x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Not your average season in Italy

A day which had begun with high hopes had, by a quarter of an hour into the match against Napoli at San Siro, turned desperate. Such anomalies have marked the season.

Leonardo would have been excused, on Sunday, for looking shell-shocked. A day which had begun with such high hopes had, by a quarter of an hour into the match against Napoli at San Siro, turned desperate. Not only were his team a goal down, the result of some slapstick misunderstandings in a weakened Milan defence, but Leonardo had just seen his best striker, Alexandre Pato, limp from the field. Instead, Leonardo looked over the debris, and his side's rescued point, to observe: "This whole season is a bit of an anomaly."

And the anomalies, the quirks and inconsistencies, were dancing all the way across the Serie A fixture list. Look at Inter Milan, who jetted home from London on a cloud, having eliminated Chelsea from the Champions League, reversing what had become a jinx on their European exploits. Recall how only 12 months ago, Inter were carrying around a wretched run of form in the Champions League that read: One win in the last seven outings. Back then, it was widely being suggested that Jose Mourinho had done nothing to guide the club from their European timidness. Now look at the run of form that Mourinho, hailed everywhere from Manchester to Madrid for his excellent coup in London, is experiencing with Inter in Serie A. It reads: One win in the last seven outings.

Intense activity in Europe and the anticipation of limelight European nights can cause the best clubs to neglect their domestic duties, but Inter's hesitant form in the league stretches back two months. On Saturday they drew 1-1 at Palermo. Tomorrow offers Inter a chance to arrest the stagnation, at home to Livorno, but on Saturday they face their biggest domestic challenge since January, away at Roma.

In all this, Mourinho, as quiet at the weekend as he had been garrulous in London three days earlier, will have been reminded of something he supposedly said to his Inter squad not long after taking over at the club in the summer of 2008. Mourinho apparently told his players the last Serie A title they had achieved under his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, had been "won by default," that the 2008 title belonged to Inter only because their rivals had been so unreliable, so reluctant to present a sustained challenge. Something of that sounded implicit in Leonardo's comments. Milan could have leapfrogged Inter at the top of the table had they defeated Napoli. Instead they scraped a draw thanks to Pippo Inzaghi's equaliser. So Inter stay top, by default.

"To win the scudetto we need a number of things," mused Leonardo. A firm defence would be among them. Milan miss the injured Alessandro Nesta and a Laurel and Hardy collision between keeper Christian Abbiati and full-back Massimo Oddo led to Napoli's goal. Leonardo praised the comeback but acknowledged that Milan, who do not play with great pace, take risks. "We have a way of playing that suits the club and which the players appreciate. It's our identity and we must maintain it."

Certainly, Milan, loose enough this season to concede seven goals in two games against Manchester United in the Champions League and six in two meetings with Inter in the league, would be taken as anomalous, imperfect champions should they, in the next nine games, overhaul the one-point gap at the top. Leonardo also looked over his shoulder nervously at the one team in the top trio who secured three points at the weekend. Another three tomorrow for Roma could move them level with Milan. "Roma have had a fantastic run," said the Milan coach, knowing that with Inter playing Roma in the capital next Saturday, Milan could benefit ... by default. @Email:sports@thenational.ae