Finest Of Margins In Serie A Further Disrupted After Monday’s European Draw
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Last week, Serie A news revolved around goals. Goals change games was the mantra. After Juventus beat Napoli, it seemed like it was all change at the top of the table.
Instead, many of this week’s most important matches were goalless. Not bad, as such, but not quite the high scoring affairs we’d hoped for.
Juventus versus Inter, for example, was primed to be a winner-takes-all slobberknocker of a game. Just a week prior, the pragmatic champions had lured the high-flying Neapolitans into a trap and travelled back north with all three points. Massimiliano Allergi had achieved this by packing the midfield and smothering Napoli’s play. Against Inter, many were expecting the same.
It was a tense and robust game. Inter were unbeaten going into the match and there aren’t many grounds which give up fewer points than the Allianz Stadium in Turin. Whereas Allegri had cut off Napoli’s midfield production line last week, against Inter he shut down the wide players. Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva hardly had a sniff all game, meaning Mauro Icardi was left isolated and annoyed.
Juventus had the better chances. Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and his center backs were busy all evening, even clearing one goal-bound effort off the line. Only bouts of poor control by Mario Mandzukic seemed to let the home side down. The game ended zero-zero. Goals might change games but they didn’t arrive here.
Handanovic was at his brilliant best against the Champions as he won Inter a point in Turin.His save from Mandzukic's shot speaks volumes of how he has been the key this season, letting just 10 goals from 16 games. pic.twitter.com/7eyzSUw2zv
— Football Bloody Hell (@fbhfootball) December 10, 2017
The real winners, it seemed, were Napoli. At home to Fiorentina – a team in the slow process of rebuilding from the ground up – they were expected to win and shoot back to the top of the table. Even Roma, playing away at Chievo, seemed primed to benefit. But neither team could capitalize. Both matches ended goalless.
Which brings us to a problem. Nothing much has changed at the top end of the table this week. It’s been a hectic season so far; tight and edgy at the top as more teams than ever have been challenging for the title. There’s a case to be made for any one of Juventus, Napoli, Inter, Roma or even Lazio to walk away with the Scudetto this season. But this weekend did very little to sort out which of them will prevail.
Instead, the far bigger story on Monday morning was the last gasp of the European footballing calendar before it goes into hibernation.
As UEFA is wont to do, the Champions League draw and the Europa League draw both took place accompanied by ridiculous amounts of pomp and circumstance. With the governing body itself devoting so much wasted energy to these draws, perhaps it’s understandable that a number of Italian teams had their eyes focused elsewhere during the weekend’s league games.
So what happened?
In the Champions League, the eye-catching fixture is clearly Juventus versus Tottenham Hotspur. Last season’s finalists versus the ambitious young upstarts. After finishing second in their group, Spurs are one of the more difficult fixtures Juventus could have drawn but perhaps not the most difficult (Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain were considered more formidable opponents).
Thus far in the competition, however, Spurs have beaten Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. They have earned the right to be taken seriously.
Juve will take note of how both of those European giants were happy to flood forward and leave plenty of space for Spurs to attack. Juventus will have no qualms about sitting back, absorbing any pressure and denying Spurs the chance to play the game on their own terms. As evidenced this weekend against Inter, Juve and Allegri are happy to be pragmatic, even at home. As such, they will be quietly confident.
For Roma, the draw looks slightly easier. After emerging as surprising winners from a group containing Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, Roma have demonstrated their credentials. A trip to Shaktar Donetsk is their reward. A trip to Ukraine in winter is always tough, though this issue is alleviated by Ukrainian football’s extended winter break and the political turmoil which has forced Shaktar to play away from their usual home ground.
Once the tricky away fixture is navigated, Roma should be through to the next round of the competition.
Taking a look at the Europa League, things get a bit more complicated. Atalanta have the toughest draw for any Italian team, in a comparative sense. They will face Borussia Dortmund, who dropped down a level after finishing third in their Champions League group. In terms of resources and pedigree, Atalanta are no match for the Germans.
Their best chance seems to be based on Dortmund’s wretched form as of late, which has been complicated by the sacking of Peter Bosz and the hiring of Peter Stoger. With two months still remaining before the games, Stoger has more than enough time to correct the course of his team. Atalanta will be firm underdogs but have a small chance of progressing should Dortmund continue to flail.
Napoli have also drawn themselves against German opposition. They will play RB Leipzig in a strange fixture in which both teams have dropped down from the Champions League, only to be drawn against one another. Leipzig are an excellent team, consistently competing towards the highest echelons of the Bundesliga since their promotion. Players such as Naby Keita and Emil Forsberg will be a real threat.
For Napoli, however, the real issue might be motivation. Already, their players are beginning to look tired. Injuries to backups and a thin squad have meant the first XI has been overplayed and has slowed down considerably in recent weeks. By the time the next stage of the Europa League comes around, Maurizio Sarri may decide to dedicate all of his resources to Serie A. This might be their best opportunity to win the league for decades, so fresh legs for domestic games may be the priority.
For Lazio and AC Milan, the draw was particularly kind, offering up Steaua Bucharest and Ludogrets respectively. This competition has been a (relative) highlight in a dismal Milan season so far and winning the Europa League may be one of the few pathways to Champions League qualification they have left, however unlikely.
Lazio find themselves in a position similar to that of Napoli. They are performing well in the league and could conceivably finish fourth, thus qualifying them for the top tier of European competition. Should the Europa League interfere with domestic challenges, they may begin to prioritize the latter. Even with these considerations, both Milan and Lazio should qualify for the next round.
The weekend in Serie A wasn’t the most exciting. But, as we’ve seen, the real excitement is yet to come. Think of it as a pause, as a caesura, as Juan Roman Riquelme stopping mid-attack to put a foot on the ball and reassess his options. The European draw could shape the Serie A season before a ball has even been kicked in the knockout stages.
Looking back on this game week in the future, we might remember this as the moment when teams determined where to focus their efforts and resources for the entire season. Even if we have a few goalless draws, the impact of these last few days of football could be massive.