With Napoli now 18 points clear at the top of Serie A, even more than one week after picking up their second league defeat in the season, it looks like the race for the remaining three Champions League spots will be where the real excitement at the top is going to come from.
However, it’s not necessarily bad news: Inter, AC Milan, Lazio, AS Roma, Atalanta and, let’s not forget, Juventus, are all involved in the fight, their inconsistency arguably being the best assurance of the fact that they’ll be battling it out until the very end.
After 26 matchdays, the odds still seem to be in favour of an Inter side that, despite their perpetual up and downs, have been able to bridge the gap with rivals AC Milan to climb to second. However, the repeated unexpected turns that the season has already taken make it extremely difficult to predict how things could play out.
In the end, the only certainty is that the final Serie A table will be determined by a matter of details, which will include moments of form, unexpected injuries, the teams’ paths in the European competitions and, ultimately, the fixture list of the remaining months.
Let’s start with the most striking stats of all – no team in the Serie A top seven have lost as many games as Inter this season (eight, like Atalanta), but this hasn’t stopped the Nerazzurri from catching up and climbing into second despite their troubled start.
While this may say a lot about the level of Serie A’s best sides, it also helps identify an Inter side that have no middle ground – their domestic path has been plagued by inconsistency, but they rarely drop points by drawing and, in the end, they’ve been able to win more matches than all of their competitors except Juventus.
That shouldn’t be a surprise given the quality and depth of their squad, which is exactly why it should take something extraordinary to keep the Biscione out of the top four. No other team involved in the Champions League race can boast a striker like Lautaro Martinez, in addition to a group of players who have been lifting various trophies in recent years, shaping a winning mentality that could make the difference when the pressure will pile up.
Yet, two obstacles could stand in the way of the Nerazzurri – the outcome of their Champions League’s round of 16 tie against Porto could easily affect their mental and physical energy for the remainder of the season, which will also see Inter face several tough tests in the final stretch, with games against Lazio, Roma, Napoli and Atalanta all scheduled in the last month of play.
Since the beginning of the season, it was clear that Maurizio Sarri‘s presence would be Lazio’s best assurance of having a competitive season. His first year at the Stadio Olimpico was marked by up and downs but their improvements in the second term were so evident to suggest the players were finally starting to assimilate the coach’s game principles.
The Biancocelesti also managed to retain Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ciro Immobile and Felipe Anderson, giving Sarri the kind of continuity he needs to have his ideas rooted in his team. In addition, they brought in Alessio Romagnoli and Nicolo Casale to revamp their defence after conceding a baffling 58 goals in Serie A in the previous season.
Until now, Sarri seems to have used the time and tools at his disposal wisely, making balance the first priority for his side. As a result, Lazio can now boast one of the most solid rearguards in the league, alongside Napoli and Juventus, and while they may score less compared to the past they also need fewer goals than before to seal all three points.
Ciro Immobile’s diminished goal average has been compensated by the goalscoring contribution from the likes of Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto, Pedro, Mattia Zaccagni and Felipe Anderson, who all bagged more than six Serie A goals this season, serving as a reminder of that sense of collective participation that made Sarri’s Napoli so brilliant.
The Biancocelesti’s improved consistency was enough to see them become a regular presence in the top four, but tight distances from other clubs suggest caution, as the Stadio Olimpico outfit still have their own flaws.
A lack of squad depth, especially in defence, means that Maurizio Sarri doesn’t have enough reliable options to promote competitiveness within the team, which has sometimes resulted in a relaxed approach against softer opponents that has seen Lazio drop points. Such slips should be eliminated if the Biancocelesti don’t want to miss out on the top four for a matter of details and, with a view to their limited resources, reaching the latter stages of the Europa Conference League could take valuable physical and mental energy they’ll certainly need in their Champions League race.
A catastrophic January brought the reigning Italian champions back down to Earth, as their title defence was painfully compromised by three consecutive defeats that allowed Napoli to open up an unsurmountable gap at the top of Serie A.
In spite of all of this, Stefano Pioli proved brave in coming up with a tactical revamp that helped his side get back on track before it was too late, bringing back that kind of defensive compactness that gave the Rossoneri a valuable edge in last season’s Scudetto race, also thanks to the addition of Malick Thiaw.
