Opportunistic moves for the likes of Ashley Cole, Seydou Keita and José Holebas saw them add depth at minimal cost, freeing up money to be spent on players like Juan Iturbe and Kostas Manolas, who weren't even born when Roma's captain joined the club. For relatively little cost, they’ve built a team capable of competing on both domestic and international fronts, and they've done so with an eye on both the present and the future.
“Juve should play in their own league, every year is the same. We will again finish second," Totti fumed, in the aftermath of Roma’s defeat. I wouldn’t be quite so certain. It seems only a matter of time before the giallorossi finally get their hands on a fourth scudetto.
Silva inspires City to win at Villa Park
Maybe there is a tendency to overstate the absence of the spectacular. To interpret competence, or even some unshowy forms of excellence, as being a species of failure. Understandable, of course — fireworks are fun! — but a touch peculiar in the context of a football season, where the three points is all that matters and there are no points for style. Titles are gilded by 5-1 thrashings, but they're built from 2-0 wins. Perhaps that is why Manchester City's 2-0 win over Aston Villa has been received less-than rapturously in much of the English press. Too cool, too clean.
Vaguely uncomplimentary to their opponents, of course. This season's version of Aston Villa is defensively sound in all the proper ways: they keep a good line and a solid shape, they communicate well, they huff and puff back and forth across the pitch in a coherent fashion, much to their opponent's frustration. Perhaps this is the work of Roy Keane's dagger stare; perhaps Alan Hutton has discovered new depths of defensive leadership. Either way, this as much as anything is why City couldn't tear Villa Park to pieces; their hosts wouldn't let them.
Still, if this wasn't City at their spectacular, defence-rending best, their second-half performance was an understated masterclass in slowly turning the screw, in building pressure through patient possession. Villa were nudged deeper and deeper — with just the occasional break to keep things interesting at the other end — and while Yaya Toure's opening goal was in some ways a goal out of nothing, an opportunistic run capped with a wonderfully precise finish, it had also been coming for a while. And Sergio Aguero had already hit the post, of course; Sergio Aguero never hits the post.
Not that this was the Aguero or Toure show. This was all about David Silva, the Premier League's finest poser of unconventional questions to conventional defences. Few players in the Premier League move between the lines as effectively, and none with such simple, joyous elegance. With a full-back overlapping and a striker peeling wide to meet him, Silva's forays from the left flank are miniature masterpieces, a perfect synthesis of dribbling ability, passing nous, and the knack — the ability to read space and angles and the movements of others — that elevates the playmaker above the ordinary footballer.
Only his peculiarly inept shooting kept him from the hat trick that his performance on Saturday deserved; only that keeps him from perfection. But when he's got Toure and Aguero to take care of that for him, who's got time to be picky? If City are going to challenge runaway leaders Chelsea for the Premier League, then they'll need their pocket-sized genius to keep humming along. And they'll need plenty more 2-0 wins.
Hamburg ruin Dortmund's weekend
There is a certain script weaker teams follow when they go to major footballing powerhouses and win 1-0. Yes, it’s a surprising result, but we can all picture it — the scrappy defensive action against an increasingly frustrated attack, the numerous close calls. The goal comes from a set piece, or perhaps a clear counterattack as bodies are committed forwards at the other end.
After the match, we recognise that the result was an outlier, that one team had exploited their lone half-chance while the other had spurned their dozens of clear cut ones. It’s a ritual that football goes through a few times a year, a general trope embedded in our brains.
Which makes Borussia Dortmund 0-1 Hamburg SV an even stranger match than even the scoreline shows. The worst team in the Bundesliga (they came into the match with two points, although one was earned at Bayern Munich’s expense), Hamburg had scored once and conceded eight in the six games prior to their visit to Signal Iduna Park. If they were going to snatch a surprise three points here, they’d surely have to follow the usual script.
But BVB were never actually in the game. They had possession, sure, but it was generally of the muddled, midfield variety, and they didn’t put any serious pressure on goal until very late on. They were out-chanced by Hamburg, out-shot by Hamburg and out-scored by Hamburg in a match that was far more grim than the scoreline shows.
The visitors’ goal came from a Adrian Ramos turnover in midfield, the ball seized upon by Nicolai Muller and eventually fed to Pierre-Michel Lasogga for an open-goal tap-in, but they could have been 3-0 up by the time Dortmund put together so much as a coherent attack. Lewis Holtby flashed wide before halftime, and Roman Weidenfeller produced a superb save against Heiko Westermann to keep the hosts in the game.
Yes, there were chances to equalise in the last twenty minutes, but the fact that BVB’s first 70 were so incredibly poor on all fronts is little short of remarkable. Even when Hamburg don’t follow the script, they still don’t follow the script.