For 83 minutes on Saturday, Palermo looked like a team that was finally putting it all together. Guidolin’s Udinese, winners of the last four meetings between the two, were on the brink of a loss that would see them slip further behind in the race for third place. And then, it happened. A mistimed (or lost footing) challenge from Mantovani allowed Pereyra to charge into the box, laying the ball off for a wide open Torje, who calmly slotted the game-tying goal into the back of the net. It was a deflating moment for the Rosanero, who up to that point, had played remarkably well.
It is unfortunate the way Saturday’s match played out. There were so many positives to take that it’s a real shame the club came away with only one point. In a year of transition, results like this are to be expected, yet it doesn’t make them any less easy to digest. Nonetheless, one point is better than none, and Palermo is slowly but surely inching towards that magical 40 points that would ensure Serie A safety.
To start, Bortolo Mutti surprised everyone on Saturday. Perhaps, it should have been more apparent given his comments about giving space to youngsters during his pre-match press conference. Mutti went out and did just that – changing the formation to a three man back line while employing two young players in that line, Milanovic making his club and Serie A debut and Labrin coming off his first start the previous week. With Mantovani as the only experienced defender, the recipe for disaster was certainly there. Di Natale knows how to carve up opposing defenses and with not one, but two youthful defenders to attack, he must’ve been salivating over the prospects. For the second consecutive week, Labrin exhibited poise and confidence. He wasn’t flashy and didn’t necessarily do anything outstanding, but the key was he played well without making glaring mistakes.
As for Milanovic, there had been much anticipation surrounding the kid ever since he was a big time prospect from his days with Lokomotiv Moscow. He was touted as the next big thing and some very prestigious clubs were rumored to be bidding for him. Yet, in June of 2011, Palermo managed to swoop in and sign him – quite the coup from the Sicilian club. For some reason, though, Milanovic found no space. He was loaned out in the first half of the season to Siena, where he didn’t even feature. He was brought back this winter and remained off the call-up list every week until the Milan game, where he was called up, but nothing more. Finally, the absences of Silvestre and Muñoz created a path for him to actually play. When Mutti gave him the start on Saturday, Milanovic made the absolute most out of it. The Serbian was very impressive. Not only did he play like a Serie A veteran, he commanded the defense for large stretches. He was dominant in the air and repelled several Udinese attacks by his lonesome. Only once did Di Natale get past Milanovic, but even then, the Serbian recovered quickly enough to affect the shot. Such a performance should reward the young defender with more playing time…while asking the question, “Why was he not given a chance sooner?” Given the performances of Muñoz over the past month, it makes that question even more perplexing.
For the umpteenth time, two players have shown that they bleed Rosanero. Giulio Migliaccio broke his toe in last week’s match against Lecce. Yet, he toughed it out and played a full 90 minutes and did it well. Fabrizio Miccoli put the team on his back once again scoring the opening goal while being robbed several minutes beforehand with a glorious free kick that was only outdone by Handanovic’s tremendous save. The Palermo captain did all he could, even reprimanding certain players for their carelessness and attitude in the game’s final ten minutes – an action caught on video to which he was interviewed about afterward. If the rest of the team had the amount of character and heart that these two players display on a weekly basis, there’d be no need to discuss reaching 40 points, as it would have been achieved a while ago.
Unfortunately, for all the good Mutti did on Saturday, he made two vital mistakes. One was entirely his fault, the other was unforeseen. For some reason unknown to all, Mutti threw on Aguirregaray for Balzaretti with nine minutes left to play. Perhaps Balzaretti was not at 100% or maybe he was pressing too far forward, but putting Aguirregaray (aka AguirregaWHY) certainly wasn’t a step forward. The Argentine was coming off of his best performance in the previous week, yet in this instance he was brought in on the opposite side of the pitch to which he’s accustomed to. He was partly responsible for the goal as it was his forward charge that opened up the area he vacated and forced Mantovani to fill in. In a decision between Balzaretti and Aguirregaray, despite the propensity for defending from both players, Federico must be on the field at all times in that situation.
Finally, Mutti decided to throw Josip Iličić on for the game’s final 20 minutes. Initially, it seemed a move that wasn’t that bad. Hernandez came off, clearly his fitness isn’t at a full 90 minute level yet. The hope was that the Slovenian could hold onto the ball and open up some lanes for Miccoli to fill. However, the inclusion of Iličić had the exact opposite effect. Instead of holding onto the ball, countless times Iličić gave it up, sometimes straightaway. Instead of making direct passes, he insisted on employing needless tricks and individual moves. When the Slovenian finally made the most of one of those personal moves by splitting two defenders and rushing into the box for a one on one, he inexplicably took a dive, hoping to procure a penalty. He was booked for simulation. It was a head-scratching moment from Iličić, especially when he was through on goal. Yet, the most egregious action was the attitude he displayed upon his inclusion. Despite coming on with 20 minutes to go and having the advantage of fresh legs, Josip was seen walking around the pitch for large portions of that time. It’s one thing to do that when the ball is being knocked about in the middle of the pitch, yet Iličić did this while Udinese was pressing in Palermo’s final third. It was unacceptable and indefensible and caught the attention of Miccoli who let him know about it. It’s been a tumultuous second year for Iličić. He no longer has the fall-back option of Pastore to allow him to operate freely and he has never truly found the groove he had in his first few months in Serie A. It’s one thing to be in a slump and obviously his confidence has taken a hit as a result. However, when Iličić appeals to the fans to stop jeering him and then proceeds to walk about the pitch, it becomes impossible to defend him. It’s in the best interests for all parties involved to see Iličić succeed. Yet, if he doesn’t change his attitude or his effort out on the pitch, there’s no reason why he should still see action when a guy like Vazquez is waiting in the wings.
In the end, a point is a point, and Palermo must now look forward to Bologna. Stefano Pioli is waiting his short-lived former team while enjoying a golden moment that led to Zamparini saying his success makes the Palermo patron want to eat his own testicle. With the season entering its final stages, the hope is that the team can end on a high note.