Antonio Di Natale reacted as only he knows how. After the Udinese striker was flagged offside during the second half of his team's game against Roma on Sunday, he marched straight over to the linesman who had made the call. The official braced himself for an earful; instead he got a kiss on the forehead.
Soon afterwards, Di Natale was spotted pinching the cheek of referee Mauro Bergonzi. He received no punishment, of course. Di Natale has always had a knack for getting away with more than he should. When he first asked his now wife, Ilenia, out on a date as a teenager, she jokingly asked if he had really wanted to go with her twin sister, Genny. He replied with a shrug, saying: "Either of the two would be fine."
But if Di Natale's mischievous charm has taken him far in life, then it is his goals which have carried Udinese. He scored 103 of them across the past four league campaigns, twice finishing as Serie A's capocannoniere. Such consistency has also helped to turn Udinese's Stadio Friuli home into a fortress; Roma arrived on Sunday knowing that no visiting team had won there since September 2012.
The Giallorossi were better equipped than most to threaten that record. Five points clear at the top, they had won all eight of their league games to date. And yet they would be missing two key starters up front, with both Francesco Totti and Gervinho ruled out due to injury. That pair had already combined for six goals and seven assists.
As brilliant as Roma had been, furthermore, some observers remained sceptical of their squad depth. They had used just 17 players through the first eight games, fewer than anyone else in the division. The Roma manager, Rudi Garcia, hardly soothed fans' concerns with his pre-game remark that "nature abhors a vacuum, so someone will have to play".
In reality, of course, Garcia knew that he still had some solid options available to him. Totti's shoes would be filled by Marco Borriello, while Adem Ljajic replaced Gervinho. The former scored 12 goals while playing for a far more modest Genoa team last year, while the latter had found the net three times in five appearances (four of them off the bench) since joining from Fiorentina in the summer.
Nevertheless, Roma did start poorly on Sunday. Within three minutes of kick-off, Luis Muriel had hit a post for Udinese. A quarter of an hour later, Di Natale went clean through only to see a disappointing shot saved easily by Morgan De Sanctis. By that point Udinese were sweeping forward in waves, hitting their opponents hard on the counter. Only an athletic goalline clearance from Leandro Castán saved Roma from falling behind to a Gabriel Silva strike shortly before half-time.
The visitors improved after the break, defending more cohesively and beginning to apply pressure down the flanks, but any hopes of a victory seemed to have been fatally undermined when Maicon was sent off for a needless second booking in the 66th minute. Garcia re-shaped his team into a cautious 4-4-1, with Vasilis Torosidis replacing Miralem Pjanic. Soon the manager would replace Borriello with an additional midfielder, Michael Bradley.
This was only the American's third appearance of a frustrating season. Bradley has been out of action since injuring an ankle while warming up for a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in early September, and has since watched Roma excel without him.
Anxious observers in the US had already begun to ask what the player's prospects would look like when he returned. A midfield trio of Pjanic, Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman has arguably been the greatest strength of Garcia's new-look Roma. Their success left no room for Bradley to force his way back into the starting XI – especially given the new manager's reluctance to rotate.
Speculation began that the player might seek a January transfer. Such talk was entirely premature. Bradley has shown no interest in leaving, nor his club in selling. Both parties were entirely focused on getting the player fit and back in position to help Roma's cause.
He did that on Sunday in dramatic fashion, scoring the game's only goal with less than 10 minutes left to play. Roma had not done much attacking in the wake of Maicon's sending off but after De Rossi picked out Strootman with a direct ball forwards from midfield, the Dutchman laid it off to Bradley on the edge of the D. From there, he stroked an immaculate first-time finish into the bottom corner of the net.
It was enough to secure Roma their ninth consecutive win to start this season. Only Juventus, in 2005-06, had ever achieved such a feat in Serie A. Their achievements in that season have since been expunged from the official record books as a result of the Calciopoli scandal.
In fact, Gazzetta dello Sport claimed on Monday that the longest-ever winning sequence to start a season in any of Europe's top leagues stands at just 11 games – set by Tottenham in 1960-61. For Roma, matching that total no longer seems inconceivable. They have scored the joint-most goals of any team in Serie A (23) and conceded just once. Their next game is at home to last-placed Chievo on Thursday night.
Of course, there are some who believe Roma have been riding their luck. Sunday's game was the second in a row in which their opponents had both hit the woodwork and had a shot cleared off the line. "But you earn your luck, it doesn't arrive on its own," argued Garcia. "If someone gives everything on the pitch, and throughout the week, they can get rewarded for it."
Bradley might just be the poster boy for such beliefs – a player whose entire career has been built on hard work and a refusal to be deterred. As a child, after determining that the two training sessions and one weekly match offered by his own team were not enough, he took to showing up at his local club every day until coaches gave in and let him play with the older kids on the days when his own group was not practicing.
In his professional career he has taken every setback as further motivation, joining Chievo in 2011 in order to get back to playing regularly after a frustrating spell at Aston Villa, and then forcing Italy's biggest clubs to take notice with his all-action performances. It is hard to imagine his spirit being broken now by a little competition for places.
"We still have 29 games to go, and we need everyone," said Bradley after Sunday's game. "You won't win anything with 11 soloists. We all need to makes sure that we are ready at the right moment. I will give everything, just as I did when I was out injured."
Hard work itself, though, still might not be the whole picture. Shortly after full-time on Sunday Totti posted on his own website the unique qualities that he thought had contributed to Roma's victory. "Congratulations to my team-mates," he wrote. "Each one showed courage, strength and, as we say around here, two massive balls!"
He went on to praise the club's supporters, roughly 1,000 of whom were waiting for the team when they returned to Fiumicino airport. After a start to the season that has gone beyond all realistic expectations, they too had reacted as only they know how.
• Mario Balotelli shaved off his Mohawk on Friday, a symbolic gesture designed to represent his turning over of a new leaf after one too many distractions over the past few weeks. And then, on Sunday, the player turned in one of his worst performances in a Milan shirt, getting hauled off by Massimiliano Allegri early in the second half of his team's game at Parma. The Rossoneri were 2-0 down at the time, but, inspired by Kaká – himself on as a substitute – they rallied to equalise, only to then blow it all by conceding again in second-half injury-time. Nine games into the season, Milan are already 16 points behind Roma, although Allegri did try to raise the mood by confirming in his post-game interviews that the club would sign Keisuke Honda from CSKA Moscow in January.
• Juan Cuadrado was the star of the show for Fiorentina at the weekend, scoring both his team's goals in a win at Chievo. It was subsequently reported by Sky Italia that Arsenal had submitted a bid to sign the player in January but that it had been turned down by the Italian club. Vincenzo Montella refused to discuss the matter afterwards, saying: "Now is not the time for transfers."
• Adidas let it be known before the weekend that Mauro Icardi would be playing this weekend in a quite remarkable new pair of "lion-dog boots", designed by Yohji Yamamoto. Inevitably, Icardi never actually made it off the bench in Internazionale's 4-2 win over Verona. Still, the boots are quite something to behold, so I'm sure we'll be seeing them in action before too long.
• Juventus and Napoli each won 2-0, beating beating Genoa and Torino respectively, to stay within five points of Roma. Notably, this was only Juve's first home clean-sheet of the season.
Results: Bologna 1-0 Livorno, Catania 0-0 Sassuolo, Chievo 1-2 Fiorentina, Inter 4-2 Verona, Juventus 2-0 Genoa, Lazio 2-0 Cagliari, Napoli 2-0 Torino, Parma 3-2 Milan, Sampdoria 1-0 Atalanta, Udinese 0-1 Roma.