History Repeats itself for Balotelli and Inter at the Start of 2020 in Serie A
For Italian football, the decade began with a little bit of history repeating. It was Mario Balotelli who scored the first Serie A goal of the 2010s, and on Sunday he delivered the opening strike of the 2020s as well: spinning away from his marker in the 18th minute of Brescia’s game at home to Lazio, before dispatching Stefano Sabelli’s long pass with a first-time finish off his left boot.
Why always him? In truth, the slogan no longer feels apt. Balotelli has dazzled us only intermittently, the highs of a Premier League win and European Championship final in 2012 obscured by too many nondescript seasons since.
There have been positive stretches – at Milan and Nice, most notably – but nothing close to what was imagined for him on January 6, 2010. Still a teenager, he had already played more than 50 senior games for Inter before he opened the year by scoring the only goal in a win over Chievo. He finished that season as a treble-winner.
The context is very different for Balotelli today. Brescia, his hometown club, would be delighted simply to avoid relegation. And yet, some aspects of playing in Italy remain grimly familiar. Balotelli claimed he was racially abused during that Inter-Chievo game, and suffered abuse by Lazio supporters on Sunday.
At least this time the issue was acknowledged – both by the match official, who suspended the game for a short time after a warning from the stadium PA went unheeded, and Lazio, who issued a statement threatening legal action against fans who “betray their sporting passion and cause great damage to the image of the club”. In 2010, the Chievo president Luca Campedelli had flatly rejected the accusations of racism, saying that: “Balotelli must not dare to insult the people of Verona.”
Still, this was a grim note on which to start the new year. The game itself had been compelling, Lazio coming back to win in second-half injury time. Ciro Immobile scored both goals for the visitors, taking his tally to 19 already in a league campaign that has not reached its halfway stage. Born in the same year as Balotelli, he has had his share of lost seasons, too, but there is no question whose star is shining brighter as they approach their 30th birthdays.
Victory moved Lazio – who began the weekend with a game in hand – to within three points of Juventus and Inter at the top. Both responded with emphatic wins of their own. Cristiano Ronaldo decimated Cagliari with his first Serie A hat-trick, before Romelu Lukaku’s brace inspired Inter to victory at Napoli.
Both players profited from the generosity of opponents. Cagliari had delivered an obstinate first-half performance at the Allianz Stadium, only for Ragnar Klavan to play a thoughtless pass across the edge of his own box at the start of the second. Ronaldo reacted faster than Sebastian Walukiewicz, the 19-year-old making his debut for the Sardinians at center-half, seizing possession and rounding Robin Olsen to score.
Cagliari unraveled thereafter, but the champions were ruthless as well. Ronaldo looked as sharp as he has all season, supplementing his three strikes with an assist for Gonzalo Higuaín. This was the Portuguese player’s fifth consecutive game with at least one goal, lending credence to Maurizio Sarri’s claim that he is finally getting over his knee injury.
A win at home to Cagliari was expected, even in a season when Rolando Maran’s team have punched far above their weight. For Inter to triumph in Naples was more significant. They had not taken three points from the Stadio San Paolo since 1997.
Napoli gave them plenty of assistance in ending that hex. Giovanni Di Lorenzo lost his footing in the 14th minute – leaving space for Lukaku to intercept Mario Rui’s pass before marauding 50 yards upfield and crashing a left-footed shot in off the post. Napoli’s keeper, Alex Meret, then allowed a shot from the Belgian to go straight through him for Inter’s second.
The hosts were not out of the game yet, and pulled a goal back through Arkadiusz Milik before the break. But a further misjudgment from Kostas Manolas finished them, his attempt to cut out a Matías Vecino cross instead ending with him sliding the ball straight into the path of Lautaro Martínez. The Argentinian buried it to seal a 3-1 win.
It was a game that encapsulated both teams in their present state. Napoli are a side in transition – working to find a new identity after replacing Carlo Ancelotti with Gennaro Gattuso. The restoration of José Callejón to a more advanced role, on the right of a 4-3-3, was rewarded on their goal: the Spaniard providing the assist after being picked out on himself on a back-post run that called back to Sarri’s time in charge.
Inter, meanwhile, are effective uneven: a stodgy midfield compensated for by the brilliance of those two center-forwards. Lukaku and Lautaro have already scored 30 goals between them this season. With Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella both easing their way back from injury, and the club expected to make a move for Arturo Vidal imminently, there are reasons to believe they can play better, but they continue to win games in the meantime.
The challenge remains, as it ever was, to maintain this relentless pace through a full campaign. Inter were top of Serie A at the start of January 2016 under Roberto Mancini, and finished that season in fourth place. It was a similar story two seasons later under Luciano Spalletti, when the collapse started in mid-December.
Antonio Conte joked on Monday that he had been warned about a “Fantozzi cloud” – a reference to the 1970s cult movie Fantozzi, in which the central character is followed around by his own personal rainstorm – which comes to drown Inter every winter. He then reiterated a line he has pushed all season, that he has “asked my team not to be crazy any more”.
History repeated for Balotelli this weekend. Conte is doing all that he can to prevent the striker’s former club from heading down its own familiar path.
The Guardian Sport