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Napoli seek revenge vs. Higuain, Juventus

Serie A
By ESPN Staff

Gotta: The winning record nobody really wants

What if a side set a new record for consecutive wins and nobody really cared?

That is what is in danger of happening in Italy - despite the efforts of headline writers, TV show hosts and Inter fans - where Roberto Mancini's nerazzurri won 3-1 at Torino on Saturday to secure a record-setting 12th Serie A win in a row.

But this extraordinary record has been looked at as if through a haze of suspicion by many, and it's easy to understand why: with Juventus currently touring Italy's more unfashionable towns during their Serie B campaign, and Milan weighed down by the point-penalty, loss of form and the curious refusal to dismiss speculation linking them to rotund has-beens like Ronaldo. With all these question marks, some regard Inter's record as being hollow and worthy of at least an asterisk.

It isn't because they have not had to play a full-strength Juventus, as would have been the case had the bianconeri not been sent down for the black arts of their former directors, but that they have had virtually no serious competition for the last couple of months. Thus, the case against them is they have not had to feel the strain of a head-to-head race where each false step can leave you trailing behind the fellow title contenders for good.

For this reason, some believe their new record is not as good as it seems. But in fact it is, as Inter could not have done any better under the circumstances.

Each time a perceived challenge came up, Inter delivered brilliantly and came home with a win: at Fiorentina, Roma, Milan, Palermo, Lazio. None of those matches was of the do-or-die variety, but Inter nonetheless took maximum points against all the other top sides.

In fact, the Inter of 2006-07 much resembles the Juventus squads of the recent past under Fabio Capello in that they rarely fail against the lesser sides, using their maturity - a word you wouldn't have associated with them until this year - and cynicism to finesse, muscle aside, out-perform or outwit teams like Reggina, Atalanta and Empoli.

It is not too far fetched to mention that the signings of Patrick Vieira, who'd faded in the latter part of last season, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic may have given Inter a harder look and a sharper edge on the days when the old Inter might perhaps have settled for a draw.

Arguing if this is Inter's best ever squad is pointless, and as such, given the vacuity of the matter and the fact you can debate for days on end without reaching a final verdict, TV viewers and newspaper readers are apparently turning away from such dreary fare in record numbers.

Whether Ibrahimovic has now surpassed Sandro Mazzola or Ramon Diàz is utterly unimportant, then, what is important is that Inter are running away with the Scudetto and what had at first appeared as the most exciting title run in years, with at least four sides competing with each other, has now taken on the look of a four-tiered league.

Inter almost certain of the championship, Roma and Palermo are almost assured of a Champions League place, seven teams - the surging Milan among them - trying to elbow each other out of the way for the last Champions League place and the rest glancing at their feet to make sure they don't step into the trapdoor. It is most often in this part of the league ladder that the weirder situations occur.

For example, among those who were in contention for a Champions League spot until their late fall were Livorno, who have since settled into the kind of predictable unpredictability their make-up virtually guarantees.

On Sunday, the Tuscans went down 5-1 at Atalanta on the kind of pitch and environmental conditions one would normally associate with the proverbial wet Tuesday night in Grimsby - if you could see trawlers from Bergamo's Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia of course.

Since their previous road game has seen them go down 4-1 at Sampdoria, the double blow became too much for Aldo Spinelli, everyone's favourite trigger-happy chairman, who sacked coach Daniele Arrigoni on the spot, accusing him of a variety of misdemeanours culminating in the refusal to take his players away for a shorter version of training camp, like other managers did, during the latter part of the winter break.

Arrigoni had hoped to be the first Livorno manager to end the season in charge since Walter Mazzarri won promotion at the end of the 2003-04 season, but his hopes were dashed after Spinelli's outburst following the defeat at Bergamo.

Or were they? On Monday, a delegation of players who objected to Spinelli's decision and for once decided to stick their heads out travelled to his company's HQs in Genoa and apparently managed to change his mind, in spite of the fact that no fewer than five managers had received enquiries from Livorno about their availability since late Sunday afternoon.

You wonder where goalkeeper and World Cup winner Marco Amelia will end up, though, as on Sunday he was the first to react and challenged Spinelli to 'show he has the same balls he wants us to have' and resign. With Amelia's market value still high despite his rabbit-in-the-headlights displays in the last month, he's now sure to leave, although the latest news have him closer to joining Spartak Moscow than Milan.

Livorno owner Spinelli may then decide to follow up and sell up, only to probably resurface in some other place where his company may want to do business.

Speaking of managers, Udinese have all but announced the sacking of Giovanni Galeone, while another soap opera has been developing at struggling Parma.

Yet another abject display in the 2-0 away defeat at Empoli on Saturday pushed coach Stefano Pioli closer to the edge of the cliff, with rumours again linking old warhorse Gedeone Carmignani with the job. The former goalkeeper and current youth team coach's has already had two stints at the helm of Parma, which he managed to save from relegation on both occasions after replacing Daniel Passarella and Silvio Baldini, but a poorer squad and scepticism from the fans - some of the Ultras broke into the training centre last week and confronted Pioli and some players, an almost unheard of incident in placid Parma - may well make his task harder this time.

The ugliest scenes of the weekend were played out in Messina, where the local side and its fans should have queued up to shake Roma defender Christian Chivu's hand at the final whistle. The Romanian's ill-advised tackle on forward Arturo Di Napoli, who was in a wide position with no chance of a shot on goal, earned Messina a last minute penalty that Alessandro Parisi put away neatly to placate the catcalls and angry protests from a section of the crowd aimed in the direction of chairman Pietro Franza, coach Bruno Giordano and the players.

Talk about ingratitude. As of last July, Messina were a Serie B side, having been relegated after a disappointing and ugly 2005-06 campaign. Then, Juventus were sent down as a result of the Calciopoli scandal and Messina got their break, but the squad was not one you'd trust to keep you clear of the relegation zone.

Despite this, new coach Bruno Giordano, the former Lazio and Napoli striker, led the side to a four-match unbeaten run out of the blocks, with striker Christian Rigano scoring nine times in the first twelve games, but Rigano's injury trouble and a loss of form by too many players have meant no wins and four points out of a possible 30 since October 29. Better to look away then, but what were the Messina fans expecting?

Finally, a lighter note for those who may have been led to believe Calcio is struggling. It is not. In fact, it is surging. Think I have misread my notes? Think again. Calcio is a small town in Northern Italy near Bergamo, and the side carrying the same name - officially USO Calcio Caravaggio - just joined Sardinia's Tempio at the top of the B group of the Serie D, Italy's fifth division. So the next time you believe Calcio is in a bad shape, make sure you know the difference.

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