Do we have a presumptive champion already?
Welcome to the Serie A Week in Review. It’s been a little while since we have had one of these, but we are back. Here, we will be naming our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discussing what we learned from another week (or so) of action in Italy.
Player of the Week
Zlatan Ibrahimović, AC Milan
The big man himself was crucial for Milan in the last week, scoring in assisting in their shock wins over Lazio and Juventus. While age has begun to catch up to the Swede, Ibra still has the ability to be influential on matches because of his ability to play as a target man and draw the attention of defenders, as well as a maintained technical ability that may never go away. Two goals and two assists in two colossal wins for the Rossoneri, games that may be significant in their race for European football next season. And at the center of it is the legend himself.
Winners of the Week
1.) AC Milan
In the last about week and a half, Milan have beaten Roma, Lazio, and Juventus. These are three massive scalps for Stefano Pioli’s team, and these three wins put them firmly in the race for a Europa League place. There is starting to be some serious chemistry forming in the team, especially at the back, where Alessio Romagnoli has formed a strong partnership with on-loan center back Simon Kjær. Theo Hernández, Ismaël Bennacer, and Zlatan remain stars of the show in their respective positions, but they are boosted by strong performances from Ante Rebić and Hakan Çalhanoglu, as well as some surprise production from youngster Alexis Saelemaekers and veteran Giacomo Bonaventura. Pioli is stringing together some fantastic results, finally reaping the benefits of the work he has put in as manager. Should this be his final season in the San Siro dugout, as rumors indicate, Pioli seems to want to make the most of this remaining time. Getting Milan back into Europe would be quite a way to go out as manager.
The most in-form team in Italy not named Atalanta is, surprisingly, Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. Following some struggles earlier in his tenure, Gattuso has begun to get a tune out of his team, guiding them to a Coppa Italia title and only one loss in their last seven league matches, dating back to before the hiatus. Yes, their loss to Atalanta did sting, but they responded well and got all three points in a must-win match against Roma a few days later. Napoli have always been a talented team, but it is a combination of that talent and the underrated managing of Gattuso that has made this Napoli we are now seeing. This was characterized perfectly in the Roma match, with the first goal being a near-Sarriball level of team combination and off-ball runs leading to José Callejón getting on the end of a perfect cross, while the second goal was a piece of individual brilliance from Lorenzo Insigne. While the 15 point gap between the Partenopei and the Champions League is not completely insurmountable with eight games left, it is still safe to say that they will be front-runners for the Europa League place. Gattuso deserves credit for the job he has done in Naples.
Juventus accomplished quite a bit in the last week without really doing much themselves. Despite not looking that strong all season, and despite their recent loss to Milan, they look well on their way to another league title. It will come down to Juve restarting the season well and Lazio stumbling when it mattered the most. Questions still loom around the future of Maurizio Sarri, and while a seven point lead with seven games left is not fully safe, especially still having to face Lazio, Atalanta, and Roma, I feel at least somewhat comfortable in saying that the Bianconeri will be champions. Should this be Sarri’s only year in Turin, going out with a Scudetto would not be terrible.
Losers of the Week
This past week has been a massive slip up for Lazio, and I mean massive. Simone Inzaghi’s team seemed to recover somewhat well from their capitulation against Atalanta, but a loss to Milan paired with their shock loss to Lecce yesterday sees them falling away from Juventus in the Scudetto race. With Juventus also losing yesterday, the loss to Lecce is a serious missed opportunity to make up ground, especially knowing they still must travel to Turin to face the reigning champions at the end of the month. The dramatic loss in Bergamo may have been what ended the Lazio title challenge, but if Atalanta beat Juve this weekend, they may have the chance to redeem themselves when they go to Turin.
Pazza Inter is a phrase that you run into quite a bit when reading Italian football coverage. It is synonymous with a fan-written song, “Pazza Inter Amala”, that used to be played at the San Siro before matches, but it is also synonymous with a “crazy” Inter. Pazza Inter refers to an Inter team that finds a way to play worse than the sum of its parts, to lose matches that it should be winning easily, to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. Antonio Conte’s arrival was thought to be a signal of the end of the pazza days for Inter, but, low and behold, we are back. Their 3-3 draw against Sassuolo was as crazy as the reputation says, but they seemed to shape up with a very lucky 2-1 win over Parma and a 6-0 demolition of Brescia. Their most recent match, a 2-1 loss to Bologna, was a return to this pazza mentality. Inter had the chances in the first half to be 4-0 up at halftime, but a rather drab second half from the Nerazzurri allowed Bologna to score twice. An incredibly disappointing second half of the season has seen Conte’s team fumble out of the title race, only a point ahead of Atalanta in fourth. If they are not careful, they may be fighting with Napoli to stay in the top four altogether.
