A remarkable incident at the end of Udinese v Lazio rounded off the latest drama in the race for third place in Serie A
In Serie A, it's never over until the fat lady sings. Even then, you better make sure you're listening to the right one. Lazio's players clearly heard the full-time whistle blow as Udinese launched a counterattack deep into injury-time at the Stadio Friuli on Sunday night – leading Alvaro González to give up his pursuit of a ball he could easily have retrieved. The goalkeeper, Federico Marchetti, had been sprinting back too after going up for a corner, but instead threw himself to the ground in exhaustion.
Roberto Pereyra needed no further invitation, running on to the loose ball and curling it into Marchetti's vacant net from near the right-hand touchline. Confusion became outrage among Lazio's players and staff as the goal was awarded, the scene degenerating into a melee as arguments in the technical area spilled onto the pitch and the referee Mauro Bergonzi was surrounded. Lazio's André Dias would be sent off after confronting Bergonzi, while Marchetti seems certain to be banned retrospectively after pushing the official. By the end even team directors had become involved.
All for the sake of goal difference. Lazio had trailed 1-0 when the false whistle went, and with just seconds left on the clock it is doubtful whether they would have had time to launch another meaningful attack even if González had played on. While it was certainly frustrating – not to mention a little ludicrous – to concede in such a manner, Pereyra's goal had done little to alter either team's reality. Goal difference is only used as a tie-breaker in Serie A when teams cannot be separated on head-to-head records.
That was the case last season – when Udinese and Lazio finished level on 66 points, having each beaten the other once, and the Friuliani claimed Italy's final Champions League berth. The race for third place this season also appears certain to go down to the wire; with three games remaining, the four teams still realistically in the running for third place – Lazio, Udinese, Napoli and Internazionale, each have 55 points.
Even so, head-to-head results are more likely to be the decider – Lazio drew their first meeting with Udinese this season – and in any case the prospect of Edy Reja's side being in position for such considerations to matter seems increasingly unlikely. Their form has been sufficiently poor over the last month that Inter have been able to make up 10 points in six games, despite drawing two of them. The suspensions earned by Dias and co will be far more harmful than a minor goal difference adjustment to a team already missing a host of key players through injury.
That is not to absolve Bergonzi – who was accused even by Udinese players of handling the situation poorly. Maurizio Domizzi claimed the referee had initially suggested that the goal would be disallowed, and a drop-ball held, but then changed his mind. "I'm sorry that it ended this way. The game should have been stopped," said the Udinese manager Francesco Guidolin – who claimed not to have heard the ghost whistle at the time. "But there were 13 seconds left. We would have won anyway."
Udinese had previously undergone a loss of form even more drastic than Lazio's, winning only one of their last nine games coming into this fixture. It is no coincidence that such a run should coincide with a dry run for Antonio Di Natale. The striker had gone three league games without a goal before scoring the opener on Sunday with an instinctive close-range volley. That represented his longest drought of the season.
The team's owner, Giampaolo Pozzo, had insisted during the week that a change of approach was required, stating that "[Antonio] Floro Flores and Di Natale cannot play together; they are both strikers and having them both together leaves the midfield unprotected". With Floro Flores suspended on Sunday he got his wish, Guidolin instead deploying the 21-year-old Diego Fabbrini behind Di Natale. While Fabbrini's individual performance was unremarkable and Udinese struggled to create clear openings, they also controlled the match and never looked likely to concede.
Udinese's remaining fixtures are among the easiest of the four sides locked together on 55 points – away games against Cesena and Catania sandwiched either side of a home fixture with Genoa. But the bookies' favourites for third, Napoli, also have a very amenable run-in, facing Palermo, Bologna, then Siena – with the first and last of those fixtures at home.
Napoli ought to be in an even more commanding position, having led 2-1 away to Roma with three minutes remaining and never looking likely to relinquish that advantage before Fábio Simplicio was allowed to prod home a Junior Tallo cross from close range. The mood inside the Stadio Olimpico at that point was venomous, with the Ultras of the Curva Sud having launched moments earlier into fresh chants for the manager, Luis Enrique, to be sacked.
There was a moment of panic, then, as Simplicio raced off towards one of the stands – albeit the more peaceful Tribuna Monte Mario – after scoring his goal. Commentators voiced fears that he might be seeking a confrontation of some kind with a supporter but instead it turned out to be quite the opposite, Simplicio dodging fans and stewards as he clambered over rows of seats to share a kiss with each of his son Jordan and wife Elaine. And then booked for his troubles.
