AC Milan crashed to a 2-1 defeat at Antonio Cassano-inspired Sampdoria as the heat on coach Carlo Ancelotti cranked up another notch. Just three days after blowing a 2-0 lead at the San Siro and exiting the UEFA Cup at the hands of Werder Bremen, Sampdoria, and Cassano in particular, heaped further pressure on the under-fire Milan coach.
The fall-out from Milan's midweek UEFA Cup elimination could be seen in Ancelotti's team selection as a host of old hands found themselves making way for younger legs. Out went 40-year-old Paolo Maldini, 37-year-old Giuseppe Favalli, 35-year-old Filippo Inzaghi and 31-year-old Massimo Ambrosini, while in came Philippe Senderos (24), Daniele Bonera (27), Mathieu Flamini (24) and Luca Antonini (26).
With a top three finish needed to ensure direct entry into next season's UEFA Champions League - Milan's only realistic aim left this season - it seemed as if Ancelotti had one eye on priming players ahead of the next campaign. What was also noticeable was how Ancelotti's tactics have gradually become more defensive since the turn of the year.
At Roma in Milan's first match of 2009, Ancelotti picked an all-Brazilian attacking trio, with Pato and Ronaldinho backed up by Kaka. Behind them Andrea Pirlo sat in central midfield with Clarence Seedorf and David Beckham either side of him. There was no ball winner or midfield enforcer, but that had all changed by this trip to Genoa where Ancelotti picked Pato as a lone forward with Seedorf supporting him, and a midfield four with fullback Marek Jankulovski on the left and former Arsenal terrier Flamini in the middle.
These changes were clearly made to shore up a fragile defensive unit, but it did not work. On 18 minutes Bonera brought down Paolo Sammarco on the edge of the box and Cassano forced Christian Abbiati into a flying save from the free-kick. Flamini fired narrowly wide on 28 minutes at the other end, but Sampdoria were ahead five minutes later.
Andrea Raggi rose highest to meet Angelo Palombo's corner and his header found Cassano unmarked at the back post. The former Real Madrid forward directed his header on target and, although Abbiati parried it, the ball somehow managed to squirm over the line despite vehement Milan protests to the contrary.
Within six minutes of the restart, the hosts had doubled their lead as Cassano played a sumptuous pass to Giampaolo Pazzini, who cut inside and slotted home from a tight angle. Milan had plenty of the ball, but created little in terms of clear cut chances until Pato planted a firm header into the bottom corner from substitute Favalli's cross ten minutes from time. The visitors thought they had equalised moments later, but Emerson's header from Pirlo's free-kick was ruled out for offside.
Long volley from Mascara
Elsewhere, Giuseppe Mascara scored the goal of the day with a volley from the halfway line in Catania's 4-0 Sicilian derby victory over Palermo, for whom Australia midfielder Mark Bresciano was sent off after a quarter of an hour.