Weekend Preview: Super Sunday Edition (3/1)

A quick preview of the incredible slate of matches coming to us on Sunday March 1st, which I have dubbed “Super Sunday”. Keep reading past the final prediction for an update on the Serie A title race following the postponement of the Derby d’Italia.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

You know I mean business with this “Super Sunday” thing when the first game I am talking about is El Clasico. Many have dubbed this the worst El Clasico when it comes to talent, but this match is still colossally important when it comes to the league table. And, after all, it’s still El Clasico.

Things are starting to feel familiar for Real Madrid. Last season, three losses in eight days, two to Barcelona and one to Ajax, knocked them out of the league race, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. While this is not nearly as devastating, their last eight days has seen them lose away to Levante, losing first place in the league to Barca, and lose a disappointing game against Manchester City in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. While the season is not fully hanging in the balance, it feels like the ship will start going down quickly if Zidane and his team cannot figure out how to win this match. The issues for Real Madrid stem from that the two main factors that defined their success over the last few months, a very strong defense and the ability to find goals from midfield and defense, are now gone. Their usually strong defense has failed them, and they are now struggling to score goals and to even create chances. Eden Hazard’s season-ending injury robs them of a potential goalscorer and creative outlet, and they now could have to rely on bringing Gareth Bale in from the cold to revitalize their attack. Since he did not start against City, Toni Kroos will probably be brought back into the team to partner Casemiro and Valverde in midfield, and Ferland Mendy will likely be preferred at left back. Real Madrid have to win, and to do so, they have to hope that they can win the ball back high up the pitch and attack the spotty Barca defense.

Things also have not been going that well for Barcelona, but they have sort of figured things out, and they now find themselves top of La Liga and with a favorable situation in their Champions League match up. It is largely because of someone named Lionel Messi, but they have had some good performances from other players, including the slowly but surely acclimating Antoine Griezmann. With their injury issues, Quique Setien will probably be relieved to hear some positive injury news, with both Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique possibly fit to feature. Arturo Vidal will resume his role as a false nine/attacking midfielder in an attempt to outnumber the strong Real Madrid midfield and enhance Setien’s possession-based system. The injury issues really begin to show when looking at the players available on the bench, as Setien does not have many players to turn to that could make an impact. Emergency signing Martin Braithwaite is the only other fit first team striker in the team, and teenager Ansu Fati is the only other option when it comes to attacking players. I imagine both will feature at some point, whether starting or coming off the bench, especially if Barcelona need a goal.

Prediction: This does not seem like a title-deciding match, as I do not trust either team to win every match for the rest of the season after this one. Despite this, it is still El Clasico so it is still massively important. Both teams have their issues, and both teams are definitely not as good as they were in previous years for previous Claiscos. One team, however, has Lionel Messi. That might be the difference. But really, Barcelona is in the better form, is at least slightly more confident, and the injuries are starting to clear up, so they are going into this match with the momentum behind them.

Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona

Ajax vs. AZ Alkmaar

First. Versus. Second. That’s it. That’s the intro.

This is definitely not last season’s Ajax team. The team still has some fantastic youngsters, but the football gods have not been on their side this season. They fell out of the Champions League in the Group Stage, and they just recently were knocked out of the Europa League by Getafe. They have also dropped some disappointing games in the league, including their last league match against Heracles. They have dealt with severe injury problems, with David Neres, Quincy Promes, Noussair Mazraoui, and Joel Veltman all out injured, while Hakim Ziyech is just now returning to full fitness. They are still in first, due to AZ dropping some points around the winter break, but they are hanging on for dear life at this point. Erik ten Hag’s men need to get momentum back into their season. The Getafe matches seemed to take the air out of Ajax’s sails, and without a big win here, it is hard to see how they can turn their season around. Ziyech’s return, if he returns, will be massive for the composition of their attack, with Ziyech being a player who can create a chance out of seemingly nothing. Without Ziyech, more responsibility will be placed on the shoulders of Dusan Tadic and Ryan Babel, as well as on youngster Carel Eiting, who has suddenly become a first team fixture. AZ are a dangerous team going forward, but if Ajax cannot do anything in attack, they will not be able to hold on defensively forever.

