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Serie A Restarts; The 19/20 Season So Far

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Tomorrow, the Italian domestic cup competition the Coppa Italia resumes. This marks the first competitive game in Italian football since the league was suspended back in March 9th.

This weeks games feature Juventus host AC Milan, who played out a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the Coppa Italia Semi-finals, as well as Napoli hosting Inter Milan at the San Paolo with a narrow 1-0 win in their opening encounter.

Perhaps most excitingly, the return of the calcio sees the Serie A season get back underway on June 20th. And there’s lots to discuss…

 

The Title Race for Serie A

Juventus (1)

Incredibly, for the first time since Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side in the 17/18 season, there is a title race race in Italy. It will come as no shock to find The ‘Old Lady’ sitting pretty at the summit of the Serie A table, and the Bianconeri will look to retain their title once more. Their title being the operative word as Juve has won it for the last eight seasons in a row.

Sarri’s Juventus has seen a few ups and downs so far this season. Cristiano Ronaldo (35) has begun to settle into his relatively new colours scoring 21 league goals this season. Dybala has also shown signs of the world-class talent his possesses, despite Sarri wanting him sold in the summer window. However, despite being first in the table ‘Sarri-Ball’ hasn’t quite been the eye-catching spectacle it was at Napoli, with serious pressure on Sarri both domestically the European stage.

Juventus are still favorites to retain the title and their strength in-depth will benefit them with the new five substitute rules than any other team in the league.

Juventus have remaining games against difficult opposition such as the Turin Derby against Torino, Champions League Quarter-finalists Atalanta, European chasing Roma and main title rivals Lazio.

Juventus are currently only one point ahead of Lazio in second place and will face Bologna away on June 22nd.

Lazio (2)

Lazio’s title race has been a thrilling watch so far. Manager Simone Inzaghi has built on his sides Coppa Italia winning success of last season and has truly thrown the gauntlet down to Juventus and Inter Milan for the Scudetto. The Eagles boast leading goalscorer Ciro Immobile with 27 league goals up-front while Luis Alberto and Joaquin Correa have been in electric form (and often pace) on the wings. Highly-rated midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is also having a sensational season in the center of the pitch after a disappointing campaign in the previous season.

Lazio had briefly gone top just before the pandemic, this meant that manager Simone Inzaghi and brother Filippo Inzaghi were both top of their respective leagues (Filippo managing 1st placed Benevento in Serie B this season).

Lazio’s remaining run-in is easier than title rivals Juventus, however they will play fourth-placed Atalanta on their first game back on June 24th.

Inter Milan (3)

For many, Inter were seen as favorites to dethrone Juventus for the scudetto this season. Inter had appointed former Juventus and Italy manager Antonio Conte who has a magnificent track record for domestic success, widely recognized as the man who revived the ‘Old Lady’ back into European giants, and most recently won the English Premier League with Chelsea in the 16/17 season. His spell in charge of the national team was also far superior to his successor Gian Piero Ventura, but out of respect to every Azzurri fan, I won’t go there!

Inter has also backed Conte in the summer transfer market signing players who were influential in Serie A last season such as Sassuolo’s Stefano Sensi and Cagliari’s Nicolo Barella respectively. The Nerazzurri have also added highly-rated and experienced center-back Diego Godin, as well as the attacking talent of long-term Conte target Romelu Lukaku, all of which have made respectable starts to their Inter careers.

However, in typical Conte style he has perhaps been too honest in some of his comments to the media stating in November that “We are talking about players who, apart from Diego Godin, have never won anything. Who do we turn to? Nicolo Barella who has come from Cagliari? Or (Stefano) Sensi, who came from Sassuolo?”.

Yet these players (despite a few injuries) have been the bright spark in Inter’s season so far, along with the defensive abilities of Skriniar and De Vrij and the attacking prowess of Inter’s front two of Lautaro Martinez and Lukaku. The problem with Inter has been their lack of intensity and consistency in certain games (most notably in the Champions League). The side has also looked confused at times, this could be due to the amount of new players arriving at once.

Going forward, Inter will need to hit the ground running if they are to make up the nine point gap (albeit with a game in hand). New signing Christian Eriksen has had a slow start but has impressed Conte during the break according to reports. And Ashley Young has made a bigger impact than initially expected at the club. Inter will hope Alexis Sanchez will be fit for the business end of the season, to give some much needed attacking option from the bench and support for Inter’s two up front.

Inter face relegation threatened Sampdoria at the San Siro on their return on June 21st. Inter’s run-in is easier than the others in the scudetto race, and it needs to be.

Atalanta (4)

Whether you’ve been watching Serie A religiously or you’ve seen Atalanta on their Champions League adventure, you can’t help but admire the team from Bergamo. Manager Gian Piero Gasperini shocked Serie A last season as his side finished in a Champions League spot, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that was as good as they could achieve.

