Udinese are on the verge of making the Champions League qualifiers – but Sampdoria's relegation offers a cautionary tale
Almost two years have passed since the death of Michael Jackson, but in Serie A his legacy remains alive and well. In December, Italy's sporting press praised a Juventus winger nicknamed after the King of Pop; yesterday they showed their appreciation for a Milan midfielder who can dance like him.
As promised, Kevin-Prince Boateng took to the field at San Siro in full costume on Saturday night to perform a celebratory (and actually rather good) Moonwalk – the high point of a day of festivities for Milan as they finally celebrated the Scudetto win in front of their supporters. Worryingly, it looks as though it may catch on. Before long the Milan-supporting pundit Tiziano Crudeli had joined in (well, tried to join in). A day later the Udinese manager Francesco Guidolin would threaten to do the same.
"If it all goes as we hope then I will dance at [Udinese's stadium, the Stadio] Friuli, like Boateng did at San Siro," vowed Guidolin after his side's 2-0 win at Chievo. The victory had taken Udinese to 65 points – a club record in Serie A – but more importantly, when coupled with Roma's defeat at Catania, it leaves Udinese needing just a point from their last game to secure fourth place and a spot in the Champions League qualifying round.
Guidolin said he would get some help with the dance moves from his team's extensive South American contingent, but first he will need them to clear one last obstacle. It is not a small one: Milan, Udinese's opposition next Sunday, may have already sewn up the title, but they certainly won't be as compliant as Chievo were last weekend. The Rossoneri hardly looked like a team who had downed tools during their 4-1 cruise past Cagliari on Saturday.
While there might have been an element of Milan wanting to put on a show for their supporters, there are also plenty of players in the dressing room with points to prove. Nine members of the first-team squad will see their contracts expire in the summer – including Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf – and if Milan are to invest, as Silvio Berlusconi has promised, in fresh talent, then cuts to the existing wage bill will have to be made.
Udinese have overcome bigger obstacles, of course, not least the one imposed on themselves by losing their first four games – and only drawing the fifth – to sit bottom of the table. That they should find themselves fourth now is beyond remarkable, but it would still be painful should they fail to take the final step.
But perhaps this is not the moment to worry about hypothetical scenarios. After all, while the final Champions League place is a race between Udinese and Lazio, elsewhere we have definite answers. Internazionale's 1‑1 draw at Napoli last night confirmed that those two will finish second and third respectively. And at the other end of the table Sampdoria's 2-1 defeat at home to Palermo – allied with Lecce's 2-0 win at Bari – sees them relegated.
Should Udinese make it over the line next weekend they would do well to study Samp's cautionary tale. A year ago it was the Blucerchiati who were closing in on a miraculous fourth-place finish: an achievement that would be celebrated with the mother of all parties in Piazza de Ferrari and an endless stream of articles praising the leadership of a club who had achieved the feat on a budget less than one quarter of that belonging to the champions, Inter.
Twelve months on, it is that same leadership who will carry the can for the team's failures. The owner Riccardo Garrone's decision to sanction the departures of Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini in January was reckless, but even more naïve was the belief – shared by the club's directors – that those two international forwards could be adequately replaced by a journeyman with a mediocre record – Massimo Maccarone – and a Manchester United reserve, Federico Macheda.
The subsequent decision to sack the manager Domenico Di Carlo in March and replace him with Alberto Cavasin also appears ill-judged. Samp had been going through a difficult period under Di Carlo, but changing manager at such a late stage only served to increase the confusion. Since his appointment the team have collected five points from nine games.
Perhaps, though, the greatest mistake was made much earlier – when the club failed to make significant additions over the summer ahead of their Champions League qualifier against Werder Bremen. Winning that tie – and they came within seconds of doing so – would have brought with it millions of euros in group-stage revenue, laying the basis for further strengthening of the squad. Of course the summer was disrupted by the departures of the manager Luigi Del Neri and director Beppe Marotta, but that is hardly a sufficient excuse for the subsequent inertia.
