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Sep 10, 2011

The long and winding road

In kicking off its season with a single match on a Friday evening, as if the start could not come soon enough after the first round of fixtures were postponed because of a players' strike, the Lega Serie A displayed the kind of awkward creativity borne out of a crisis that seems to run in the Italian blood.

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That defending champions AC Milan and an intriguing side like Lazio were facing each other should have made the occasion even more appealing, but the message emanating from the Lega was probably misunderstood as the Stadio Meazza was less than three-quarters full on the evening, and once again those rows of empty seats in direct view of TV cameras sent across a disheartening statement on the current situation of Italian football, just 24 hours after the spectacular, if heavily hyped, grand opening of Juventus' new stadium had perhaps created a different perception.

Those who chose to stay away on a hot, sticky night missed out on a spectacular first half, full of incidents, running and goal chances. In fact, there were so many of them early on that players from both sides ran out of steam long before the end of the game, which by that time could have been won by accident more than purpose. Tactics were loosening and players were frequently caught out of position or, in the case of Lazio's late substitute Senad Lulic, resorting to the playground trick of kicking the ball long then trying to outrun everybody else.

Milan and Lazio shared four goals and the perception is that they both have a lot of work do to. It shouldn't be surprising, since this was the first real game of the season and training had been disrupted, or made all-but impossible, by the lengthy and disruptive international break.

Lazio discarded talented but petulant striker Mauro Zarate during the transfer window - to Inter, which will make for another interesting season for him (and us) - and replaced him with Djibril Cisse, while signing Miroslav Klose and handing him the lone striker role in coach Edy Reja's 4-2-3-1 formation. Klose is basically asked to hold the ball up, score goals whenever passes are played inside the box and vacuum defenders away from the areas Hernanes and Cisse may choose to run into.

The Biancazzurri's attacking spirit is further complemented by the deployment of Stefano Mauri on the right, a player with good tactical sense and a sweet left foot - who is as likely to pop up undetected in dangerous positions as provide defence-splitting passes, as he did for both Lazio goals against Milan. Klose and Cisse did much of the work after Mauri's passes, the Frenchman in particular displaying his customary aggression and athleticism by attacking the right-wing cross and glancing it past Christian Abbiati for the visitors' second on 21 minutes.

That Lazio, who were running and covering each yard of the pitch as if their lives depended on it, did not add to that brace was only down to a hurried, selfish shot by Cisse, who had jumped on a loose ball after Alessandro Nesta and Rino Gattuso had comically collided on the edge of area. Then the tide turned, as Milan started pushing forward with more spring in their collective steps and forcing the Romans - playing higher up the pitch than the average visitor to the San Siro - further back with Alberto Aquilani, Antonio Cassano and, with less influence, Kevin-Prince Boateng all playing a part.

Milan searched all summer for a new left-sided midfielder, a position needed since the club's decision to release Andrea Pirlo. Coach Massimiliano Allegri believes play can be created from anywhere on the pitch and turned his belief into practice last year by deploying Mark Van Bommel in what used to be Pirlo's position right in front of the defence. While this added steel to a defensive unit that played a great part in the Rossoneri's title triumph, it also meant other players had to pick up the creative slack, and this was mostly up to Clarence Seedorf, still an inspiration at 35 but obviously on the downside of his career and clearly in need of help.

Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani, who knows one thing or two about the idiosyncrasies and obsessions of the media, led all the press a merry dance all summer by stating that a left-sided midfielder, a "Mr X with sky blue eyes" would be signed. Galiani's promise conjured up images of a player with matinée idol looks and the ability to both unlock defences and lean languidly on a bathroom cabinet while modelling underwear. What we got instead, very late in the transfer market, was Aquilani, a player with the wily expression of a street urchin you'd like to buy ice cream from to keep quiet, and the bearded Antonio Nocerino, who has apparently sworn off shaving until his former owner at Palermo, Maurizio Zamparini, starts supporting coaches instead of sacking them.

All joking aside, they both appear intriguing signings. Aquilani missed a one-on-one chance with goalkeeper Albano Bizzarri early on after a magnificent pass from Zlatan Ibrahimovic had sliced open the Lazio rearguard, but generally played with composure and showed his customary intelligent passes. Nocerino, who came on as a second half substitute, added energy and enterprise to a side that had began to lose their legs. Although he played mostly on the left for Palermo, he may end up taking minutes away from Gattuso, who looks more and more like a liability for Milan on the opposite side.

In the end, though, most of the creative play came from Cassano, who seemed to confirm a team-mate's recent assertion that something, within his often troubled mindset and behaviour, has changed in the past month. Considering his previous history, you wouldn't put your money on this being a permanent transformation, but with Robinho sidelined Cassano was chosen ahead of Alexandre Pato as Ibra's partner up front and performed admirably, setting up his team-mate with an unselfish pass across goal for Milan's first before scoring the second with a header - something that, despite his short stature, he is accomplished at.

While Reja will have cringed at seeing his defence beaten by Cassano in a dead-ball situation, Lazio's performance in the first half will encourage him to keep pursuing an attacking philosophy which has already forced him to make adjustments. Cristian Brocchi normally plays on the right of the Biancazzurri's first line of midfield, but was deployed on the left on Friday to plug the holes Cisse's freelancing style left, especially necessary with Milan having attack-minded right-back Ignazio Abate on that side.

Allegri, while watching tapes ahead of the much-anticipated trip to Barcelona on Tuesday, must be worried about Alessandro Nesta, who had a few slips on Friday and was beaten by Cisse for Lazio's second goal. Already on the wrong side of 30 and with a long history of injuries, he appeared shaky all night, though he showed signs of the world class traits he has been know for throughout his career. Nesta foiled Cisse late in the second half with a desperate lunge after the Frenchman had gone past Abbiati; it was a matter of inches, Nesta's boot making contact with the ball just enough to divert it wide. After warning against allowing soft goals, as Milan had done in August, Allegri will have to consider whether his side's fortunes this season can depend on such a tiny margin.

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