Wednesday, 22 December 2010

While England Freezes, Serie A Is Hotting Up

This season is turning out to be one of the most bizarre we’ve seen in a long time. The supposedly competitive German league has virtually been decided by Christmas, England are having an (albeit unintentional) winter break and Serie A is turning into the most exciting title race this year. For the first time since 2006 we have a genuinely interesting title race on our hands and, even more amazingly, Inter aren’t involved. AC Milan lead the pack as we enter the break but lost to Roma last weekend, while the chasing pack include a revitalized Juventus and the unlikely duo of Lazio and Napoli. From its heyday of the 80’s and 90’s, Italy has suffered the footballing equivalent of brain-drain but 2010 has been a year of renaissance. An Italian club won the Champions League and Club World Championship (for whatever that’s worth) and the football is becoming watchable once again.

With Benitez being booted after complaining that he needs to add “four or five new players” to the treble winning side in order to compete, Inter would need a coach of (haha) Mourinho-like ability to mount a proper challenge this season. Yes they have too games in hand, but this is not the team with the same self-belief that frustrated Barcelona out of the Champions League. They lag 13 points behind Milan and after five title wins on the spin, it’s actually a relief to think that the Nerazzurri won’t be winning this season. Leaders Milan have been impressive for much of the season with Ibrahimovic in particular looking determined to continue his run of domestic dominance. The Swede has won the title wherever he has been for the past seven years running. However, while Milan have the challenge of the Champions League and Napoli have the tie of the round against Villarreal in the Europa League, Juventus and Lazio have no European commitments. On paper Milan have the best squad but competing on two front coupled with an over-reliance on Ibrahimovic means there is plenty of room for other clubs to have a serious title tilt. Furthermore the addition of Cassano presents Allegri with another problem. How to rotate Robinho, Pato, Ibrahimovic and Cassano and keep all four happy? Ronaldinho will be moved on to make room for Cassano, but the former Sampdoria man will hardly be happy bench-warming like the Brazilian did. The issue will show a lot about Allegri, both tactically in fully utilizing all four and his man-management skills in keeping them happy when dropped.

Napoli and Lazio share the same problem. Both have squads that, on paper are not big enough to challenge for a Scudetto. Lazio in particular have a razor thin squad depth. If either were forced to cope without star players such as Cavani or Hernanes, they could suddenly struggle to maintain their momentum. Despite a squad unlikely to be able to go the distance, both are very well equipped to stake their claim for a place in the Champions League next season. A lot depends on how the upcoming transfer window leaves both clubs. Napoli have made noises about strengthening defensively but may well have larger clubs taking good long looks at influential striker Ezequiel Lavezzi. A big positive for both sides is the mental resilience and ambition of the teams. Even though Krasic turned in a stellar performance for Juve to rob Lazio at the death several weeks ago, the game showed that despite losing this Lazio side has the mentality to go the distance, if not the strength in depth.

Finally, the most intriguing challenger is Juventus. With Delneri in charge they have improved dramatically from last season and he is imprinting his style of play (4-4-2 with the emphasis on width) onto the side. Pavel Nedved Milos Krasic in particular has been superb so far. However fights with Gigi Buffon have caused ructions in the Juve camp and trajectory of this season could still go either way for the Old Lady. Without distractions abroad they should mount the most serious title challenge to Milan but it would not be shocking to see them fall off towards the end of the season. Here’s hoping that the current excitement lasts until the end of the season. If there is one league in Europe that needs competition to revitalize itself, it’s Italy.

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