The current Serie A campaign has mostly drawn headlines due to league-leading Juventus’ excellence and AC Milan’s struggles, but Italian football this season has had more to offer than just that. Races for Champions and Europa League spots should come down to the last couple matches and there is quality soccer happening in places other than Juventus. We are through 22/38ths (or, if you’re into reducing fractions to their lowest terms, 11/19ths) of this season, so let’s pause and take stock with 3 questions for the rest of the Serie A campaign.
1. Has Juventus ended the title race?
Effectively, they have. This is unfortunate, because near the beginning of the season we thought AS Roma were the front-runners, or at least that we would have a competitive title race. Roma were unbeaten through the first 17 matches of the season, but their 4-game stretch of draws was crucial in allowing Juventus to gain control. You can’t drop that many points in consecutive matches and expect a powerhouse like Juventus to not take advantage.
The league leaders have a few things going for them. First, with 11 wins in 11 matches, no one has taken any points from them at home. This only serves to further intimidate Serie A sides that walk into Juventus Stadium. Second, since they have been knocked out of the Champions League, their focus will be set firmly on league play. Third, they very clearly have the most talent of any Serie A squad. When you boast a midfield containing players as deftly skilled as Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, and Paul Pogba, you can easily control the game. When you have an Italian legend in net like Gianluigi Buffon, you can easily protect the net. And when you have two extremely capable strikers up front (Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente), you can easily get goals. None of this is fair, but Juventus truly has a stacked side.
Since 3rd place Napoli sits 15 points out, Roma remains the only team even within striking distance and they are nine points back. Roma is a strong team – they have given up 5 less goals this season than Juventus – but making up that much ground is a lot to ask. However, if they can just get close, they do have a late season home match vs. Juventus that could turn the tables. Still, I predict Juventus maintains a firm grip on first place in route to their third straight title, and I’m never wrong.
2. Will Fiorentina upset Napoli’s Champions League chances?
Fiorentina currently resides just just three points back of Napoli for 3rd place and a shot at qualifying for the Champions League. The issue is that they lost star forward Giuseppe Rossi on January 5th to a serious knee injury. Rossi (still) leads Serie A with 14 goals, so the loss is quite significant. I mean, this is the guy who handed Juve their sole loss with a magnificent hat trick. In the 4 games he has been out, Fiorentina has seen mixed results, going 1-2-1. Reports are that Rossi’s comeback is going well and that he could be back before the end of the season. Although if they want to keep pace with Napoli they will need to find scoring elsewhere.
This could come from German striker Mario Gomez, who is returning from a knee injury that has kept Fiorentina’s big summer signing out for almost five months. Knee injuries have been a thorn in Fiorentina’s side, to say the least, but if they can fill Rossi’s painful absence with extra offensive firepower, they could stay in the race for a Champions League spot. For a team that was two points from a 3rd place finish last year, this would be a huge sign of progress.
As for Napoli, their sudden and disappointing exit from the Champions League has undoubtedly left manager Rafa Benitez craving to get back there. Their last few results (against mediocre competition, nonetheless) have left plenty to be desired. If they want to make a charge for Roma’s second (and guaranteed Champions League entry) spot, they have to move now. I just think they give up too many goals to see them move up the table, so they should be much more concerned with Fiorentina catching them from behind. In the end, with Rossi’s costly injury and Napoli’s solid early season form giving them a head start, I believe we will see the current top four remain the same.
3. Which two teams earn Europa League qualifying spots?
We just discussed Fiorentina and how I expect them to finish fourth, so we’re halfway done here. The recent form of the teams challenging for the 5th (and final Europa League qualifying) spot has suggested no one really wants it. Hellas Verona resides there now, but they have lost 3 of their last 4 – and play mighty Juventus this weekend. Their goal differential of +2 would also suggest they don’t belong in the Europa League.
So who does belong? Internazionale’s +12 GD looks better, but their recent form is even worse than Verona’s. Their last 7 games have seen them lose four and win just one. Inter is attempting a return to glory (they won five straight league titles from 2005-10), but can’t seem to find their footing back to the top of the Serie A mountain. Knotted with them at 33 points is Torino FC, whose tandem of goalscorers, Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci, have helped their squad approach the precipice of a Europa League spot. They have an excellent chance of snagging that 5th slot, and so does dark horse Parma FC, who have accumulated 32 points to sit in 8th place. Parma has won their last four consecutive matches and have played a game less than everyone except Roma. Look for Parma FC to make a run for Europa League action in the next couple months.