AZ thought they were out of the title race after a few slip ups earlier in the season, but they are back and find themselves against an Ajax team limping into the biggest match of the season. Despite their loss to LASK in Austria, the Cheeseheads will find confidence in Ajax’s poor form and their win in this fixture earlier in the season. The key players for this team have not changed the whole season. In attack, the front three of Calvin Stengs, Oussama Idrissi, and Myron Boadu are deadly, with Boadu and Idrissi having combined for 25 goals on the season so far. Teun Koopmeiners is the rock in midfield that holds the team together and transitions the ball from defense to attack. There is no doubt that this is a fun team to watch, and the transfer vultures will certainly circle around those four in the summer. For this match, they will rely on absorbing pressure and releasing on the counter, with the pace of the front three going against a slow and weakened Ajax defense. Boadu scored the winner against Ajax in Alkmaar, and he has a knack for scoring goals in big games. I expect he could find another one in this game.

Prediction: This game should be quite fun. Ajax hardly lose at home, but AZ are confident and dangerous in attack, with players who have caused Ajax issues in the past. A draw seems likely, which will benefit Ajax more than AZ, but this title race feels far from over.

Ajax 2-2 AZ Alkmaar

PSV vs. Feyenoord

The schedulers in the Netherlands really worked wonders, giving us first vs. second and third vs. fourth in the same weekend. They maybe are not the matches of the weekend, but the eyes of the football world should be on the Netherlands this weekend.

Despite injury to star striker Donyell Malen and star winger Steven Bergwijn leaving the club, as well as sacking manager Mark van Bommel in December, PSV are figuring out how to get back on track. They are still able to score plenty of goals, as they have found production from Mohamed Ihattaren, Sam Lammers, and Ryan Thomas, among others. They have won their last three league games, and they have only lost one in their last seven. But despite all of this, there is still plenty for them to prove. They have only earned one point against Ajax, Feyenoord, or AZ this season, and much of their recent success has come against teams in the bottom half. They are a good team, but this could be a match where they seriously miss the ability and dynamism of Malen and Bergwijn. Ihattaren has caught the eye of several throughout Europe, and he will have to put out another shining performance in this match for PSV to earn all three points.

If PSV’s form is good, Feyenoord’s form is incendiary. Following Jaap Stam’s resignation, they brought in respected manager Dick Advocaat to help see out the rest of the season. Advocaat’s first league match was a 3-0 win over VVV-Venlo on November 3rd, which kicked off a 12 match unbeaten run, catapulting them into the top four, within touching distance of Ajax and AZ at the top of the table, and to the semifinal of the KNVB Becker. Club captain Steven Berghuis has been in phenomenal form, rising to become the league’s joint-second top scorer with 14 goals. Injury to starting striker Nicolai Jorgensen was concerning, but new arrival Robert Bozenik has done well in his place. Midfielder Leroy Fer has looked rejuvenated since returning to his native country. Advocaat has this team playing with energy that they did not have previously, and they will be a dangerous opponent for PSV. The key man is obviously Berghuis, who is scoring for fun at the moment, but their defense will have to hold their own against a PSV attack that is also in very good form.

Prediction: Depending on how the Ajax-AZ match goes, we could see one of these teams join them as true title contenders. Things are getting very interesting in the Eredivise. For this match, Feyenoord are the favorites, despite PSV’s strong home record. PSV’s recent successes have come against weaker teams, and while they do have strong supporting attackers, they will seriously miss Donyell Malen here. We are not far removed from Feyenoord’s convincing 3-1 win at De Kuip a few months ago, and while this match will be closer, it will be a Feyenoord win with goals being scored.

PSV 2-3 Feyenoord

Tottenham vs. Wolves

The race for the top four has expanded to the top five, as Manchester City’s European competitions ban means that fifth place could now secure coveted passage to the Champions League. This new target has created much more competition, with both of these teams less than three points outside of fifth.

Tottenham might have the most cataclysmic injury issue of any team in Europe. While their injury list is not long, it does contain their two best attacking players. Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son both find themselves injured at the worst possible time, and Jose Mourinho will have to form a makeshift attack to get by, relying on the returning Dele Alli, creative outlet Giovanni Lo Celso, and new arrival Steven Bergwijn to create and finish chances going forward. They were quite toothless in attack against Chelsea and RB Leipzig, and the defense, while improved, is still not good enough to carry a blunted attack to victories. With this Wolves match kicking off a series of matches against fellow top five place hunters, Mourinho knows that their season could be over in a matter of weeks. They cannot wait for Son and Kane to return; he must get a reaction out of these players if Spurs hope to be playing in the Champions League next season. The glimpses of positive news for Mourinho is the return of Erik Lamela, who offers energy and dynamism in midfield that could boost their attacking output. To win this match, they will need to profit on any Europa League-related exhaustion that Wolves may be feeling, using the pace of Bergwijn and Lucas Moura to attack the Wolves back three and allowing Lo Celso to find the pockets of space between the back three and wing backs to stretch the defense and create chances.

