San Siro to zero: Milan are beaten and Rafa signs suicide note

RESULTS Serie A: Sat 18 Dec Cesena 1-0 Cagliari, Milan 0-1 Roma Sun 19 Dec Lazio 3-2 Udinese, Bari 1-1 Palermo, Chievo 1-1 Juventus, Catania 1-0 Brescia, Parma 0-0 Bologna, Napoli 1-0 Lecce, Sampdoria P-P Genoa Club World Cup: Sat 18 Dec TP Mazembe 0-3 Inter Milan

Just by the law of averages Zlatan Ibrahimovic had to have an off day. And so it came to pass in the week before Christmas, when all was quiet in the San Siro, that the Swede swung a big-socked shot over the crossbar when he should have buried the ball.

Had he scored, AC Milan would have been back on level terms with AS Roma: much has been made of the over-reliance on Ibra to find the back of the net when it matters and this fact was laid bare on the most frigid night of the year.

The Romans arrived in less than charitable mood, determined not to permit an open and expansive contest which would have enabled the home side to hit their talismanic striker quickly and directly.

Instead, Claudio Ranieri set out the most miserly defence possible coupled with a Scrooge-like meanness in squeezing play as far up the pitch as possible. The upshot was that the Rossoneri attack – and Zlat in particular – was caught offside time and time again, which only led to ever-increasing frustration.

And just when the sparse crowd who had braved the Arctic conditions had given up on ever feeling life in their frozen toes again, who else popped up to spoil a Milanese Christmas – with the help of his shin – than the dashing Marco Borriello?

The former darling of every female Milan fan felt the icy blast of a spurned lover when he was substituted late on, but as the jeers rang around the stands his heart probably skipped closer to his new home in the capital.

Claudio Ranieri is a Roman through and through, and the fans hold him dearly to their hearts – but the press love to create mischief, and the coach must have spent many a sleepless night of late with visions of first Marcello Lippi and more recently Carlo Ancelotti marshalling his beloved team from the sidelines.

While Massimiliano Allegri was constrained by form and to a certain degree by injuries on his starting line-up, and with the last chorus of “Dinho, Dinho” a mere echo before his January departure, on the other bench the old master was ready to spring a surprise.

There in the warm-up was not a Yeti but in fact Adriano who had been unwrapped especially for the occasion and preferred to the half-fit Francesco Totti – and with the Giallorossi season and possibly Ranieri’s future employment resting on the outcome, it was a brave decision to put faith in the Brazilian who had only made one other starting appearance all season.

However, that extra girth proved handy in not only keeping out the cold but also holding off the robust challenges of Daniele Bonera and Rino Gattuso – and, when needed, strategically drawing fouls to break up the flow of the game whenever the momentum threatened to swing towards the home side.

The whole of Italy was watching closely to glean a way of how to nullify the leaders. They would have seen that playing a high line can pay dividends in annoying Ibra and Robinho, while flooding the midfield will eventually wear down the ageing legs of Gattuso, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf, but that searing pace allied to close skill will hurt Milan's full-backs and cause panic inside the area.

Jeremy Menez has both speed and tricks in abundance and the French whizz spent the evening tormenting Luca Antonini and Iganzio Abate – and it was the latter he bamboozled to provide the cross for Borriello’s rather fortuitous close-range finish. 

Not only were Roma given the perfect fillip from the result but the rest of the chasing pack were licking the lips at the prospect of closing the year within touching distance of top spot.

Just to demonstrate that this league race is set to be the closest for years, Lazio, Napoli, Juventus and Palermo all struggled but at least the former pair recorded victories, be it with late winners and in Napoli’s case with a contender for goal of the season from Edinson Cavani.

Of course, the spectre of Inter will hang over the winter break. The Nerazzurri finally laid to rest their own ghosts by winning the FIFA World Club Cup – but, being Inter, they had to take the shine off the celebrations.

Marco Materazzi and Dejan Stankovic took umbrage at not being considered good enough to face TP Mazembe of Congo. In the case of the moody Matrix, all he wanted was a walk-on part in the closing stages so he could then let it really rip in the post-game celebrations – as Jose Mourinho had consented to in the Champions League final.

Having been left to stew on the bench this time around, the walking tattoo who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time when football history was being written stormed off to the dressing room without collecting his medal.

Rafa Benitez could be collecting his redundancy card after finally breaking his silence on what he really thinks of the situation at the club and his comments that he lacked both support and a genuine transfer policy has backed Massimo Moratti into something of a corner.

NEWS, Sat 18 Dec: Benitez issues Inter ultimatum after Club World Cup win

Craggy old oilmen do not like being backed into a corner and usually come out swinging – and after missing out on showing Mourinho the door Moratti must be itching to inflict a good old sacking again.

NEWS, Sun 19 Dec: Benitez comments were inappropriate, says Inter chief

It has been an open secret that the players are still under the spell of the Special One and that this irks Benitez to no end – but without new faces, how can he ever hope to stamp his own identity? In the end, this cry for help could well turn out to be professional suicide.

NEWS, Mon 20 Dec: What will Inter do with Benitez?

The Monday morning papers were all certain in their belief that the Spaniard is off MorattiM’s Christmas card list and that Giuseppe Baresi will take over as caretaker coach – unless Luciano Spalletti can be incited away from the depths of Russia.

All in all, the Christmas break is not going to be a time to completely kick back and relax for the Milanese cousins, but the rest of the title pretenders cannot wait for January 6 when the league returns again.

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