And this is slightly late cus they had a cup final a few days ago…
Serie A has returned, and with it, the four of the top five leagues with plans to return this season have all followed through. Italian football really returned last week, as the semifinals and final of the Coppa Italia were finished, but the league will resume this weekend. So, you know the usual questions at this point. Where did we leave off? What do you need to watch for? What players should you pay attention to?
First, a quick recap of the Coppa Italia. Italy’s premier cup competition resumed last week with the second legs of the semifinals. Juventus drew 0-0 with Milan but advanced on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate, while Napoli beat Inter 1-0 to advance 2-1 on aggregate. In the final, Napoli beat their arch rivals on penalties to win their sixth Coppa Italia and first trophy since 2014. Dries Mertens’ goal against Inter in the semifinal made him Napoli’s all-time leading goal scorer, surpassing former teammate Marek Hamšík. These two games offered some deserved vindication to Napoli manager Gennaro Gattuso, who seemed to not put a single foot wrong for either game. His line up and tactical decisions in the final were a significant reason for the Partenopei success, with the structure of the team in defense designed to force Juventus out wide and into crosses that would be easily dealt with by the center backs. This should be a significant momentum boost for Napoli, a team with an outside chance of finishing in the top four this season, and it is a way to start the season with momentum that no other team will have.
So, we left off with a title race, but is it a two horse race or a three horse race? Really, I am not quite sure. We left off with Juventus in first while Lazio and Inter are one and nine points behind them, respectively. While nine points is a significant gap for Inter, they do have a game in hand on the other two, so that deficit could be knocked down to six points with a win. Even with a six point lead, Inter are seemingly on the outside looking in when it comes to this title race. They are still in it, but they need quite a bit of help. However, we also return to a Juventus team in crisis. They did not play well in either the Milan or Napoli matches, and they seem to be more reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo than ever. When Ronaldo does not deliver, as he did not in the Coppa Italia Final, there seems to be not much more this Juventus team can do. Their midfield, especially, is still massively struggling outside of the usually great Rodrigo Bentancur. The defense is still solid, with Matthijs de Ligt finding his feet and becoming a key player in the team, but when they are not scoring enough, they will struggle to keep stringing together 1-0s and 1-1s. Lazio sit in perfect position, waiting for Juventus to mess up. Simone Inzaghi’s team have been the surprise package of the Serie A season, with quality players littered across the team. Ciro Immobile has been in incredible goalscoring form, and the midfield trio of Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Lucas Leiva have been nothing short of outstanding. Francesco Acerbi has been a rock at the back, as well. The spine of this Lazio team is fantastic, fully deserving of being in the position they are in. They also know that they still have to play Juventus, which gives them the opportunity to make up any ground they need to on the Bianconeri.
Below the top three, there is Atalanta in fourth, Roma in fifth, and Napoli in sixth. Those teams are the major contenders for the final Champions League place, with Atalanta and Roma being the main two teams in that fight. With Napoli’s Coppa Italia momentum, they definitely cannot be ruled out, but they have much more ground to make up. Atalanta are the top scorers in the league, assembling an incredibly entertaining and talented team that is able to compete for another season in the Champions League. Roma have been inconsistent under new manager Paulo Fonseca, but if they get young budding superstar Nicolò Zaniolo back healthy, they could be in with a good chance of finishing in the top four. Napoli have had a difficult season, sacking manager Carlo Ancelotti in December and replacing him with former Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso. It has not been smooth sailing for the Rossoneri legend in Campania, but with their triumph in the Coppa Italia, it seems that things are finally starting to turn around. If you wanted to expand this European discussion, there is a nine point gap between Napoli in sixth and Fiorentina in 13th. Sixth and seventh, currently occupied by Hellas Verona, are both Europa League qualifier places. It is a difficult path into Europe, but it would be a massive deal for some teams. One of those teams is Milan, currently in eighth. The ever-struggling Rossoneri are desperate for European football to alleviate some of the issues of Financial Fair Play and keep some of their key players at the club. Due to Napoli’s interesting position, they are able to challenge for the top four or drop out of the top six, and they need to maintain their momentum from winning the cup to finish the season well.
