Luca Toni was dismissed as a flop by Genoa's president - but his winner against his old club kept Juve's European hopes alive
Forget Calciopoli, Torino's missing championship of 1927 and Rodrigo Palacio's hair – Serie A's greatest scandal unfolded just last March. That was when the Lega Calcio, the body that runs Serie A, confirmed their intention to begin scheduling games on a Sunday lunchtime from the beginning of the 2010-11 season.
Although the move would boost TV revenue – Asian broadcasters, in particular, were keen – many Italians had little doubt that this was A Bad Thing. The bishop of Fidenza, Carlo Mazza, spoke for the Catholic community when he expressed the fear that "profound human values" were under attack, with the new arrangements reducing the amount of time that families would spend together on the sabbath, while the non-religious noted the potential for excessively high temperatures. Dario Nardella, deputy mayor of Florence, wrote to the league in November declaring such fixtures to be "against the Italian way of life".
The fans made their own feelings heard as only they knew how. Parma's supporters instigated the perfectly preposterous "sandwich protest" at their early kick-off against Roma, sticking it to the authorities by pulling out their packed lunches at kick-off and beginning to eat. Genoa's supporters went a little further for their home game against Juventus, constructing eight-foot tall spoons out of tin foil to accompany their plastic bowls and an enormous banner reading: "You wanted to take away our passion. Instead you just took away our minestrone".
Five months on, though, attitudes might just be beginning to shift. After all, the first 27 editions of Serie A's 12.30pm kick-off have produced a staggering 87 goals (an average of 3.22 per fixture). Certainly if Juventus's supporters had cause to grumble as they arrived amid temperatures pushing 30C yesterday for the return against Genoa at Turin's Stadio Olimpico, they certainly weren't complaining as they departed after seeing their team twice come from behind to win 3-2.
"We want you [playing] like this," sang the home supporters at the final whistle, delirious at having seen their team win a third consecutive league game for the first time since September 2009. In the space of three fixtures Juve have gone from mid-table also-rans – seven points behind sixth-placed Roma – to dreaming of a Champions League place. Although they remain seventh, the gap to fourth-place Lazio is now just six points. With six games to play, that looks unbridgeable, but it is close enough for the fans to wonder.
Genoa, locked in midtable obscurity, abandoned such fantasies long ago, but at the start of the season they too had been discussed as potential top four candidates after Portugal keeper Eduardo, Schalke full-back Rafinha, Sporting Lisbon midfielder Miguel Veloso, Italy centre-back Andrea Ranocchia and former World Cup winner Luca Toni, among others, arrived at the club. If the failure of such investment to pay dividends had upset the owner Enrico Preziosi, the identity of Juve's match-winner on Sunday provided an additional insult.
Toni left Genoa with a jibe from Preziosi ringing in his ears. "I would give him a three [out of 10]," the Genoa president responded when asked by a journalist how he would rate the striker's time with the club. "The same as the number of [league] goals he scored."
Toni might have responded that he hardly received the best service in Genoa, and that he had scored four more in the Coppa Italia, but instead he bided his time. If revenge is a dish best served cold then he could hardly have asked for a much better opportunity to produce it. Juventus were 2-1 down yesterday when the manager Gigi Del Neri told the striker, who had been on the bench, that he was going on. Within a minute Toni had set up Alessandro Matri's equaliser, and before the end he had slotted home the winner.
The striker declined the opportunity to taunt Preziosi afterwards, dedicating the goal to his parents and joking that the Alberto Aquilani pass that set up his winner should never have got to him in the first place. "I managed to trick [the Genoa centre-back Dario] Dainelli, because Aquilani's assist was splendid but supposed to go to a different team-mate," he said.
But if Toni was jovial, and the crowd buoyant, then the sense that all is not well at Juventus lingered. Del Neri spoke only briefly with the press and seemed to react with some bitterness when one journalist praised his move to an attacking 4-4-2 – at times almost a 4-2-4 – in the second half. "When I did it against Bologna you slaughtered me," Del Neri shot back. "I make changes always in the hope of improving, but for you every choice only finds any sense in the final result."
Certainly Del Neri has not been given an easy ride over the last few months. The criticism from some sections of the press – most notably the Turin-based Tuttosport – has been relentless, while the fans have also turned against him. The same supporters acclaiming the team at the end had been jeering and heckling the manager's substitutions in the second half before the tide turned. Until the recent upturn in form, many had been taking it for granted that the manager would lose his job at the end of the season, if not sooner.
