By Michael Ottolenghi
Two big games and one big question this week in Serie A, as Napoli and Juve continue to match each other in the title race. Napoli remain a point ahead of the bianconeri and will face third place Lazio in Naples on Saturday, a day after Juve travel to Florence to face Fiorentina.
Fiorentina-Juve is always a big game, regardless of the position of the teams in the league table. It is a historic rivalry that goes back to the glory years of Serie A, Roberto Baggio and all that. This year the two teams are in very different positions. Fiorentina, after a few seasons of success under Vincenzo Montella and Paolo Sousa, are having a decidedly mediocre year under new manager Stefano Pioli. They are firmly ensconced in mid-table mediocrity, and have struggled for consistency (their past two games were a 4-1 home loss to second bottom Verona and a 2-1 away win at Bologna). They have also sold their striker Khouma Babacar to Sassuolo in the transfer window, with few visible reinforcements coming in. There are some positives for fans of la viola, most notably their two starlets, Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone, with Chiesa scoring the winner against Bologna last Sunday.
With nothing much left to play for, the home game against Juventus is the biggest event of the season for Fiorentina fans, and the atmosphere should be electric. But Juventus are unlikely to be phased, particularly after their 7-0 demolition of Sassuolo last Sunday. Max Allegri’s side have lost Blaise Matuidi to injury, but with Gonzalo Higuain rediscovering his form, it’s hard to see any result other than a Juve win here.
Lazio’s trip to Naples could be more interesting, although Lazio are coming off a shock 2-1 home defeat against Genoa on Monday night. Still, they retain an impressive attacking threat and are not third in the table by chance. Manager Simone Inzaghi will want to bounce straight back from Monday’s loss, and an away game against an attacking side like Napoli should suit Lazio’s counter-attacking sensibilities. But Maurizio Sarri’s team are not naïve and have seen off many challenges this season, particularly at home. And while many praise their offensive play, they have conceded only 14 goals this season – which is the third least in all of the top European leagues (only Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have done better). With Juve starting to fire on all cylinders, Sarri knows his team cannot afford to lose any points of he is to deliver a historic third scudetto to his adopted hometown.
The big question concerns Inter and their renewed inability to win a game. Although they are still currently in fourth place, Roma trail them by only a point and the question is: will they yet again miss out on Champions League qualification by spectacularly imploding? The signs are not good for those of an Inter persuasion: after a tremendous start to the season under new manager Luciano Spalletti, Inter have forgotten how to win. On 3 December they beat Chievo 5-0 and were top of the league. Since then they have failed to win a game, failed to score more than one goal in a game and have drawn their last 5 matches.
It is a worrying decline for a club that calls itself “crazy” because of the team’s ability to either win or lose in spectacular fashion. The more recent craziness has featured collapses under managers Andrea Stramaccioni and Roberto Mancini to fail to qualify for the Champions League after promising starts. Spalletti must be worried that the club’s over-reliance on captain Mauro Icardi (who has scored nearly 50% of the team’s goals) was not addressed in the transfer window, and that despite Eder’s goal in last Saturday’s 1-1 home draw with Crotone the team’s other attacking players are not picking up the slack. With Roma managing to keep Edin Dzeko in the transfer window, and Lazio continuing to score freely, Inter can’t afford a further slide down the table. They face Bologna at San Siro on Sunday and unless they return to winning ways soon they may be facing yet another season of reconstruction next year.