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Sep 21, 2006

The Sicilian specialists

One of the things that has always amused me and the more iconoclastic among my colleagues before a big match in Italy is the customary press release by the home club, whichever it is, announcing the number of foreign countries that will watch the game live.

Some of the numbers in the past beggared belief, and one would have had to try hard to keep a straight face in learning the Sicilian derby and top of the table clash between Palermo and Catania on Wednesday night was going to be broadcast in 180 countries.

First of all, surely there must not be that many in the whole world, although at times I suspect the former Soviet Union itself broke up in no less than 150 different nations, most of them with a name ending in 'stan'.

Second, how do you keep count, really? And then, at least half of those nations dropping in to watch - and it's always a cute round number, 180 or 250 or 300, not 157 or 183 - would have had trouble locating Sicily and the two towns on a map, or know something beyond obvious cliches.

Speaking of which, not that some East End entrepreneurs bothered to check their facts and read their history books, last week, when they made the mother of all shortcuts in summing up what a name evokes for them by printing T-shirts with the words 'The Hammers v The Mafia' as Palermo visited Upton Park in the Uefa Cup.

I was there and was amused and disheartened by the bare-boned rudeness of those jerseys more than offended, but the visiting fans and writers were deeply offended by the juxtaposition, which brought a tense, typically rhetoric-filled response - even before a ball had been kicked - by the Governor of Sicily.

Not exactly what the good-taste doctor ordered, perhaps, as he's been under investigation for alleged links with - you've guessed it - the mafia.

The best reply, of course, was Palermo's on the Upton Park pitch, that night. It took a few minutes for them to find their feet, just as some of their correspondents in the pressbox had been overwhelmed by the magnificent intensity of the local fans' chanting at the beginning of the match. I always get a kick out of watching how first-timers in an English stadium react to a level of noise which is on a completely different planet to Italy's.

But once Palermo absorbed West Ham's furious start they were clearly the more poised side and deserved the win. So it may or may not have been exactly 180 countries being beamed the satellite signal of Palermo-Catania on Wednesday night, but those who did enjoyed one of the finest displays of attacking, worry-free football in recent times.

Palermo won 5-3, bringing the aggregate score of their first two home matches this season to 9-6 and more significantly lifting themselves to the top of the table in style, with eight different players having so far found the net for the Pink Ones' eleven goals.

Catania's Palermo-born striker Giorgio Corona, who plays with the lower part of the right leg of his shorts rolled in inside his underwear, put the visitors ahead with an identical goal to the one Hernan Crespo would score a few minutes later for Inter at Roma.

Taking the ball at the defence on the left side, he feinted inside then turned outside, embarrassing Christian Zaccardo (Philippe Mexes was the one left stranded by Crespo in Rome) then side-footed the ball home with his right foot through the feet of goalkeeper Federico Agliardi, a hero on Sunday at Lazio, but who would later gift Catania an equaliser at 2-2 by completely missing the ball while trying to chest it down while on his knees, a don't-try-this-at-home feat if ever there was one. He apparently believed a teammate had touched the ball last and did not want to handle it.

The derby game was marred by crowd trouble, all too predictable given the circumstances and the horribly customary Italian habit of knowing you will hardly get punished for your acts of violence, but as with the mafia thing, the bad deeds of few should not receive front page notice at the expense of the good deeds of most.

Among them the Palermo players, who shifted gears in the second half after allowing Catania, newly promoted and on four points now, to dictate play for much of the first period.

Palermo's tactical sophistication is superb. Midfield general Eugenio Corini, 35, is a natural leader. He ran back to comfort Agliardi after putting Palermo level within two minutes of the goalkeeper's blunder and then pulling the strings in a Pirlo-like role, flanked by goalscoring midfielder Fabio Simpicio and hard-running Giovanni Tedesco, another local lad who equalised Corona's goal, alongside the creativity of David Di Michele and the hard running of Mark Bresciano.

Francesco Guidolin, who returned to the scene of his latest triumph after an indifferent spell at Monaco, does not get much press because he never allows himself to indulge in the glad-handling that earns other managers a sympathetic ear from the media, but has always struck me as a hard-working fellow with little time for self-promotion if not of the tactical kind.

Fulfilling the predictions of many, he showed up for the post-match interviews wearing a pink shirt - not only Palermo's colours, but also the shirt donned by the leader of cycling's Tour of Italy, the least Guidolin, a renowned cycling enthusiast, could do.

It's early doors yet, but you can just sense Palermo are on a roll now, and could well be challenging for the Scudetto because of above-average talent, versatility, variety and a reasonably deep bench, although they will need to keep scoring a lot to offset the potentially awkward state of their defence, despite the presence of World-Cup winners in Cristian Zaccardo and Andrea Barzagli.

They also found an unlikely supporter in Alessandro Del Piero, who on being asked on live TV some time ago which side he rooted for now, replied, with an almost completely straight face, 'Palemmo', imitating a local's way of pronouncing their town's name.

Elsewhere in the Serie A's first midweek round of matches, Crespo's goal was crucial in keeping the vultures away from Inter, whose indifferent start had again plunged them to the status of laughing stock.

One may worry about the situation of Adriano, who again was left out by Roberto Mancini.

Their crosstown neighbours, Milan, are already in the black, their third win in three helping offset the nine-point penalty they had starter the season with, but they struggled to beat Ascoli at home.

Marek Jankulovski's header on the run was the only goal of the match, but you wonder if their defence knows it's now within the rules for opponents to score, as even on Wednesday they conceded too many chances at the back, and had Dida to thank for a couple of great saves in the first half.

The best goal of the night, however, was scored by surprising Messina's centre-forward Christian Rigano, another Sicilian back playing for his home town club (almost: he's from the beautiful island of Lipari, off the coast of Sicily).

After putting the red-and-yellow ahead in the first half when Reggina defender Alessandro Lucarelli miskicked a left-wing cross and presented him the ball, Rigano painted a beauty five minutes from time, as he went past two defenders - one of them the hapless Lucarelli again - before curling the ball home inside Reggina's left hand post.

So now what is more surprising? That Rigano, not a master of subtlety, scored such a sophisticated goal? Or that Messina, with their mediocre squad, are now second in the table on seven points?


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