By Michael Ottolenghi
Can a league with only European qualification to play for be exciting? Isn’t it boring to see Juventus canter towards a record 6th consecutive title? Have you been paying attention to Serie A this season?
Last weekend showcased Serie A’s best answers to these perennial questions, with a surprising goalfest, a late late winner and some player vandalism thrown in for good measure. The title and relegation may be decided, but European qualification clearly is able to provide both quality and drama in Serie A. And while it may be the same story every year, this season has seen an undoubted increase in both quality and goals from the main contenders for European qualification.
Let’s start with the drama. Milan seemed on course to break Juve’s incredible streak of winning games at the Juventus Stadium last Friday, with the game poised at 1-1 in the 96th minute. Juve had dominated the game but Milan had scored on the counter attack through Carlos Bacca and were holding on when the referee ruled an innocuous handball by Milan’s Mattia De Sciglio to be a penalty. Paolo Dybala, who has missed one of the key penalties in the Supercoppa loss to Milan earlier this season, took it and did not miss. Cue bedlam at the stadium and angry recriminations from the Milan players – who were accused of vandalising their dressing room, including by daubing graffiti on Juve’s revoked 2004/05 and 2005/06 league wins.
And then on to the goals and the annual race for European qualification. The obvious difference between this year’s race for Champions League places and the situation in previous years is the amount of goals scored by the teams pursuing second and third place. We will come on to Inter’s 7-1 win against Atalanta last Sunday, but the current incumbents in second and third place, Roma and Napoli, are the two highest scoring teams in the league and in Edin Dzeko (20 league goals) and Dries Mertens (19) have two of the top 5 goalscorers in the division. As those goalscoring exploits are combined with maddening inconsistency, while entertainment is guaranteed, neither Roma or Napoli are certain qualifiers for the Champions League. That is of some comfort to the pursuing teams, most notably Lazio, Inter and Atalanta.
Inter stand out because of their impressive goalfest last weekend against a team that was seen as a rival for European qualification that boasted more points than them in the league. Inter’s credentials against so-called direct rivals for Europe was poor and this game against Atalanta was the opportunity to overtake Atalanta in the table and close the gap with Lazio in fourth. And what an answer Stefano Pioli’s team provided, with hat-tricks for both captain Mauro Icardi and midfielder Ever Banega, as well as a goal from Atalanta old boy Roberto Gagliardini. Unfortunately for Inter, while they have now overtaken Atalanta in the table, Lazio, Roma and Napoli all won (each scoring three goals), so the gap that separates the nerazzurri from third place remains 6 points.
So with 10 games left to play Inter have one more game against a direct rival to play – at home against Napoli in April. So they will have to make up the gap with third place elsewhere, hoping that they can be more consistent that both Roma and Napoli. Inter will travel to Torino this Sunday, to take on a team that seemingly has little to play for. With 39 points in the table after their 3-1 defeat against Lazio last weekend and little hope of any European football next season, manager Sinisa Mihajlovic has been focusing on establishing Torino’s identity in the expectation that next season they can be more competitive in the league. They remain a tough team to beat at home, and have the lethal firepower of top Serie A goalscorer Andrea Bellotti and his 22 goals to trouble Inter. Meanwhile, Napoli travel to fourth bottom Empoli, Roma will host mid-table Sassuolo and Lazio face Cagliari. So it should be a relatively quiet weekend before the international break and Juventus’ trip to Naples. So expect more goals and some extra drama before a week off and the final push for the Champions League.