Putting the Cat amongst the pigeons
Having visibly struggled at home against their past three opponents, only one of whom (Napoli) could be considered among the sides currently posing any kind of threat, Milan will enter Sunday's game against Catania with some apprehension.
Their win at Cagliari last weekend was one of the more bizarre matches you will see this season, with almost every attacking move from either side seeming likely to result in a goalscoring chance in the first half. It was, at least before half-time, the kind of game you might play on a seven-a-side pitch when you discover none of your mates can play in defence; everyone goes forward, and defensive fundamentals are forgotten.
Catania will have better weapons than a Cagliari side which has almost disintegrated since achieving safety from relegation and whose season since may be a hymn to that old Michael Jordan mantra, "the love of the game", because in most matches they are clearly playing for not much else.
Catania, on the other hand, are one of the hottest teams in Serie A under new manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. Their revival after a horrible start - which brought nine points from 48 and cost debutant coach Gianluca Atzori his job - has been engineered, oddly enough, along the same lines Atzori had followed from the beginning.
In fact, the 38-year old former Catania assistant and Ravenna manager had done a decent job from a tactical standpoint but his side had seemed too brittle and too short of confidence; heads would drop as soon as things turned for the worse, and owner Nino Pulvirenti, having kept his faith in Atzori longer than expected, only made his move after a disastrous 3-2 defeat at fellow strugglers Siena, a game in which Catania had led twice only to concede three goals in 12 minutes.
Significantly, on introducing Mihajlovic on December 8, Pulvirenti made it clear that had the Serbian turned down his offer, no one else would have fit the profile Catania were looking for: a coach experienced enough to handle things on the training ground - despite a different public perception stemming from his unsuccessful stint at Bologna last year - and in the dressing room, but not too far removed from his time as an athlete that he could not understand the players' feelings after such a bad start.
One might suspect Pulvirenti was trying hard to strike a balance between his enthusiasm for Mihajlovic and his respect for Atzori, whom the players mobbed with abandon after captain Peppe Mascara had equalised at Fiorentina on November 1. But Catania did take longer than struggling sides usually do before jettisoning a novice coach, so perhaps Pulvirenti had indeed tried to maintain the status quo as much as he could before pulling the trigger.
Mihajlovic's stint started with a disastrous 1-0 home defeat to another struggling side, Livorno, but week two proved to be a season changer as Catania won at Juventus by doing exactly what they had not been capable of before. Having seen the Bianconeri come back from a 1-0 deficit, they kept their composure and neither poured forward in search of immediate reprisal nor sat back too much. Mariano Izco's late winner, coupled with a similarly dramatic strike by defender Nicolas Spolli in their next game, signalled Catania had turned the corner.
The Etnei (a nickname owed to the dominating, spectacular presence of the Etna volcano nearby) have lost only three times since, beating Inter and - yet again - rivals Palermo in the meantime and showing the right mixture of resilience, flowing play and tactical awareness that had been lacking before Mihajlovic came in.
Striker Maxi Lopez, one of 11 Argentineans in the squad which includes the nation's starting goalkeeper Mariano Andujar, has been instrumental in the revival, which has lifted Catania well above the relegation zone and created perhaps the right circumstances for them to pose a threat to Milan at the weekend. They are neither too relaxed nor too desperate, and they will again have a sizeable contingent of fans at the San Siro, as most southern teams do when they play up north.
Lopez, who had been playing for Gremio but whose rights were owed by FC Moscow, joined Catania just as it seemed Lazio had closed the deal for him in mid-January. Lopez would have replaced Julio Cruz, who in turn would have joined the Etnei, and it was perhaps poetic justice that Maxi's first goal in Serie A gave Catania a crucial 1-0 away at Lazio on February 7. He has not missed a start since as a lone centre forward flanked by a couple of attack-minded players in captain Mascara, who is now Catania's all-time top scorer in Serie A, and Jorge Martinez, the 26-year-old Uruguayan who sealed the win over Inter with a late solo goal.
It must be noted that Ezequiel Llama's enterprise and energy on the left side played a big part in Catania's rally before a knee injury ended the Argentinean's season in early March, but credit Mihajlovic for finding the right balance again. Whereas Mascara had mostly been used on the right, he was switched to the left once Llama was out of the picture, and the 4-3-3 Catania use - and did use under Atzori, in most circumstances - has shown the right combination of flexibility and resilience. It becomes a 4-1-4-1 when Catania do not have the ball and that is often. According to the latest statistics they are last in Serie A in terms of time of possession with a little more than 20 minutes per match, almost one third less than Sunday's opponents, Milan, which makes for a fascinating contest.
It is perhaps an easy one to decipher. As per usual, Catania will probably sit back without squeezing themselves too much, keeping nine men behind the ball so as restrict space - something Chievo, Lazio and Napoli did with different formations - and regain possession, ready to spring forward against a Milan rearguard which has relied so much on Thiago Silva's ability to cover ground quickly, now that he is paired with one of the oldest heads of a similarly old squad, Giuseppe Favalli.
Aside from Maxi's enormous influence since he joined the side, a move that relegated former starter Takayuki Morimoto to the bench, you can also count on some inventive football from Mascara, the 30-year old striker and local hero who's been nicknamed 'Chihuahua' for his diminutive size and 'Mascarinho' (add "nho" to any Italian name and hey presto! You have a Brazilian). He has had perhaps his finest season in Serie A.
Mascara still needs four goals to surpass last year's career-high 12, but he's the one you do not want to take your eyes off, even when the ball is being stroked about in midfield. Since he led Catania back to the top flight in 2006, Mascara has had a habit of scoring spectacular goals from whatever distance or angle he deems fit, and there has been a lot of them.
In Catania's best result until they beat Inter last month, a 4-0 win at fellow Sicilian side Palermo last season, he scored from just beyond the halfway line, repeating the feat two weeks later at Udinese, although the latter effort was from 'only' 40 yards out. Then add his sublime chipped penalty against Inter, which he executed in the tensest moment of the match, with the score tied at 1-1 and nine minutes to go.
Catania's revival has not been sparked by the attacking players only, of course; all departments have finally found their best form. In midfield, Adrian Ricchiuti has reinvented himself as a left-sided support player, ready to spring forward at every opportunity but much more clever than expected when tracking back, and the form of Marco Biagianti - a versatile midfielder, 25, who has been excellent in a holding role - has been another element that has been noticed by many, not least some of the bigger clubs who are rumoured to have expressed an interest in him.
So those of you who will have the chance to watch Milan-Catania on Sunday, please turn your attention away from the Rossoneri for a moment and check out Catania. They are not a glamorous side - with a unique home shirt and a home ground among the least atmospheric in Serie A - but they are now among the many teams who deserve more than a glance for the way they play. Champions League material, they're not. But definitely worth a prolonged look. Or a Maxi-look, as someone would say.
• One final note, not related to Catania but too bizarre to pass up: a popular brand of yoghurt for the health-conscious, which has become one of the partners of the Italian national team, has just launched a TV commercial and the first action shot shows Giorgio Chiellini's robust tackle that caused long-term damage to Robin van Persie's ankle last November. A healthy message indeed.