By Michael Ottolenghi
Nothing to report at the top of Serie A, as Napoli retain their 1 point lead over Juventus after both teams won last weekend. And that gap looks likely to remain intact as both clubs face struggling opponents this weekend, with Juve hosting Sassuolo and Napoli travelling to face bottom club Benevento.
In the race for Champions League qualification, both Roma and Lazio have now played their games in hand so the table is more straightforward to decipher. Lazio are in third place, 10 points behind Juve, despite their 2-1 loss to Milan on Sunday. Inter are two points further back, while Roma are a further three points behind Inter. All three clubs struggled last weekend, with Inter drawing 1-1 away to Spal and both Rome clubs unexpectedly losing (Lazio to Milan and Roma to Sampdoria).
So in what should be a quiet week at the top of the table, this seems like a good opportunity to focus on three teams that are less heralded, less likely to make it into Europe’s top club competition and less well known internationally: Sampdoria, Atalanta and Udinese. So why focus on them? They are playing some of the most interesting football in the league and their squads include a few players and managers that may become big names across Europe.
Sampdoria sit in sixth place in Serie A, four points behind Roma and seven from Inter in fourth place. While Champions League qualification remains unlikely, the blucerchiati are slowly returning to the impressive form that saw them qualify for Europe a couple of times ten years ago. Of the three clubs we are discussing, Sampdoria have opted for a model of trusting manager Marco Giampaolo to revitalise a squad of (mostly) journeymen veterans, slotting them into his 4-3-1-2 formation and specifically trusting his strikers. The key players that Giampaolo has revived include such unlikely characters as Premier League rejects Gaston Ramirez and Ricky Alvarez, as well as former Inter and Milan defender Matias Silvestre and goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano. But Giampaolo’s greatest success in undoubtedly the work he has done with his strikers: Fabio Quagliarella has scored 16 goals already this season, while Duvan Zapata scored the winner against Roma last Saturday, giving the club yet another top scalp after their impressive win against Juventus in November.
Four points behind Sampdoria in eighth place (with Milan in between), Atalanta are no longer a surprise but are still noteworthy. They were the big story of last year’s Serie A campaign, of course, qualifying for Europe for the first time since the days of Claudio Canniggia and producing a brand of muscular reactive football that overwhelmed some of the league’s bigger sides. Much of that success was due to manager Giampiero Gasperini’s talent with young players, and after many of them inevitably left in the summer (such as Franck Kessie to Milan), there were doubts about their ability to cope this season. But while they are not doing as well domestically this time around, they have produced some stunning European performances (just ask Everton) and Gasperini has continued to rely on promising youngsters. Juve have already bought Italian defender Mattia Caldara, while midfielder Bryan Cristante, striker Andrea Petagna and Swiss international Remo Freuler are three to watch.
In eighth place, just a further point behind Atalanta are Udinese, who host Milan on Sunday. The club from Friuli have a well trodden model of moving players between the other clubs in the same ownership, Watford and Granada. Their current crop of players are more journeymen than stars of the future, with Kevin Lasagna leading the line with support from Argentinean Maxi Lopez and midfielders Rodrigo De Paul and Antonin Barak. Not exactly household names, but as with Sampdoria, Udinese’s biggest asset may be their manager, Massimo Oddo. Oddo arrived in Udine in November after the club fired Luigi Delneri, set his team up in a 3-5-2 formation and immediately won 5 games in a row. A Europa League place now seems possible, and if he achieves that Oddo may join his former Lazio teammate Filippo Inzaghi as one of Italy’s promising young coaches. A win against a slightly rejuvenated Milan on Sunday would be a good start.