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Calcio's finest take a lesson in entertainment

What a paradox the Serie A has become. While it is always healthy to look away from what goes on off the pitch in order to avoid embarrassment and the whiff of dodgy dealings that rarely obey to the principle of doing the best for the game, action on the pitch itself has often been delightful and entertaining.

Gone forever, it seems, are the times when top of the table clashes or relegation six-pointers would result in drab, wrist-slashing 0-0 draws and catenaccio, that old Italian staple, would be the attitude of choice for most coaches.

Now, not least because the art of defending seems to have fled these lands, entertainment has found a place in the Serie A, but once again you can enjoy it much better by keeping your eyes focused inside the 108x50 or so metres of the football pitch. Drift away, and your heart may sink at witnessing half-empty, uncomfortable grounds, hysterical behaviour, the ever-present conspiracy theories and anything that a bickering, flawed country my throw at you.

The flowing football put on display by Milan in the last third of the season, Genoa's brilliant, exhilarating attacking style and diligent defending and Fiorentina's resilience in crawling out of a bad spell which had cast doubts over their role as potential title contenders, have been some of the highlights of the season; as well as Cagliari's surge after five consecutive defeats to start the campaign.

In fact, their confidence and character in lifting themselves out of such a dire situation are only slightly less surprising than the fact their owner, the sack-happy Massimo Cellino, refused to pull the trigger this time and kept his patience with rookie coach Massimiliano Allegri, 41, a maverick as a player who has now become a hot commodity throughout the Serie A for his ability to bring the best out of his players. Despite a recent slump, Cagliari reached the comfort zone well above the relegation battle so fast that it may have been years since the locals last had a chance to start going to the beach without worrying about the side.

While some may believe games such as Cagliari-Roma or Siena-Palermo, which were played over the weekend, are meaningless at this time of the season, they are in fact a breath of fresh air because the lack of pressure leads to longer spells of open play and makes the whole atmosphere more enjoyable, although those who witnessed the near scuffle between Francesco Totti and childhood friend Daniele Conti - Cagliari's influential midfielder and the son of Roma icon Bruno - after Roma's equaliser may beg to differ.

What may be surprising to hear is that the joyful abandon brought on by the end-of-season absence of pressure has seemingly escaped the so-called Big Three: Inter, Milan and Juventus. Joy, contentment, enjoyment, seem to be missing from their vocabulary this season, for a variety of reasons.

Inter stand to win their fourth consecutive title next weekend if they beat Siena at home, or in the case of a Milan loss at in-form Udinese on Saturday evening. But rarely has a Scudetto brought so little joy to a side. Inter, apparently, can't win, and neither can their manager, Jose Mourinho. Whenever they do, and it has been fairly common that they are criticised for having more brawn than brain and relying too much on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose imposing figure has been at the centre of more than a single controversy of late (when it first appeared he was unhappy and ready to move on, then responded to Inter fans booing him for being careless with the ball in the home game against Lazio by scoring a typically elaborate and powerful goal and motioning for them to shut up.)

His gesture was duplicated on Sunday by mercurial forward Mario Balotelli, who aimed it at Chievo fans who were booing him - no racial undertones here, just plain old booing of a cocky opponent - for, well, simply being Balotelli, a young man with an attitude who has already gained himself a bad reputation around Italy, as well as being on the receiving end of racial insults in too many places, the most prominent one at Juventus' Stadio Olimpico.

Characters like Balotelli, Ibrahimovic and Mourinho have been involved in controversies so much this season, sometimes for irrelevant reasons blown up by the media, that an air of gloom seems to surround Inter, rather than the elation that should accompany yet another title win. Perhaps it was the Nerazzurri's exit from the Champions League, a competition Mourinho had been brought in to win, that set in many people's minds the notion that Inter were a big fish in a smallish pond but little more than a baby fish in the wavy waters of Europe. Despite playing Manchester United almost even over two legs, they went out again and from that moment on a sort of anti-climax descended upon them.

Gloom, or perhaps rage, has also been the operative word at Juventus. Whose situation is more difficult to analyze than Inter's, for the simple reason there does not seem to be a consensus over the effective strength of their squad. Was Juve's squad good enough to challenge Inter right to the finish, and so is the beleaguered Claudio Ranieri to blame for the failure to do so? Most Juventus fans and the Turin media believe so, and this turned the latter part of the season, once the Bianconeri began losing ground on Inter, into the footballing equivalent of a car wreck.

You had to look away to find some measure of decency and balance, otherwise a punch in the stomach was the least you could get. Juve's squad did not have enough quality in central midfield, once Xabi Alonso stayed at Liverpool and a like-for-like replacement for the Spaniard was not found. The less than impressive Tiago partnered Momo Sissoko at times, but another early, frequent pairing saw the Malian coupled with Christian Poulsen. This, as has frequently been said, deflected all creativity tasks out wide to Mauro Camoranesi and Pavel Nedved,who for various reasons - age, injuries, both - could only provide it intermittently.

Once Alex Del Piero stopped scoring wonderful goals, Juventus began losing their impetus, but the torrent of abuse aimed at Ranieri seemed too much, bearing in mind that Juventus gave Chelsea a fight in the Champions League and kept second place in the league for most of the campaign.

Generally speaking, Juventus fans find it hard to accept that the club might settle for second best while trying to climb back to the top, and this has led to widespread criticism of the chairman and directors, who at times have appeared, to the more hot-tempered fans, too soft (basically, the only way they'd become more popular would be to spend the day repeating the mantra "Inter are cheaters"). Amid rumours and malingering about Ranieri, disappointment for another season ending without silverware and questions about the resoluteness of the board, Juventus' season risks ending under a cloud while it should be celebrated as another step back towards respectability for a great club squeezed under unreasonable expectations.

Little joy for Milan, too. Their revival since the turn of the year, fuelled again, just as it was twelve months ago, by Pippo Inzaghi's magnificently manic goal-scoring form, has propelled them into second place, which of course means Champions League qualification and a bit of relief for the coffers.

But judging from letters to newspapers and fan forums, some among the supporters have been quick to spot the dark side of this revival, fearing that the string of good results and flowing play may fool management into thinking that the side does not need a revamp after all. Paolo Maldini is retiring at the end of the season and seeing him partner 37-year old Giuseppe Favalli in central defence in recent weeks has been a manifesto of Milan's need for change, despite the competent showing of the duo. Will Milan keep faith in the disappointing Ronaldinho? Will they make a serious commitment to defence, which has already been seen in the signing of Brazilian Thiago Silva? Will Christian Abbiati come back from season-ending injury to reclaim his place in goal, or will a rumoured but unlikely exchange with Gianluigi Buffon materialize?

So, while Inter are heading towards another title which will carry along not as much joy as an achievement like that should bring, Juventus are being tested by battles within and Milan are halfway between a revolution and the conservation of a status quo, it seems just right to look for exhilaration and positive minds elsewhere, and some of the provincial clubs have been providing it with attacking play free of inhibitions, albeit with a lot of defensive lapses tossed in. Claudio Gentile, where art thou?


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