Genoa rebuild after tough Serie A start
Until Milan scored their first goal in surreal silence - in fact, you could hear their players celebrating - a pastime of most people inside the Luigi Ferraris Stadium in Genoa had been 'spot the rossonero'. There was an away fan ban for fear of a Genoese reprisal for the killing of one of theuir number back in 1995, but since most bans in Italy are respected as much as a 'no ogling' sign on a nudist beach, a trickle of fans were supposed to have made their way to the coast of Liguria.
Milan, after all, is less than two hours away by fast train - no, it's not an oxymoron in Italy - and obviously some Milan fans living in the Genoa area may have been able to disguise their faith and queue for a ticket outside Genoa CFC's ticket office during the week.
My personal encounter with three travelling fans was not the smoothest, either: although they wore no club colours, they were immediately recognizable. In fact, they may have been Torino fans - one of them had a dark red lanyard with the words 'Ultras' - on a day out to cause trouble.
And trouble they caused, as apparently the lanyard was all they brought along apart from clothes: they did not have a single train ticket between them and they were kicked off at the first stop, with the conductor wise enough to make sure they would not re-board the train on another carriage (they tried, though) before launching into a rant in front of the other passengers.
So it was indeed surprising to see the only rossonero-clad people jumping up when captain Massimo Ambrosini opened the scoring on 19 minutes, were the Milan directors sitting in the main stand and some of the players who had been left out of the side, among them recent acquisition Emerson, whose sojourn in Madrid has apparently not improved his characteristic stooping walk.
It should have been a great day for Genoa, back in the Serie A after a twelve-year absence. The red-and-blue side of the town which is known as 'Genova' in Italian - so there's no risk of confusion between club and place in our language - has always been known for his passion towards the team, a Scudetto winner nine times and legendary conquerors of Anfield in the 1992 Uefa Cup. Obviously, with the last Italian title having come in 1924, the cliché 'sleeping giants' does not even begin to describe Genoa, and it may be wrong, plain and simple. Genoa are no giants, and there is nothing remotely sleepy about them.
In fact, events in the last couple of years had been nightmarish: Genoa had gained promotion to the Serie A in 2005, under the frenetic guidance of Serse Cosmi, but had then been found guilty of slipping Venezia (their already relegated opponents in the last match of the season) 250,000 euros for taking it easy on that day. A quick look back at Venezia's 2004-05 campaign would have shown the green-and-black did not need any cash incentive to play as if they had just been introduced to each other, but someone among the Genoa officials was probably of the belt-and-suspenders variety and had decided to go the extra mile.
Genoa owner Enrico Preziosi's claim that the money was an advance payment for the purchase of defender Maldonado cut little ice with the investigators, who rightly objected that things such as a bank transfer had been among the more significant advances in financial technology in the past century, and poor Genoa found themselves thrown down to the Serie C1 with an additional 3-point penalty. They gained promotion back to the B then to the A in successive seasons, and are now looking for a prolonged spell in the top flight.
It is not going to be easy though. The squad is talented enough for a good struggle against the ten or so sides battling for survival, but many in Genoa, unforgivingly, are questioning coach Gian Piero Gasperini's tactics. Turin-born Gasperini, who's 49 and was part of Juventus' youth set-up before winning promotion to the Serie B with Crotone, where he impressed with his attacking philosophy, is one of the few managers who employs a 3-4-3 formation. This can be devastatingly effective on a good day but needs protection and good tracking back by the outside forwards and midfielders.
After a good start against Milan on Sunday, perhaps on the fuel of excitement for their first game back in the top tier, neither was apparent, and that's one of the reasons Carlo Ancelotti's side strolled to an easy win. Ambrosini's header from a Pirlo free-kick which the home side should have defended better, was followed by Kaka's left footer from six yards out after Massimo Oddo's surging run had, not for the first time, broken down Genoa's left flank.
In first-half added time, when everything indicated the score would remain unchanged, a simple through ball up the middle split the Genoa defence open and keeper Rubinho had to foul Alberto Gilardino. The resulting spot kick being put away with clinical precision by Kaka, who must be an odds-on favourite to finish top scorer this season if he can make it through the constant hassling and nibbling at his feet that Genoa players resorted to, and which will undoubtedly done by many others.
Oddo's constant menace on Milan's right flank means he may go some way towards validating Milan staff's belief that having him and Ronaldo for pre-season training - both arrived during the January transfer window earlier this year - does amount to a couple of additions, but the sun has barely risen on a new season and it is obviously too early to set things in stone.
Genoa will have to wait for Marco Borriello, 25, the Milan striker who is on loan but was not available for the opening match through injury. Borriello is a decently talented centre-forward who is eager to prove he belongs to sports rather than gossip magazines. He was suspended for doping last year and the reason he gave for testing positive was that he and celebrity girlfriend Belén Rodriguez, one of the many young women who regularly appear on Italian TV without possessing any apparent talent, had tried some kind of sex lotion, but I guess this matter is better left untouched.
Further embarrassment was brought this summer by paparazzi pictures depicting Borriello taking a bite out of Miss Rodriguez's - er - bottom while she was climbing aboard a boat and he was in the water, was worsened by having those snaps reproducted on the front page of one of the free-press magazines handed out outside the Luigi Ferraris. This must not be the career step Borriello had wished for.
In his absence, Mirco Gasparetto engaged in some rugged confrontations with Alessandro Nesta and Khaka Kaladze - deputising for Paolo Maldini who may not be ready until late September - but had poor support from fellow forwards Marco di Vaio on the left and Ndiaye Papa Waigo on the right, although the latter embarrassed Marek Jankulovski a couple of times with his speed.
Genoa fans need not put more pressure on the side, though. The name and tradition command that Genoa never settle for second best, but in the current Serie A scenario they are just a newly promoted side and the most they could achieve is a top half finish.
Judging Gasperini's readiness for the Serie A on the basis of one match against the European Champions would be ridiculous, but unfortunately such are the expectations in Genoa that you wonder what would happen should more losses come.
The rossoblu will now travel to Catania, who will be back home for the first time in seven months after their ground was closed for violence last February, then host Livorno in a sort of derby because the Tuscan town is not so far away plus Livorno's chairman is Aldo Spinelli, who was at the helm of Genoa during their heyday in the early Nineties. Then it's the real thing, the local derby against Sampdoria, who have already been surpassed on the basis of season tickets sold (it's over 21,000 for Genoa, fifth in the Serie A) but can claim a more stable situation on and off the pitch. Or at least they could until Antonio Cassano arrived in mid-August.
Genoa have no hotheads but a hot-tempered chairman and fans who moan, groan and support the team with equal passion. Makes for an intriguing season, doesn't it?