Gasperini’s men have been fighting on all fronts so far, recently securing themselves a place in the Champions League Quarter Finals beating Valencia 8-4 on aggregate! Atalanta have also been playing some incredible football in Serie A this season in their high-tempo 3-4-1-2 formation. Gasperini’s football has resulted in his side being the highest goalscorers in the league (70), and Atalanta’s top four attacking players have 45 league goals between them. Gasperini currently stands as one of the most sought after coaches in Europe.

Atalanta’s main play comes from the width of the pitch, both full-backs Gosens and Hateboer often dribble into wide areas while midfielders De Roon, Pasalic and Freuler move with them to create passing opportunities, this means that there can be up to four or five players wide at one time. These midfielders often become center-backs if their ball playing defenders move up the pitch. All this movement is accompanied by forwards Josip Ilicic and Duvan Zapata also occupying the wide areas. As a result of all this movement, work-rate and unpredictability from every player allows Alejandro Gomez to be the only attacking player to be central and play a free-roaming role in the attacking areas. Gomez uses the referee as his reference, this is how he knows where to position himself centrally. Atalanta have had the most touches in the opposition box in the entire league this season (697).

Atalanta face Sassuolo at home on June 21st with a game in-hand.

Roma (5)

Roma currently occupy the 5th position in the table.

Despite some controversial actions from Roma’s American owners (if you’re on team Totti) the ‘I Giallorossi’ are building an exciting squad under Portugal’s next hot managerial prospect Paulo Fonseca. And after a mixed season last year, The Giallorossi have added some much needed quality to their exciting young roster with the likes of reliable goalkeeper Pau Lopez, on-loan defender Chris Smalling (who has surprised a few) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who have all hit the ground running.

Along with their pacey, skillful and exhilarating young players such as Justin Kluivert, Cengiz Under and golden boy Nicolo Zaniolo, Roma have exactly what it takes to become a real force in Serie A and maybe secure a Champions league place… and having Edin Dzeko leading the line helps a fair bit too! Roma have scored the most goals from set-pieces this season.

Napoli (6)

Napoli have had a very interesting season so far. Starting the season with a some brilliant acquisitions in the transfer market such as Kostas Manolas to partner Koulibaly and securing the exciting signature of Hirving Lozano from PSV. Coupled with the managerial prowess of Carlo Ancelotti you’d probably expect Napoli to fight for the scudetto, yet this hasn’t been the case. 

After a poor start Ancelotti’s men were send on ‘ritiro’ (player retreat camp) by president Aurelio De Laurentiis. This is a common practice in Italian football when the players need to get back on track. However, the situation soon turned sour as Ancelotti said he wasn’t in favor of the retreat and the players refused. As a result of this De Laurentiis fined the playing squad €2.5 million for their mutiny.

Ancelotti was eventually sacked as manager and replaced by Gennaro Gattuso on December 11th. Although the side has been playing better under ‘Rino’ Napoli are still nowhere near the scudetto race and are currently nine points behind Atalanta who sit in the fourth placed Champions League spot.

Napoli are away to 8th placed Hellas Verona in their next game (23rd June).

AC Milan (7)

It seems to be groundhog day for Milan, every year there is so much excitement surrounding these European sleeping giants, and every year they fall significantly short.

The Rossoneri started the season with Marco Giampaolo taking the reins from club legend Gattuso in the managerial hot seat but was sacked by October. Now Milan are managed by Stefano Piolo and sit 7th in the table just outside of the Europa League places.

Milan’s frustrating transfer policy has only continued this season with the club selling Polish striker Krzysztof Piątek for €21.6 million to German club Hertha Berlin just a year after buying the then in-form forward for €31.5 million. Milan then brought back Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the club he left back in 2012. This decision questions Milan’s long-term vision for the club with the veteran striker at 38 years old. The club has also been linked with Burnley midfielder Jeff Hendrick, which would be another surprising move by the club in the transfer market.

Milan’s problems have mainly been in the attacking third of the pitch with large midfield investments such as Franck Kessie and Lucas Paqueta not having the impact expected of them.

However, defensively Milan fans have reason to smile,  Gianluigi Donnarumma is in talks to sign a new deal, and a back four consisting of Calabria and Conti battling for the right-back spot, Captain Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio partnering the center-back positions and left-back Theo Hernandez being praised as the best left-back in the league contributing five league goals in the process.  

Milan restart their league campaign against relegation stragglers Lecce away from home on June 22nd. Milan have a difficult run remaining including Roma, Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and Atalanta.

 

 

Chasing A Europa League Spot

If it wasn’t for Milan’s stature they would have made this section, their lackluster performances would have merited it.

Hellas Verona sit in eighth position with one point behind AC Milan and a game in hand. Hellas Verona last won the Scudetto in 1985 and were promoted from Serie B last season after beating Cittadella in the play-off final. Ivan Juric’s side are pushing well above their weight.