It was a rare moment of joy in among the darkness for Roma – where the mood has soured considerably as the team's Champions League hopes have collapsed. The home game against Fiorentina on Wednesday had begun with fans unveiling a huge banner in support of Enrique, but ended with the same group turning on the manager after a 2-1 defeat, and further protests followed at the club's Trigoria training ground.
At the end of Sunday's draw the players were summoned to the Curva Sud to hear the fans' protests. Francesco Totti – the one player who had not been booed when the team first came out to warm-up before the match – led the way but was unmoved by the supporters' demands that he bring them Enrique, who had headed straight down the tunnel at full-time. The manager himself would insist afterwards that it was not for the manager's place to get involved in such situations.
"I didn't go because I have a clear idea about what it means to be a manager," he said. "If something good happens I will disappear quickly then too – because football belongs to the footballers. Even if we had won 10 games in a row I wouldn't have gone. Celebrations are for the players. Plus in a situation like this one, with the fans so disappointed, it could have been read as a provocation."
As for his own future, Enrique was typically guarded. "There is no definitive position from me," he said. "Could I take a year's sabbatical like [Pep] Guardiola? You never know. For now I only know that I will be the manager of Roma on Tuesday at Verona and at the end of the season. Then we will talk."
What is known is that even a place in the Europa League now looks unlikely, with Roma needing to overtake at least one of Napoli, Udinese, Inter or Lazio in order to get in – but trailing all of them by four points. Franco Baldini insisted after the game that if the project was failing then it should be he, not the manager, who took the blame. But just like with Bergonzi in Udine, he may be about to discover that others are intent on making these decisions on his behalf.
• A 4-0 victory at Novara means Juventus could have the title sewn up as soon as Wednesday – albeit only if Milan were to lose at home to Atalanta. Failing that, they merely have to win two of their last three – against Lecce and Atalanta at home, plus Cagliari at a neutral site – to be sure of the Scudetto. After Wednesday's long slog to break down Cesena, this was an altogether more confident display – with Mirko Vucinic clearly in the mood to show off before an audience that included Michel Platini and Giampiero Boniperti. He opened the scoring with a brilliantly nonchalant flick after just 16 minutes, and from there his team never looked back. "We need to win our three remaining games," said the manager Antonio Conte at full-time, before being reminded that two would be enough for the title. "But I would prefer to win three," he replied.
• There was positive news for Milan – as well as for the Italian national side – too, however, with Antonio Cassano starting his first game since his mini-stroke in October and putting in a man-of-the-match performance, scoring one goal and setting up two more for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a 4-1 win away to the previously in-form Siena. "Cesare Prandelli take note: the real Antonio Cassano is back," writes Luca Calamai in Monday's Gazzetta dello Sport. It's a safe bet that the Italy manager was already paying very close attention to the forward he used more than any other in Euro 2012 qualifying.
• Not only is Andrea Stramaccioni proving a dab hand at coaching since stepping up from the youth team to take charge of Inter's senior side, but he also continues to show rare poise in dealing with the press. "Would I like to have Lavezzi in my team?" he pondered after being posed a question to that effect by a gossip-hungry reporter during a press conference this weekend. "I might be about to have my first argument with the head of our medical team Franco Combi because he never told me Lavezzi was available for selection." There was a hint of José Mourinho to his eventual follow-up response too. "Are you asking if I like him? I like my own players."
• There was a missed opportunity for Lecce at the other end of the table – their game against Parma kicking off after Genoa had already lost, leaving Serse Cosmi's side aware that even a draw would move them out of the relegation zone. Instead they suffered a second consecutive home defeat – this time against a Parma team with little to play for. Then again, Parma's recent form belies their status as a team wedged in mid-table – with only Juventus having picked up more points in the last six games.
• As well as three points, Parma also acquired a new mascot – Acaya the dog: a stray caught the attention of the manager Roberto Donadoni during their stay at the Doubletree Hilton hotel just outside Lecce. According to a club statement, he "barked with joy in celebration at the team's splendid win at the Stadio Via del Mare". The club now intend to give him a full-time home as their new mascot.
• The Derby di Sicilia might not have provided quite the fireworks hoped from an encounter between two rivals with less than perfect defensive records, but a point suited both sides OK – Palermo edging closer to safety while Catania earned their 47th point of the season: a club record in Serie A.
Results: Atalanta 2-0 Fiorentina, Bologna 3-2 Genoa, Cagliari 0-0 Chievo, Inter 2-1 Cesena, Lecce 1-2 Parma, Novara 0-4 Juventus, Palermo 1-1 Catania, Roma 2-2 Napoli, Siena 1-4 Milan, Udinese 2-0 Lazio