Nor can the remaining players be excused, and there were many more who performed below the levels they had set last season, but it would have taken a hard heart not to feel for the Samp captain Angelo Palombo yesterday as he went over to the home supporters in floods of tears. He will have plenty of suitors this summer, but it is not inconceivable that he could remain. If he did, the club's chances of an immediate return would be greatly increased.
But it is also important to note that Samp are not the first Italian team in recent years to make a swift journey from the "paradise" (as Guidolin described it yesterday) of European football to the despair of relegation. In 2007 Chievo were relegated at the end of a season which had begun in the Champions League qualifying round, and a year later Empoli went down after reaching the Uefa Cup for the first time in their history.
The danger of becoming overstretched is great for the smaller Italian clubs who cannot justify financially the sorts of extended first-team squads available to the likes of Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma. If some have been accused of not taking the Uefa Cup or Europa League seriously enough in the past few seasons, then several of them might feel vindicated by the fact that they remain competitive in Serie A.
It is a dilemma that Udinese will have to wrestle with, guaranteed as they are at least a Europa League place and as they weigh up their moves in the transfer market. And one that Sampdoria will have plenty of time to reflect on as they prepare for life in the second tier and contemplate what might have been.
• If we are to assign blame to Sampdoria, then we must also give praise to Lecce for the manner in which they have pulled themselves out of the mire. The win at Samp in early April was huge, but consecutive wins against Napoli and then at Bari over the past two weekends have also been impressive and well deserved. Bari were not short of motivation either, hoping as they were to drag the local rivals down with them.
Perhaps most impressively Lecce have achieved survival playing a brand of faintly reckless attacking football that few in such a position would dare to attempt. The Brazilian forward Jeda got both goals yesterday, but in total 14 players have contributed goals in the league this season – a fact that has allowed them to get away with conceding more goals than anyone else.
• Milan's Pippo Inzaghi and Inter's Walter Samuel are aged 37 and 33 respectively. In November they each suffered cruciate-ligament damage that might have ended their careers. Last weekend they both came back. "Today I returned to being a football player," declared a somewhat emotional SuperPippo at full-time, stating that he would like to end his career at San Siro. With his contract at an end, that is something he will now have an opportunity to discuss with the vice-president Adriano Galliani.
• While Boateng came good on his promise of a Moonwalk, all we can do is sit and wait to discover if Ezequiel Lavezzi will be true to the promise he made over Napoli's Champions League qualification. "If we qualify for the Champions League I'll put on a miniskirt and dye my hair blonde," the forward declared before the draw with Inter. Whether this is to put on a show for supporters, or simply a more general lifestyle choice, remains unclear.
• Uncertainty over managers' futures is to be expected at this time of year, and just as last year it seems certain there will be change at some of Italy's most high-profile clubs. Napoli's Walter Mazzarri was held aloft by his players after they secured third place, but would not confirm that he would be back next year, saying only that he intended to speak to the club's owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis. "Was this my last match for Napoli," he mused. "I'm not answering."
• Mazzarri at least knows that his club would have him back. The Juventus manager Gigi Del Neri – a man whose job the Napoli manager has been linked with – could only say that "the club will decide" when asked about his future following a 1-0 defeat to Parma in which Sebastian Giovinco came back to haunt the Old Lady once again (three of the Atomic Ant's seven goals this season have come against Juve).
Roma's Vincenzo Montella was more combative. "If the decision [about whether I stay on] falls to me, then at that point I will have to say my piece," he said yesterday. "Since I have been at Roma I have had to go against my own judgment on certain matters."
• Back at Juve, the tough talking was left to Giorgio Chiellini. "This is the thousandth missed train of our season," he said. "Every time we've had the chance to turn the page, we have fluffed it. Paradoxically we have always done well when it seemed as though we had nothing left to play for. We have never been a team."
Results: Bari 0-2 Lecce, Catania 2-1 Roma, Cesena 1-0 Brescia, Chievo 0-2 Udinese, Fiorentina 1-1 Bologna, Lazio 4-2 Genoa, Milan 4-1 Cagliari, Napoli 1-1 Inter, Parma 1-0 Juventus, Sampdoria 1-2 Palermo