Merkel a good boy, but Melo can expect nothing but coal

Italian folklore has it that La Befana delivers gifts or coal on the eve of Epiphany to children, depending whether they have been good or bad.

This Santa Claus-character is depicted as an old witch-like lady and also goes under the name of La Vecchia, so in theory Juventus should have expected a sack full of presents to open on January 6th but instead of which they ended up asking themselves what they had done to deserve a lump of bad luck?

No more than two minutes into their first game of 2011, at home to Parma, and Fabio Quagliarella who had been Juve’s best performer in the first half of the season jarred his knee at one of those angles that immediately has 'season over' written all over it.

Luigi Del Neri already has Vincenzo Iaquinta sidelined so president Andrea Agnelli will have to loosen those very tight purse strings to bring in another striker – and pretty swiftly too as there is little hope of mounting a title challenge with only the aging Alex Del Piero and lumbering Amauri in attack.

Maxi Lopez had been linked with a move from Catania to Turin at the end of last year and could come back into the reckoning but the names of Alberto Gilardino, Alessandro Matri and Giampaolo Pazzini were being mentioned as Quagliarella was being stretchered off although the smart money is on that old warhorse Luca Toni.

If misfortune heralded the first major talking point of the New Year then it was quickly followed by good, old stupidity and who better to provide it than the ever unreliable Felipe Melo.

Seventeen minutes had passed on the clock but if the Brazilian had made any resolutions to keep his temper in check then they soon went the way of most people’s commitment to go to the gym at this time of the year.

The midfielder flew into a tackle on Massimo Paci and as both players gathered their bearings from a prone position, Melo inexplicably thrust his studs into the defender’s face and although the lashing out lacked clout the vehement intent was there so the referee who was standing nearby had no option but to produce a straight red card.

From there on it was all downhill for Del Neri who sacrificed Del Piero for the more mobile Simone Pepe and for a time it seemed that was life in the Old Lady as Giorgio Chellini had a goal ruled out for kicking the ball out of grounded goalkeeper Antonio Mirante’s hands.

Then of course, what usually happens in such situations, a former player who was discarded comes back to haunt his old employer: cue Sebastian Giovinco. The Atomic Ant grabbed a brace and another Juve old boy Raffaele Palladino scored the fourth to add to a penalty from the evergreen Hernan Crespo.

Del Neri was left shell-shocked at the final whistle but the coach will have to pick the team up psychologically for the trip to Napoli at the weekend or face a collapse similar to this time last year under Alberto Zaccheroni.

In the end, Antonio Cassano made the difference after sitting on the bench for 74 minutes when he set up his fellow substitute 20-year-old Rodney Strasser (big toe possibly offside) for the only goal of the game at Cagliari to ensure that AC Milan will be crowned Winter Champions – usually a good indication on where the title will go at the end of the season.

It was a precious three points for the Rossoneri in what had been something of a gamble by Massimiliano Allegri to start Alexander Merkel in the free-role, once coveted by Ronaldinho, behind Robinho and Pato as Zlatan Ibrahimovic served a one-game suspension.

The 18-year-old who was born in Kazakhstan, possessing some Russian blood, is a German national and has been capped at every level for Germany up until under-19. He looked the business and his youthful vigour and sure touch meant that the veterans Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Ambrosini and Rino Gattuso had no need to stray from their holding positions in midfield.

Allegri now has options and more importantly youngsters to step in when the inevitable injuries and suspensions coming calling as they did yesterday.

Inter know all about these twin hindrances but a New Year and new life as they say ... oh and a new coach ... saw the champions rediscover that dynamism that had made them almost unbeatable under Jose Mourinho.

Leonardo had reportedly called the Special One to ask for some advice on managing Inter and the Brazilian must have passed on a few choice words of wisdom because the Nerazzurri tore into the form side Napoli with a purpose very rarely seen under Rafa Benitez.

Basically, they ran the neat and tidy but lightweight visitors into the ground and with only the suspended Samuel Eto’o to return while Andrea Ranocchia to be eased into first team action, Leo’s Lions may well yet give Mr Berlusconi a few sleepless nights as the campaign wears on.

AS Roma also threw themselves back into the mix and while ill luck may have dogged the side ahead of them at the start of the day it was good fortune that befell the Romans.

They ran out 4-2 winners against Catania, thanks in part to two dubious decisions; the first when the ball seemed to have gone out as John Arne Riise set up Marco Borriello for the equaliser and then replays showed that Mirko Vucinic was offside as he scored the all-important third goal.

On a more positive note, Claudio Ranieri played the last ten minutes with four attackers but what seems apparent in these early days of a new year that keeping Lady Luck close will go some way to deciding the outcome of the title.