x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mourinho lights the touchpaper

There was always a high chance that one of Serie A's two most explosive fixtures of the weekend, Juventus versus Inter Milan or Roma against Lazio, would see the red mist descend.

There was always a high chance that one of Serie A's two most explosive fixtures of the weekend, Juventus versus Inter Milan or Roma against Lazio, would see the red mist descend. In the event, it came down in both. It was also fair to assume that if a head coach saw red, it might well be Jose Mourinho. The Inter manager is making quite a habit of watching his side's games from the height of a seat in the stands, suspended, and that is where he will be at Atalanta on Sunday, after his sending-off against Juventus.

Mourinho departed his technical area less than a quarter of the way through the Derby d'Italia, dismissed for dissent. He had clapped the referee in an ostentatiously ironic manner for having awarded Juventus the free-kick from which the first of the home side's two goals would be scored at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin. On the pitch, the atmosphere was frequently fevered, too, and if there is one player in the Inter ranks who can replicate Mourinho's attention-seeking, controversial streak, it is Mario Balotelli. Balotelli entered the match in the second half, and his exaggerated response to a Juventus challenge led to some scuffling among players from both sides. Felipe Melo's involvement brought him a second yellow card. But, by then, Juve had their 2-1 lead and the top of Serie A looked a whole lot more suffocating for the champions.

Inter are now only four points ahead of AC Milan, whose domestic revival continued with a classy and swiftly accomplished win over Sampdoria, all three unanswered goals scored in the opening 24 minutes, and five ahead of Juventus. This is still the kind of early-December gap that would be envied by many league leaders around Europe, but, as Inter face a nervous, final qualifying match against Rubin Kazan in the Champions League group phase, the last thing they want dragging on their minds are signs of domestic vulnerability. The character of the club is that their domestic form might act as a counterweight to their problems in Europe.

Mourinho aspires to alter that character, but his own temperamental personality rather let him down at the weekend. If the top of the table has closed up, the fight for fourth spot, with its end-of-season reward of a Champions League berth, now looks like a bottleneck. The gap between Parma, in fourth and five points below Juve, and Cagliari, in 10th, is a mere three points. Parma and Genoa drew 2-2 on Sunday, so the Genoese have eased just above their neighbours Sampdoria, while Fiorentina's victory over Atalanta keeps them well in touch with a second successive appearance in the Champions League.

But keep an eye on Roma, too. For all their troubles at the beginning of the season and then again in October, the prospect of at least calling themselves one of Italy's "Big Four" again without blushing is alive for Claudio Ranieri's side. It is there thanks to their win in a capital derby played out to the whiff of cordite and briefly, the threat of abandonment. The 1-0 win over Lazio had to be held up for several minutes because the fireworks lit and launched by fans disturbed the players. Substitute Marco Cassetti sealed Roma's victory 13 minutes from full-time, and two minutes from the whistle, Roma's David Pizarro picked up his second yellow card. Some brawling followed with the Roma captain, Francesco Totti, dragged away from his contretemps with Roberto Baronio. When Totti had finished serenading the Roma fans, he discovered gleefully his team had leapt five places in the table.

ihawkey@thenational.ae