Wolves are still holding it all together. We all seemingly keep waiting for their extended Europa League adventure to take a toll on their league form, but there have been no serious issues. Draws against Manchester United and Leicester could be viewed as somewhat concerning, but their win against Norwich and aggregate win over Espanyol in the Europa League seem to show they are back on track. Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez have been in fantastic form recently, with the Portuguese especially seemingly scoring for fun at the moment and keeping new signing Daniel Podence out of the team. While they should be considered among the favorites to win the Europa League, the Manchester City news has given them another possible path into the Champions League. A win against a hobbled Spurs side would be a massive step in the right direction, especially considering they will have at least two more Europa League matches to contend with, and they should feel confident knowing the defensive issues Mourinho’s side have had recently. They could be especially devastating on the counter, and their pace at the wing back positions, as well as up front with Jota, should be a nightmare for the Spurs defense to contend with. If Moutinho and Neves are able to get time on the ball in midfield to help start the counters, then there could be serious problems for Spurs.

Prediction: Despite their injuries, Spurs are still a good side. Wolves are coming off a tough midweek trip in Spain, having conceded three goals to a not good Espanyol team. However, it is hard to move past how frail Spurs look going forward and how confident this Wolves team is in attack. Wolves could be tired, but they have the talent necessary to play this match how they want to, which is bad news for Mourinho and Spurs.

Tottenham 1-3 Wolves

Everton vs. Manchester United

Here are two more teams who are very happy with the Manchester City European ban. Both are, to a certain extent at least, in the hunt for the final Champions League place. A year on from United’s 4-0 thrashing at Goodison Park, a strong candidate to be the nadir of Solskjær’s reign, United return to the blue side of Liverpool with a chance to redefine the Solskjær era, while Everton search for the win that will do the same for Carlo Ancelotti’s reign at the club.

Despite their 3-2 loss at the Emirates last weekend, there is still quite a lot of positivity surrounding this Everton team, who have been in incredible form since Carlo Ancelotti took over. The Dominic Calvert-Lewin revolution has continued, with him scoring again against Arsenal, and Richarlison has maintained his status as one of the league’s quietly rising superstars. Andre Gomes made his miraculous return from his gruesome ankle injury, featuring in the second half against Arsenal and nearly changing the game for Everton. His return acted as a demonstration that when you add a proper ball-playing center midfielder to this Everton team, they become absolutely terrifying going forward. There are, however, still some pressing issues for Ancelotti to deal with. Gomes may not be fully ready to start, and with the season-ending injury to Morgan Schneiderlin, Everton remain lacking options in midfield. He also has to right the ship defensively, with their back line conceding sloppy goals against Arsenal that they cannot afford to do against United. Lucas Digne will most likely make his return to the team, with him and a potential Gomes start being the only changes Ancelotti is likely to make. The loss to Arsenal has put them on the outside looking in when it comes to the Champions League race, but positive results against United and Chelsea would at least put Ancelotti’s team in strong position for a Europa League place, if not in the hunt for the Champions League.

It was looking like Ole would get the sack multiple times this season, but they have seemingly turned things around, going to Goodison Park with a chance to fully change the mood around the club and around their beleaguered manager. The reason for this uptick in form starts and ends with one man: new January signing Bruno Fernandes. It is quite rare for a signing in January to make this much of an impact, but Fernandes’ addition to this United team has unlocked something in their attack. While United had good attacking players, they were seemingly unable to create much going forward, having to rely on the aging Juan Mata, as well as the struggling Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard, to be the creative outlets in midfield. Fernandes has stepped right into the team and solved that issue, able to drop into midfield and help bring the ball forward, as well as join the attack and find the pockets of space necessary to be a threat and create chances. Two goals, both penalties, and two assists from five appearances may not jump off the page for those reading his statistics, but his general presence in the team and ability to link up the midfield and attack have truly been game-changing for this team. Also worthy of mention is the performances of Eric Bailly, who has been nearly superhuman in his few appearances since returning from injury. If he is able to keep that up, then United are seemingly a completely different team. Playing a confident Everton team in a raucous Goodison Park will not be easy, but with Everton’s recent defensive issues, Ole will feel confident in his attack, led by Fernandes, being able to create dangerous chances. With several important games following their trip to Merseyside, Ole knows a win here could kick start a fantastic end to the season.