That was perhaps always a little presumptuous, given the manager's strong relationship with the sporting director Beppe Marotta, who along with Del Neri joined from Sampdoria in the summer, yet reports also suggest he has taken significant steps towards uniting a dressing room that was perceived to be divided. Although much has been made over Marco Storari's repeated claims that he should start ahead of Gigi Buffon, elsewhere the squad does at last seem to be pulling together, with an insistence on communal breakfasts and lunches paying dividends as the players have started to spend more time together off the pitch.
The manager may be replaced at the end of the year – the next six results are likely to have a strong bearing – but if nothing else he has certainly got the best out of Matri. Many Juventus fans were deeply unconvinced by the striker when he arrived from Cagliari in January, especially after seeing the player many had wanted – Giampaolo Pazzini – join Inter, yet Matri's seven goals in 10 games for Juve compare favourably with his Italy team-mate's six in 12 for the Nerazzurri.
Matri, more than any other player, has allowed the fans to dream big once again. "We are thinking about it [the Champions League] and we hope to make it," he said afterwards. "But we need to win every game." Given that Juve's remaining fixtures include trips to Fiorentina and Lazio, as well as a home game against Napoli, that seems unlikely. But then so did enthusiasm for lunch-time kick-offs, once upon a time.
• For just over four hours yesterday Napoli were level on points with Milan at the top of Serie A – although they were technically still second since the Rossoneri hold the tie-breaker. The Partenopei's 2-0 win over Bologna put the pressure on the leaders ahead of what appeared a daunting trip to Fiorentina, yet Milan made their 2-1 win look routine. Clarence Seedorf, thriving in his new role on the left of Massimiliano Allegri's diamond midfield, opened the scoring after eight minutes and Alexandre Pato made it two by half-time. Despite Juan Vargas pulling a goal back with just over 10 minutes to play, Milan never really looked likely to relinquish their lead.
• Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the other hand, did lose one thing at the end: his self control. A verbal outburst in the vicinity of the linesman – though he insisted his words were aimed at himself – earned a red card that, combined with the suspension he was already due after collecting a booking earlier in the game, could see him banned for up to three games. It is telling that such an absence no longer looks daunting.
• Napoli's win over Bologna was their ninth away win of the season – one less than Milan, but as many as José Mourinho's Inter managed last year. Then again, this didn't feel too much like an away fixture. Roughly 15,000 Napoli fans made the trip, taking up close to half of the available seats at the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara. All of those who didn't make the trip, it seems, were waiting for the team when they landed back at Capodichino airport. Tougher tests await – starting with a home game against Udinese next week, but they came through this one with flying colours despite the absence of their top scorer Edinson Cavani through suspension.
• This might be a good time to face Udinese, who slipped to a second defeat in as many weeks at home to Roma. It was a cruel blow to the Friuliani, who played well enough to merit a draw even without the injured Alexis Sanchez and seemed to have secured a point when Antonio Di Natale cancelled out Francesco Totti's penalty with two minutes left. Totti popped up again with a winner deep in injury time, and worse still for Udinese there were reports yesterday that Di Natale could face a ban if the authorities choose to review footage of him appearing to slap team-mate Gabriele Angella late in the game. Di Natale was apparently trying to calm Angella down after Udinese had a penalty appeal turned down with the scores level at 1-1.
• The win brought Roma to within three points of Udinese, but still four points off fourth after Lazio beat Parma. Many at Lazio, however, seemed less interested in celebrating than raising questions about the officiating of Roma's game with Udinese. "Roma's penalty was a clear decision, but so was the one that wasn't given to Udinese," said Cristian Brocchi afterwards. "We are where we are in the table because of our own merits, but others I'm not sure." The team's president, Claudio Lotito, promptly announced his plans to employ a "task force" of his own men to analyse the remaining games of the season and make sure everything is conducted as it should be. "Reaching the Champions League is worth €25m," he noted. "We need to make sure that the results are decided only by merit."
• Delio Rossi enjoyed a suitably absurd return to life as Palermo manager, seeing his team take a 2-0 lead against relegation-threatened Cesena but then contrive to concede two goals in second-half injury time despite the fact that their opponents were down to 10 men. "Perhaps we relaxed a little," he observed.
• Lecce's revival continued with a second win in as many games, but their opponents Sampdoria look to be sinking without trace. This was a fifth consecutive home defeat – equalling the club's record in Serie A, and left the club one point above the relegation zone. The manager Alberto Cavasin's position is said to be at risk after just four games, in which the club have collected a single point. "If they sack me now they would be making a big mistake," he said. "I've changed many things and we're nearly there."
Results: Bari 1-1 Catania, Bologna 0-2 Napoli, Cagliari 1-1 Brescia, Fiorentina 1-2 Milan, Inter 2-0 Chievo, Juventus 3-2 Genoa, Lazio 2-0 Parma, Palermo 2-2 Cesena, Sampdoria 1-2 Lecce, Udinese 1-2 Roma