At the bottom of the table, two of the relegation places seem more or less decided. Brescia and SPAL seem destined for Serie B, being seven and six points away from safety, respectively. The real race is for the last spot, currently occupied by Lecce, who are only behind Genoa on away goals. There is a seven point gap between 18th and 11th, so theoretically all of those teams are at risk of relegation at this moment. Lecce, Genoa, Sampdoria, Torino, Udinese, Fiorentina, Cagliari, and Sassuolo all find themselves, more or less, within the wide frame of the relegation fight. The real race is including Udinese, Torino, Sampdoria, Genoa, and Lecce. Udinese, in 14th, and Lecce are only separated by three points. There is genuine talent in some of these teams, especially Udinese, Torino, and Sampdoria, but the race will likely be tight until the end of the season.
So who are the main names you should keep an eye on? You probably know the main ones: Ronaldo, Dybala, Immobile, Mertens, Insigne, Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Skriniar. There are definitely others, however, and, as usual, I will point them out here. Despite his struggles to adapt earlier in the season, it is worth giving another look to Matthijs de Ligt, who is showing the level of quality we all remember seeing when he was in Amsterdam. Milinkovic-Savić gets the most attention from outside Italy when discussing Lazio’s midfield, but Luis Alberto is a brilliant creative midfielder and currently the league’s assist leader. He is not just the Liverpool flop that many English fans remember him as being. Milan may continue to struggle, but left back Theo Hernández and midfielder Ismaël Bennacer have been stars this season, likely putting on great auditions for moves to other teams when the transfer window opens. Speaking of “audition for moves away”, surprise package Hellas Verona have two eye-catching Slavic center backs that have been stars this season. Kosovoan Amir Rrahmani and Albanian Marash Kumbulla have been fantastic all season and have attracted significant interest from other teams, the 20-year-old Kumbulla especially. Rrahmani seems to be going to Napoli, but Kumbulla has a long list of suitors within and outside of Italy vying for his signature. His defensive intelligence, ability on the ball, and maturity despite his young age makes him one of the best center back prospects on the continent. I am not going to select a single Atalanta player, but I am going to encourage you to watch them. Your player to watch for Atalanta is all of their players. Genuinely, they are such a fun team, playing such an intense attacking style and scoring plenty of goals. Their front three of Josip Iličić, Duván Zapata, and Alejandro “Papu” Gómez are the stars of the show, but there is so much that makes that team work. Further down the table there are plenty of great attacking players, such as Andrea Belotti at Torino, Federico Chiesa at Fiorentina, and the aging-like-fine-wine Fabio Quagliarella at Sampdoria. There are also a good set of brilliant box-to-box midfielders, including Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul, and the much-discussed Brescia wunderkind Sandro Tonali.
So, what is going to happen? Well, at the top, I do genuinely think this is the year that Juve’s hegemony ends. This seems to be a Juventus team in crisis, a team that has spent so much money on financing Ronaldo’s move that they have been unable to really upgrade the rest of the team. Their main competition, Lazio, seems to be an incredibly complete team that has many fewer weaknesses than Maurizio Sarri’s team. Sarri has seemingly reached a crisis point following their Coppa Italia failure, as there is a real possibility that the Bianconeri end the season without any trophies. Should that happen, it would likely lead to Sarri’s departure. Inter’s struggles have likely taken them out of the title race, but I believe they will comfortably finish third, with Atalanta rounding out the top four. Napoli will make a run, but not enough to catch Atalanta, finishing fifth, while Roma finishes sixth. I think Hellas Verona will narrowly hang on to seventh over Milan and Parma, but Milan, especially with a healthy Ibrahimović, could finish in that sixth spot. At the bottom, I think Brescia and SPAL both go down, with Lecce being the team to join them. Lecce are in a race for survival, but I think they are the least talented of the relegation fighting teams, and with the restart allowing some of the other more talented teams to get some much needed rest, Lecce will suffer the most.
The return of Serie A still feels weird. Italy was the hardest hit European country by COVID, and the impact of the disease will be felt in Italian society for decades to come, especially in the north of the country. Lombardian clubs Inter, AC Milan, Brescia, and Atalanta return to play in the region hardest hit by the virus. While things seem to be returning to “normal”, there is a sense that nothing will be what is was before and that the definition of “normal” has been forever changed. In a way, this can be said about every country in the world, not just Italy. I just hope that the return of football can bring some much needed joy back into people’s lives, put smiles on the faces of people who have been, and continue to be, impacted by this virus.