Prediction: This could seemingly be a turning point for both teams. That is what makes this so interesting. It is clear both teams are beginning to figure things out and will only get better, as it seems that Carlo’s early success was not an accident and that Ole is beginning to get the pieces he needs to succeed, but with a rare chance at fifth being a Champions League place, this is a very important match. Everton are a very good side in big games at Goodison, but their defensive issues worry me, as well as the question marks in midfield. United have been very impressive in their last few matches, and I think they leave Merseyside with all three points courtesy of another strong performance from Bruno Fernandes.

Everton 1-2 Manchester United

Aston Villa vs. Manchester City

Not enough big games for you? How about a cup final on Sunday as well? A final at Wembley is always a momentous occasion, and this one pits a European champion against Manchester City. (I’m just joking City fans, calm down.)

To say that Villa are underdogs here is a massive, and I mean massive, understatement. Their dramatic 2-1 win over Leicester in the semifinal was supposed to be a turning point in a poor season, the moment where Dean Smith’s team rallied together, kicked on, and strung together the good performances necessary to avoid the drop and keep them in the Premier League for next season. Instead, Villa have lost every game since that momentous day, seeing them drop into the relegation zone, with a game in hand of course. They now face a City team that has beaten them 3-0 and 6-1 in the league this season, with Pep’s team coming off a dramatic come-from-behind Champions League victory over Real Madrid. Oh, and they also got valuable rest for key players, including Sergio Aguero and David Silva. Villa are up against it, but they can cling onto the hope that their run to the final was rather improbable, having to beat several Premier League teams, including Wolves, Leicester, and Liverpool (their Under-23s but still) to earn their trip to Wembley. Also, they are able to look for motivation from outside sources. This match week has seen bottom of the league Norwich beat 3rd place Leicester and 18th placed Watford beat top of the league and unbeaten Liverpool. Crazy things happen in football, and crazy things tend to happen in cup finals, especially at Wembley. Now, here is some more bad news, Villa fans. John McGinn will not feature, with this cup final coming too soon for the Scottish midfielder to pass fitness tests. While his return is a boost for their survival hopes, he remains a massive miss in this team. Once again, Villa’s hopes rest on the shoulders of Jack Grealish. The Englishman has certainly done enough to secure a transfer away at the end of the season, as well as a spot in the England team for the Euros, but a performance in this final would certainly cement him as an Aston Villa legend. It seems too simple, but it is true. Villa will only win if Jack Grealish wins it for them.

Man City’s incredible win in Madrid was very much a “rose and thorn” moment for them. While the win was massive, De Bruyne was incredible, and they were able to rest some key players, Aymeric Laporte is once again injured. While Fernandinho performed admirably in his stead in Madrid, we have seen how inconsistent City’s defense has been without Laporte. While their attacking talent is apparent, the defense could be an issue. With cup keeper Claudio Bravo, who has been known to make a mistake or two, stepping in to replace Ederson, there could be some issues at the back. The good news is their attack should be fine. Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Raheem Sterling should all be good to go after little to no involvement against Real Madrid. Aguero specifically will be excited to see Aston Villa, the team he has scored five goals in his last three appearances against. There is no doubt they can score, but some cup final craziness leading to defensive issues could be their downfall.

Prediction: I will be honest here. I want Villa to win. I want a David beating Goliath moment. I want cup final drama. I also know it is not going to happen. There is a reason why City are overwhelming favorites. As much as I want a shock result, this one will be fairly predictable.

Aston Villa 0-4 Manchester City

RB Leipzig vs. Bayer Leverkusen

This Super Sunday never stops. Now we go to Germany, where these two teams desperately need to win.

With Bayern in incredible form, Leipzig find themselves in the unfortunate situation where they basically need to win every match for the rest of the season to have any hope of winning the league. The good news for Julian Nagelsmann is his team has seemingly gotten over their mid-season rut. After their resilient 0-0 draw in Bavaria, Leipzig thrashed both Werder Bremen and Schalke, while also putting out an impressive winning performance against Spurs in the Champions League. The injury issues remain a serious problem for Leipzig, however, with Yussuf Poulsen joining the list of injured players. Midfielder Konrad Laimer is also suspended, and with Tyler Adams still injured and Emil Forsberg out of favor, Amadou Haidara will be relied on to fill the hole in midfield. Their attack is still firing on all cylinders, with the in-form Christopher Nkunku forming a terrifying triad with Timo Werner and Patrik Schick. Leverkusen are also a very good attacking team, so Leipzig may have to hope that they outscore their opponents if they want to secure all three points.

