Sampdoria had to beat Bari on Saturday to keep their fight against relegation alive, and responsibility fell to one man
Nicola Pozzi almost managed to make it sound like a privilege. "There is no precise hierarchy when it comes to taking penalties," the striker said after Sampdoria's game against Bari on Saturday. "Our dressing room gave me the opportunity to take the shot."
If "opportunity" was one way of describing the situation facing Pozzi in the 59th minute of Samp's fixture at the Stadio San Nicola then another might be "cripplingly onerous responsibility". With the game level at 0-0, Pozzi was charged with the small matter of saving his team's season. After eight games without a win, Sampdoria were not so much flirting with relegation as inviting it in for a coffee. They had begun the afternoon third from bottom, and were now struggling to find a breakthrough against Serie A's softest opponents.
This was a game Samp simply had to win. Bari were the worst side in Serie A – a team who had scraped together only 21 points from 33 games and who had been rooted to the bottom of the table since mid-November. Sampdoria, though, had their own problems: November, by neat coincidence, was also the last month in which they had scored in an away fixture. By the time Pozzi began his run-up, Sampdoria had gone 871 minutes without scoring an away goal.
Then again, this was no ordinary away fixture. The gemellaggio (twinning) that exists between the two clubs' sets of supporters had fostered a friendly mood in the stands and more than one newspaper would describe the atmosphere as "like a home game" for Sampdoria, with many Bari fans (themselves resigned to relegation) even cheering on their opponents. That, though, was wide of the mark. After all, the way things have been lately Sampdoria could hardly count on this sort of support at a home fixture.
Following the shocking incidents of last Sunday – when a group of fans ambushed the team bus with bats and stones as it returned to Genoa following defeat in Milan – there were further flare-ups at the club's Bogliasco training base in the early part of the week. Threatening messages were graffitied outside the facility and groups of fans congregated to abuse players as they arrived for training.
Alberto Cavasin's attempts to calm fans' tempers only exacerbated the situation. The manager sought to convince supporters that he was as anxious as they were, claiming he had lost seven kilos since arriving at the club, but wound up being forced to retreat inside as they warned him they would "come after him" if the team did not win their next three games. Little wonder that the club eventually decided to relocate its training sessions to Rome for the latter part of the week.
There were reports that the move had worked a treat – that the players were relieved to be free of the hostile environment, that even double training sessions had not been enough to dampen the mood. On the first day there Pozzi put on a show, scoring four goals in a single training match – more than he had managed in competitive action all season.
But out on the pitch on Saturday the team quickly slipped back into the same patterns. They might have had better chances than their hosts, but that was not saying much. They had never looked likely to score before Erik Huseklepp clumsily brought down Andrea Poli inside the box. Sampdoria could not afford to blow this chance. With Pozzi one of only two players in the team who had scored away from home this season, it was perhaps little wonder that the ball should be passed in his direction.
This, though, was still no foregone conclusion. Bari's Jean-François Gillet is renowned for his penalty-saving abilities, having kept out a club record 18 spot-kicks during his time with the Galletti. "I struck it as hard as I could towards the bottom corner," Pozzi said. "Good thing too. If I hadn't, he would have got to it."
The keeper got his fingers to the ball, but was not quite able to push it around the post. The ball nestled in the bottom corner, and as Pozzi wheeled away to the sidelines the whole team went with him. Sampdoria held on to take all three points, but even with Bari offering little by way of attacking threat, the remaining minutes were fraught. Poli, substituted with 10 minutes to go, was sent off before the end for excessive protests from the bench.
That could prove a critical lapse of judgement. At his best Poli is a key player for Sampdoria, a creative schemer and talented passer who is regarded by many as one of Italy's brighter young talents despite an often disappointing season. On Sunday he would have been a unanimous choice for man of the match were it not for the sending off. His suspension will be felt by a team with such a thin squad.
The win was enough to lift Samp out of the relegation zone. There had been fears of a stitch-up when their city rivals Genoa, themselves with little left to play for this season, fell 1-0, then 2-1 behind at home to Samp's fellow relegation contenders Lecce. Certainly many Genoa fans would have been happy enough to see their team lose – a banner in the north stand reading "Let's send them down to Serie B" was indicative – but instead the Rossoblu roared back to win 4-2.