This time, however, the Diavolo will have to split their energy and focus between Serie A and the Champions League, which could be no easy feat for a team that seem to be over-reliant on the likes of Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez, with summer signings such as Charles De Ketelaere or Divock Origi still far from providing the contribution the club were hoping for.
Two winless games against Fiorentina and Salernitana suggest AC Milan will have to deal with their own issues until the end, but it will all depend on how frequently the Rossoneri will be able to pull off the kind of displays that have beaten both Atalanta and Tottenham.
After all, Stefano Pioli’s side remain one of the Serie A teams with the clearest tactical identity and with the most quality within their squad. A kinder fixture list, compared to some of their rivals, could definitely help the Rossoneri rediscover the consistency they’ve been lacking recently, but the presence of mental leaders such as Olivier Giroud, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Simon Kjaer, all of whom are used to fight for bigger prizes, could be even of greater help.
When Mourinho wrapped up his first season at Roma by finishing sixth in Serie A, many were quick to suggest that it was just further proof that the Portuguese’s best days had long gone.
Yet, they were overlooking what was arguably the most relevant fact – Mourinho had been able to survive for a whole season on the Giallorossi’s bench, which shouldn’t be taken for granted, and the supporters’ mood towards him was far from negative, probably mostly thanks to the fact that he had steered Roma to their first European title in decades.
After all, that’s what his appointment was all about. Much more than for his innovative tactical ideas, Mourinho was picked by Roma directors because he embodied all the traits that the club needed to raise the bar. Like it or not, he brought his international reputation and charismatic aura with him, but above all he knew how to handle the pressure that ended up crushing his predecessors at the Stadio Olimpico.
Mourinho is the demagogue that Roma fans can easily acknowledge as their leader, one who is ready to defend their team no matter what, creating a kind of bond that goes beyond the on-the-pitch results, which is extremely unusual for the Giallorossi.
Mourinho has thrived in this role and, even though his game may not always be easy on the eyes, it must be said that the team spirit showcased by his side on several occasions this season was probably the clearest sign of his work.
Roma have proven they can battle it out with every opponent, and while their coach hasn’t been able to make the most of an extraordinary offensive potential, boasting Tammy Abraham and Paulo Dybala among their ranks, building a defensive fortress was key to helping the Giallorossi earn more points than someone may have expected through several narrow wins.
Roma’s character, coupled with their resilience, make them a strong candidate for a Champions League spot, and their ongoing Europa League campaign confirms they could be ready to face the best European teams next season.
However, the Giallorossi’s 4-3 defeat against Sassuolo once again proved that the ever-present nervous tension that usually helps Roma to stay focused on the game can sometimes make things get out of hand, which is why Mourinho will have to rely on all his experience to cope with the pressure his team will face when points will count more and more, especially when the Stadio Olimpico outfit will meet Atalanta, Milan and Inter in the space of four weeks this spring.
A brilliant start to the new year, which saw Atalanta remain unbeaten in their five Serie A games played in January, had many convinced that La Dea could claim a place among the top four, with the absence of European competitions giving them a further boost and an edge over their rivals.
After months of struggle, coach Gian Piero Gasperini seemed to be on track to finding the right formula to enhance his best talents, notably Ademola Lookman and Rasmus Hojlund, who have been showcasing impressive form.
However, the Nerazzurri have since won just one of their following six Serie A games, also failing to score in four of them. While it may not have definitely compromised their chances of making it to the top four, their latest negative streak – not the first of their campaign – suggests they could simply lack the maturity and experience that is required to better their competitors.
Every potential discussion concerning Juventus‘ chances of qualifying for next year’s Champions League through Serie A is obviously related to their 15-point deduction. Should it be overturned, then the Bianconeri would be back in the fight and there are several reasons that make them the most credible candidate to book the second place behind Napoli.
As much as Massimiliano Allegri‘s style of play looks outdated, it proved the right way to provide Juventus with that regularity that has allowed them to never really lose ground from their opponents, in spite of all the criticism surrounding them.
Alongside Lazio, they boast the best goal difference after the Serie A leaders and their impressive ability to put together extended positive streaks could see them create a gap over their competitors in the long term.
Yet, having picked up three of their five Serie A defeats this season against teams that are currently in the top five (Milan, Roma and Napoli), Juventus will have to earn their place in the top four by beating their direct rivals, as the Bianconeri still have to face Inter, Lazio, Napoli, Atalanta and Milan in the run-in.