Bayer Leverkusen have been quietly sneaking their way back into the Champions League discussion. They have won four of their last five in the league, and they have won their last six in all competitions. It is a far cry to call them title contenders at this point, but it is still worth noting they go into this match only five points off Leipzig. Their success has also stemmed from their attack, with wunderkind Kai Havertz beginning to show the same scintillating form he carried through the whole of last season. They have also gotten attacking contributions throughout the team, notably from Moussa Diaby, Leon Bailey, and Nadiem Amiri. The injury to striker Kevin Volland was a massive blow for a player who was having a great season, but Lucas Alario has been able to fill the void fairly well. The biggest question mark surrounding this team is their Europa League matches. Coming off a big win away to Porto, it remains to be seen whether there is any growing exhaustion coming from fighting on multiple fronts. Peter Bosz will likely be forced to rotate his team, with new signing Exequiel Palacios replacing Kerem Demirbay in midfield being the most likely and most influential change. They could also be without Charles Aranguiz and Lars Bender, suffering from illness and a knock suffered against Porto, respectively. If they are going to win this game, they will have to score plenty of goals to do so.

Prediction: There will be goals. Lots of goals. This will be a fun one to watch. Leipzig’s strong home form, as well as issues related to Volland’s injury, leads me to favor Leipzig, but this will be a fun one.

RB Leipzig 4-3 Bayer Leverkusen

Lyon vs. Saint-Etienne

The final match we preview this weekend may not be a match up between title contenders or teams fighting for Europe, but it is still a match that is important for both teams. Also, its the Derby Rhône-Alpes, the biggest derby in French football. This is a game that, at least usually, is fun, and this one has plenty of storylines for both teams.

Lyon’s season has been a strange one. It has not exactly been going well, but they now find themselves with an outside chance of making the Champions League, as well as being in a cup semifinal and cup final. This week was the beginning of several very important weeks for manager Rudi Garcia and president Jean-Michel Aulas. It started very well, with a historic 1-0 win over Juventus in the Champions League generating momentum that may have been stagnated by several unconvincing performances in previous matches. While questions could be raised about the tactical and managerial ability of Garcia, the talent on the pitch is performing well enough to get results, led by young star Houssem Aouar and complemented by January signing Karl Toko-Ekambi, who has fit in well in his return to Ligue 1, and striker Moussa Dembele. Their main January signing, midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, was very impressive against Metz and Juventus, and he will look to continue that good form in his first appearance in Le Derby. Garcia’s 3-4-3/3-5-2 system seems to be working, with the front three of Aouar, Dembele, and Toko-Ekambi working well together, and a back three/five keeping the team defensively resilient, led by stalwart Jason Denayer and the previously vilified Marcelo. Having not featured against Juventus, academy graduates Maxence Caqueret and Rayan Cherki, who have both impressed in previous appearances with the senior team, could find themselves playing important roles off the bench in their first ever derby match in senior football for OL. While Lyon are not in a similar situation as Aston Villa, it seems that they are similar in another way. As Aston Villa will only get as far as Jack Grealish carries them, it seems that Houssem Aouar’s performances have a massive impact on whether Lyon win a match. Going up against a potentially makeshift Saint-Etienne defense, the key to success for Lyon will be putting les Verts under constant pressure and hopefully finding an early goal, with Aouar seemingly the player best equipped to create match-winning moments.