That leaves Lecce and Samp level on 35 points, but Cavasin's side hold the tie-breaker by virtue of away goals. Sampdoria won 3-2 away to Lecce (the last time they had scored away before this weekend's win over Bari), but lost the home meeting 2-1 this month.
With Parma and Cesena winning away to Udinese and Bologna respectively, and Catania grabbing a point at the last, away to Juventus, the gains made by Samp this weekend were more limited than they might have hoped for. Brescia, five points further back, are already considered a lost cause but their trip to Sampdoria next weekend could yet prove decisive for both teams.
Cavasin says his team will need 42 points to ensure survival – seven more than they have now, with four games remaining. That is a tall order for a team who before this weekend had taken two from their previous nine games. Nor does the fixture list look straightforward – the game against Brescia is followed by a Genoa derby, a home game against Palermo and a trip to Roma. Cavasin may be setting the bar higher than it needs to be, but at this stage of the season nothing can be taken for granted. Not even the backing of their own supporters.
• "You write Robinho and you read Scudetto," declared Gianni Mura in Sunday's Repubblica after the Brazilian's goal against Brescia helped Milan to take another huge step towards the Serie A title. With Napoli having lost away to Palermo, Inter are now back in second but the Rossoneri will not be losing too much sleep about their city rivals, who remain eight points behind. Milan need only four points from their four remaining games to be certain of winning the league. At this stage it is certainly a case of when, rather than if. As for Robinho – huge credit is due for the way he led the line in the absence of Alexandre Pato and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His finishing has been atrocious at times this season and yet, despite not taking any penalties, Robinho has already scored 12 goals. His overall contribution has been even more significant.
• The neutral's interest in seeing Milan win the title should have increased dramatically since Kevin-Prince Boateng promised: "If we win the Scudetto I will do a moonwalk at San Siro. Dressed like Michael Jackson."
• Inter deserve praise for the manner of their win over Lazio. Down a goal and playing with 10 men after their keeper Júlio César was sent off giving away a penalty after 22 minutes, they showed admirable resolve to win. Lazio ought to have done more to test César's replacement, Luca Castellazzi, himself struggling after picking up a thigh injury during the game, but it is worth noting that Leonardo, for all his mistakes, has won 10 out of 10 home league games since taking over from Rafael Benítez. Gazzetta dello Sport notes that in a hypothetical table where all games finished after 45 minutes, Inter would be 12th, with 43 points.
• Ever wondered why Lazio's Mauro Zárate seems to play with a chip on his shoulder? Perhaps his other half Natalie Weber has some insight: "In the days before games there is no sex, we play PlayStation," she said last week. "Then afterwards we make up for it."
• Napoli took the lead almost immediately at Palermo – Edinson Cavani slotting home a penalty after two minutes – before being pegged back. Once again they looked limited without Ezequiel Lavezzi, but in the final analysis this team will not be too disappointed if they can hang on to a top three finish. As the manager Walter Mazzarri reflected: "Palermo showed they were a great team. That fact only makes it even more impressive that we are 15 points ahead of them in the table."
• Palermo have big decisions to make this summer. The mid-season sacking and eventual reappointment of the manager Delio Rossi has frayed his relationship with the owner Maurizio Zamparini, but there is little doubt that the fans want him back. So, indeed, does Javier Pastore. "Do my decisions [about my future] depend on those of Rossi?" Pastore said this weekend. "Yes, certainly, if I remain it's because Rossi remains: I owe him a lot, since he returned you have seen once again the true Pastore. If he leaves I will think about my future."
• Losses for Lazio and Udinese have allowed Roma to dream of a top four finish, but Juventus are surely out of the running after letting a two-goal lead slip against Catania. Rightly or wrongly, it is hard to imagine their manager Gigi Del Neri will be back next year. Antonio Conte, Luciano Spalletti and Roberto Mancini are among the mooted replacements – as, inevitably, is Marcello Lippi (despite stressing in an interview last week that, while he loves Juve very much, he really wants to coach abroad).
Results: Bari 0-1 Sampdoria, Bologna 0-2 Cesena, Brescia 0-1 Milan, Cagliari 1-2 Fiorentina, Genoa 4-2 Lecce, Inter 2-1 Lazio, Juventus 2-2 Catania, Palermo 2-1 Napoli, Roma 1-0 Chievo, Udinese 0-2 Parma.