Roma were once comfortably in the driver’s seat in the race for the Europa League place, but losses to Milan, Udinese, and Napoli have seen them begin to crumble. They did not play as poorly against Napoli as they did in the previous two matches, but the goals have seemed to dry up. Paulo Fonseca’s three at the back experiment has not shown the results he may have wanted, as well, and it seems that Roma are seemingly lacking any momentum. In one bit of positive news, young star Nicolò Zaniolo made his return to the team following a cruciate ligament injury in January, coming on as a substitute in the 66th minute against Napoli. It is unclear how much of a role Zaniolo will play in the team, but if they are able to get near the level of quality that the young Italian has shown previously, then Roma could get back on track for the rest of the season. It may not be all doom and gloom for the capitol club.
What we Learned
1.) This might be the worst Juventus team to win the title in a while
The gaping flaws of this Juventus team have been laid out for the world to see over the last 12 months. They are a team that lacks any real quality in midfield, are prone to collapse in defense largely due to the ineffectiveness of the midfield, and are seemingly too reliant on Ronaldo going forward, despite the incredible amount of attacking talent in the team. When the attack can click, as they did against Genoa, they are a very good side with plenty of individual skill, but so many times this season, Juventus have been exposed. Their failure in the Coppa Italia, where a loss on penalties to Napoli after a pitiful display in normal time restarted their season with a whimper, further highlights the existence of those issues. However, thanks to the struggles and ineptitudes of Lazio and Inter, it looks like Juventus will win the Scudetto for a ninth consecutive year. However, this year seemed to really be the year where Juve wins the title not because of their individual quality, but because of the failings of their title rivals. If Juventus do not do something in the transfer window to fix their flaws, then next season might be the one where their title streak ends.
2.) Are Milan back?
No. Of course not. That’s a ridiculous question. A club of the stature of AC Milan cannot be considered to be “back” until they reach the level of a team that is contending for Scudetti and is competing regularly in the Champions League.
But there is optimism. There is a view that there are things finally going right on the Rossonero side of Milan. The wins over Roma, Lazio, and Juventus put them in a great position to qualify for the Europa League next season, which should alleviate some of the financial issues the club continues to face. They have found a solid and consistent back four, with Simon Kjær and Andrea Conti providing some stability to partner established stars Alessio Romagnoli, Theo Hernández, and Gigio Donnarumma. Zlatan continues to be Zlatan, and while they cannot rely on the big Swede for that much longer, he will at least get the job done now. Ismaël Bennacer continues to be the breakout star of the season in Serie A, providing incredible performances from midfield on a weekly basis. And they are able to tie this all together through the management of Stefano Pioli. The Italian has not done a great job at the helm of Milan, especially earlier in the season, but he is finally seeing some fruit from his labor. The impending arrival of Ralf Rangnick to replace Pioli has put the Italian manager in an awful situation, but he is at least able to use it to so far inspire a strong run to the end of the season from his team. The financial boost from qualifying for the Europa League would allow Rangnick, should he be the next manager, to begin his Milan rebuild in a good position financially and on the pitch.
3.) Gattuso’s new Napoli is going to be interesting to watch next season…
I will continue to insist that Gattuso is not getting the credit he deserves for the job he has done at Napoli so far. Yes, it did not start that well, but he is really starting to get production out of a team that, let’s not forget, literally mutinied against their ownership and former manager Carlo Ancelotti earlier in the season. The individual talent at Napoli, especially in attack, is now coming to the fore, but it is not just down to talent. Gattuso has put together several masterful game plans to get results for the Partenopei, the most effective being his masterful tactics in the Coppa Italia Final against Juve. With Hellas Verona center back Amir Rrahmani arriving in the summer, as well as the club’s outward courting of Lille striker Victor Osimhen, the foundations are being laid for the evolution of this team next season, but with most of the core of this team likely staying, Gattuso has himself a talented team that also works hard and fights through adversity. That might sound like a cheesy pairing of key words, but it is really true. No, this Napoli team does not have the gloss of the Sarriball teams, and it may not be as good, at least not right now, as those teams, but Gattuso is building a team that should be back into the Champions League places very soon. For now, look for Napoli to be the favorite to finish at least fifth, and possibly, when the Champions League returns, stand a decent chance of knocking out Barcelona.
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