Things were going so well for Claude Puel when he arrived at ASSE. His first match in charge was a dramatic 1-0 win over his former employers Lyon in the Derby at Le Chaudron earlier in the season. They had gotten into the top five and were dreaming of the podium places and the Champions League. But then everything fell apart. Saint-Etienne are now 16th, only sitting two points off the relegation playoff place in 18th, currently occupied by Nimes. They have lost four of their last five, with a disappointing 1-1 draw against Reims ending their losing streak. They have only won once in the league in 2020, a 2-1 win over Nimes in January. And everyone is seemingly always injured. While they got Denis Bouanga back into the team, they could potentially be without Romain Hamouma, Arnaud Nordin, Zaydou Youssouf, Loic Perrin, and William Saliba. If Saliba and Perrin do both indeed miss this match, Puel would be forced to rely on Yann M’Vila as a makeshift center back once more, after his poor performance in that position against Nimes. Rounding out the cacophony of issues, Puel has started friction within the team and between him and the supporters by dropping club stalwart and fan-favorite goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier. While he has not had a good season, Ruffier is a favorite among the ASSE fans for his loyalty to the club and long-time standing as one of the best goalkeepers in Ligue 1, and Ruffier himself has not taken the incident well. As if Sainté did not have enough issues going into this game, this drama now adds one more on top. The key to a positive result is defensive solidarity and one counter attack, most likely through Bouanga, or a set piece to get the goal necessary.

Prediction: This is an important match to both teams but for different reasons. Lyon are trying to carry on the momentum generated by their Juventus win, while Saint-Etienne are trying to reverse a negative course and save their season from collapse and relegation. Both teams are contending with issues, but Saint-Etienne’s issues are just so massive and overwhelming, it is hard to see them getting a result from this match.

Lyon 2-0 Saint-Etienne

Juventus vs. Inter

The Derby d’Italia was postponed due to fears surrounding the Coronavirus outbreak in Northern Italy. Even though this match will not be played on Sunday, I will still write a bit about the current standing of both teams and what this match means for the incredible title race in Serie A.

Juventus probably benefit the most of both teams with this postponement. Coming off a string of very unconvincing performances, including losses to Napoli, Hellas Verona, and Lyon, Maurizio Sarri could use the extra time to regroup and figure out how to fix the glaring issues in this team. Juventus also have the comfort of knowing that their toughest remaining matches, against Atalanta, Lazio, Inter, and Roma, will all be played at home, where they have been near-unbeatable this season. Unless, God forbid, the Coronavirus issue becomes worse and leads to more postponements, the fixture congestion should not be a massive issue, with the Inter match being sandwiched between Sampdoria at home and Cagliari away. Issues would begin to come when you factor in potential Champions League and Coppa Italia matches. A Coppa Italia final will likely fall near that time, as well as a Champions League semifinal (if they get that far). The fixture list is not too crowded, but it has the potential to become a massive issue as the season progresses. In the short-term, at least, Juventus greatly benefit from a postponement. They temporarily fall to second after Lazio’s win over Bologna on Saturday, but that should not be a massive change to their mindset.

Inter, conversely, would have been much more interested in playing the match as scheduled. Winning in Turin against Juventus is quite a tall task, but with their current struggles, this was the exact moment when Antonio Conte would have wanted to face Juve. Conte knows that the Bianconeri are now at their most vulnerable, especially with some doubts surrounding Sarri’s job safety, and he will be disappointed knowing he cannot capitalize on Juve’s weakness. The scheduling powers were not kind to Inter, and this match being rescheduled means that the Nerazzurri have a brutal end to the season, with Roma away, Fiorentina at home, Genoa away, Juventus away, Napoli at home, and Atalanta away coming in their final six matches. This schedule could be complicated even more by advancement into the later stages of the Europa League and Coppa Italia. The road to a Scudetto has become significantly harder for Inter, who now sit in third after Lazio’s win. Conte’s team has to be near-perfect to round out the season in order to have a chance of finishing as champions, and these final hurdles may be too much for them.

Lazio are now (temporarily) top of the league. Inter and Juventus have games in hand, but they now get the sensation of being the lead runner and having to deal with the chasers. This is a significant mentality hurdle that title-winning teams have to overcome, and how Lazio responds to this will show whether they have the mental strength needed to take Juve and Inter down to the wire. Despite the games in hand, Lazio have the scheduling advantage over both teams. Having been eliminated from the Coppa Italia and Europa League, they only have league matches from now until the end of the season, and they will not be dealing with the fixture congestion that will plague their title rivals’ end of the season. They have three remaining major schedule hurdles, and they all happen to be away matches, against Atalanta next week, against Juventus in April, and against Napoli on the last day of the season. Those matches will be the true test to see if Simone Inzaghi’s team can win the league, but they have the advantage of knowing how crowded the fixture list is going to be for other teams. Their trip to Turin could be sandwiched in the middle of an important Champions League quarterfinal tie for the Bianconeri, and their trip to Naples could come around the time of a potential Coppa Italia final for Napoli. Lazio are very much in this title race, and they need to stay mentally strong in order to remain on top come May 24th.

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