Cagliari made a brilliant start to their season under manager Rolando Maran with his side winning 7 of their opening 12 league games reaching a Champions League place. However, this form was quickly lost resulting in The Sardinians not managing a win in 12 games. Maran was sacked in March and replaced with Ex-Wolves manager Walter Zenga, they’re currently 12th. Cagliari are a team to watch when play resumes, with a reasonable run-in remaining and a talented squad featuring the likes of Alessio Cragno having an outstanding season in goal and Radja Nainggolan running the midfield.

Parma have had a decent season improving on their return to the big time last year and sit in 9th. Their top three forwards Ex-Arsenal and Roma winger Gervinho and Dejan Kulusevski have proved effective with their pace on the wings, while forward Andreas Cornelius has netted the eight goals this season. Kulusevski will join Juventus this summer for €28 million.

Bologna (10th) have already inflicted damage on Inter Milan beating them 1-0 this season, with their squad featuring ex-Inter stars Rodrigo Palacio and Gary Medel to come back and haunt them. It’s been a difficult season for Bologna as manger Sinisa Mihajlovic has been fighting leukemia, luckily Sinisa is regaining is health once again. Watch some of his legendary free-kicks here.

 

The Middle of the Pack

Sassuolo are in 11th place and are another side with under-rated quality with their ranks. Goalkeeper Andrea Consigli is as reliable as ever reaching the twilight of his career. Striker Francesco Caputo has been clinical since arriving from Empoli and has scored 13 goals so far in his debut season for the club. While winger Domenico Berardi has been as influential as ever, perhaps one of the best players outside of the top six? Watch his Four goals against AC Milan in 2014 here if you don’t believe me… yes that’s four goals in one game!

Despite Sassuolo losing some of their best players in the last few years including Stefano Sensi, Matteo Politano and Merih Demiral as well as recent managers including Eusebio Di Francesco and Massimiliano Allegri the club finished 6th in the 15/16 season and participated in the Europa League.

If you’d like to know more about Sassuolo’s story see Karan Tejwani’s article for The Guardian here.

Fiorentina are languishing in 13th position despite rich owners, and attacking boasting attacking talent with the likes of Cyril Théréau, Franck Ribéry, Dusan Vlahovic, Patrick Cutrone and of course Federico Chiesa. Manager Giuseppe Iachini is defensive coach who’s 3-5-2 formation benefits counter-attacking wingers and pace, maybe not a team for this season but certainly one to watch next season.

 

Udinese have struggled for goals this season with their main striker Stefano Okaka scoring the most, with five goals. Udinese have had nine managers since 2016 but haven’t been relegated for 25 years, they know what it takes to stay in the top division. They are 14th in the table and three points from danger.

Torino find themselves in 15th place but only two points clear of Lecce in the relegation zone. Torino are currently managed by Moreno Longo who took over from Ex-Watford manager Walter Mazzarri in February. Andrea Belotti has once again led the line for Torino scoring nine goals this season and showing signs of his old form, but the goals aren’t coming from many other places. Torino have struggled in this department despite Armando Izzo, Cristian Ansaldi and Ola Aina all making a positive impact, The Bulls need more quality going forward and are reportedly ready to sell their captain and goalscorer Belotti.

Both Sampdoria and Genoa can be found in the 16th and 17th positions respectively, these two clubs are of course rivals and are still set to play each other on 22nd July for the Derby della Lanterna and this local derby could prove even more important as both sides are on the verge of relegation.

Genoa would have hoped on-loan striker Andrea Pinamonti would have had a bigger impact in-front of goal having only scored two league goals this season. Left-back and club captain Domenico Criscito (33) and veteran striker Goran Pandev (36) are the clubs joint top goalscorers with 7 each. Genoa’s form began to drop in January last year when the club sold striker Piatek to AC Milan and they haven’t recovered since.

Goals have been easier to come by for Sampdoria with striker and captain Fabio Quagliarella (37) continuing some of his remarkable form from last season scoring 26 league goals last campaign and 9 so far this year. However, their overall performances simply haven’t been good enough this year and the over-reliance on a 37 year old is showing. However, their manager is Claudio Ranieri, so if you need a miracle he’s probably your man.

 

The Relegation Zone

Currently in the relegation zone you’ll find Lecce in 18th (on goal difference). Last seasons great escapees SPAL in 19th and new boys Brescia in 20th. Brescia have been the most disappointing side who sit rock-bottom of the table on 16 points, four wins all season and 10 points from safety.

Young prodigy, and seen as the successor to Andrea Pirlo, is 20-year-old Sandro Tonali who will leave the club this summer.  Tonali hasn’t been able to save his club from imminent relegation despite all his natural talent. And although Mario Balotelli is Brescia’s top-goalscorer with five goals for his hometown club, the risk of signing the hot-headed striker looks like a bad one with reports he’s fallen out with the owner and his contract soon to be terminated according to several reports. The only question remains where will the duo be playing next season?

Serie A returns 20th June and is available to watch live via Premier Sport.

For more updates on European football follow me on Twitter @Ivan_Prothero

 

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