Serie A: Handicapping the Race for the 2012-13 Scudetto
The ritorna is underway in earnest, and the race for the championship in Serie A has fully taken shape.
As February begins, it's time to take a look at who are the real contenders and who is out of it as the stretch run for the scudetto begins.
Let's look at the five teams that are currently in European position and assess their chances of lifting the trophy in May.
Table Position: Fifth
Other Competitions: Coppa Italia, Europa League
Resurgent in the first part of the season after last season's debacle, Inter Milan have slackened off in recent weeks and now sit fifth in the table.
Andrea Stramaccioni has been experimenting with tactics this season, and it has led to a few odd results, including this weekend's embarrassing 3-1 loss to Siena, who languish at the bottom of the table.
Inter's weaknesses are twofold.
The first is that there seems to be a significant lack of creativity in the midfield. The signing of 18-year-old phenom Mateo Kovacic may eventually solve that problem, but it won't be in the short term. Strama either has to hope lightning strikes with one of his current midfielders or figure something out tactically that can cover for the lack of a transcendent regista.
The second problem is age. Much of the current starting lineup is pushing the age where they aren't going to be as effective on this kind of stage. Walter Samuel (34), Cristian Chivu (32), Dejan Stankovic (34), Esteban Cambiasso (32), Diego Milito (33) and talismanic captain Javier Zanetti (39) all formed the core of the Inter squads that dominated the first decade of the 21st century, but how much longer they can play at a top level is debatable at best.
Team brass has gotten that going with the acquisitions of Kovacic from Dinamo Zagreb and Ezequiel Schelotto from Atalanta, but two players aren't going to be enough to take the nerazzurri to win the scudetto this year.
Verdict: A 12-point deficit even with 16 games to go is going to be almost impossible to overcome the way Inter is playing. The best chance this team will have for silverware this year will be to overcome the 2-1 deficit they face in the Coppa Italia semifinal against Roma or to run through the Europa League, where they are starting down Cluj in the Round of 32.
Table Position: Fourth
Other Competitions: Champions League
Massimiliano Allegri has avoided the axe in the San Siro's other home locker room and has pulled his team back from the brink and into contention for a Champions League place.
The acquisition of Mario Balotelli from Manchester City at the end of the winter transfer window gives them a potentially phenomenal front line when combined with 19-year-old phenomenon Stephan El Shaarawy and injected a huge amount of energy into the team.
That said, the team's defending is still a work in progress—if one is to put it nicely. The sale of Thiago Silva over the summer left a huge hole, one that Francesco Acerbi has not been able to fill yet. They're solid on the right with Ignazio Abate, and in the future Mattia De Sciglio will be a top-notch player, but he's for the future, not the present.
Their defensive problems were displayed again last week against Udinese, when Giampiero Pinzi and Luis Muriel caught the rossoneri defense napping to equalize the game at 1-1. It took a questionable penalty drawn by El Shaarawy to break it and claim all three points from the flagging Friuli outfit.
Verdict: The combination of Balotelli and El Shaarawy could very well fire them through to the top three and another Champions League spot, but their defense is an Achilles' heel, and with three teams within six points of them it is easily as likely that they could miss out on Europe altogether next season.
They'll probably have the last three months of the season to focus on the Serie A after an unfortunate draw of Barcelona for the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Still, the scudetto is likely out of the question.
Table Position: Third
Other Competitions: Coppa Italia, Europa League
The biancocelesti looked to be the top choice to take down Juventus before Napoli won the appeal of the two-point penalty that they had incurred as a result of the ongoing calcioscommesse match-fixing investigations. Now in third, they're still a potent club that has an outside shot at wearing the scudetto on their shirts next season.
Lazio's roster is solid all around. With captain Stefano Mauri and stellar Brazilian Hernanes excelling in midfield and German legend Miroslav Klose leading the forward line, Lazio have bulled their way into the Coppa Italia final and a win in their group in the Europa League.
Still, there are weaknesses in this capitol club. The team has struggled mightily on the road, compiling a pedestrian 4-3-4 (W-D-L) record and a minus-two goal difference on their travels as compared to their 9-1-2 record and plus-nine goal difference when playing at the Stadio Olimpico.
Fortunately for Lazio, they have important matches against Napoli, Fiorentina, and Juventus at home coming up, although they will play both Milan teams at San Siro. But that may not be a saving grace—counting among the teams that have taken them down on the road this year are relegation strugglers Genoa and mid-table squad Catania.
Lazio have the fewest goals (34) of any of the five teams currently in European position and have been outscored by two teams outside the top five as well.
For the last two years the team has been too dependent on Klose for goals, and during periods when he's been hurt the team struggled for goals. Lazio will need a dependable goalscorer if they're going to seriously challenge, now or in the future.
Verdict: Lazio have a full slate of soccer going forward, with the Coppa Italia final and the Europa League to go along with the rest of the season. Italian teams are notorious for treating the Europa League like glorified friendlies, so it may well be that Lazio see an early exit from the knockout stage—especially with a good team like Borussia Monchengladbach facing them in the Round of 32.
Their inconsistent front line is their Achilles' heel, and its unlikely that they overcome their nine-point deficit and overtake Juventus—although they have more than a shot at the Champions League next season.
Table Position: Second
Other Competitions: Europa League
Napoli would be a bit farther down if not for their successful appeal in the match-fixing case. Three points away from Juventus, the partenopei and the bianconeri have rather suddenly begun a vitriolic rivalry.
Napoli recently reinforced their defense in the form of Rolando, with a further boost coming from the return of Paolo Cannavaro and Gianluca Grava. A strong midfield is held down by Gokhan Inler and attacking master Marek Hamsik, and the team can score a goal on any half-chance with Uruguayan sniper Edinson Cavani.
Cavani, however, is also the problem—the team relies on him far too much. Cavani has scored 27 goals in all competitions this season—18 more than the next player on his team. Look to the next highest-scoring forward on the team—Lorenzo Insigne—and the gap grows to 23.
Verdict: Napoli have an easier road to play against the Round of 32, but they're likely to get buried by their reliance on Cavani. They've very much taken advantage of a weakened Juve side's bad form, but the bianconeri are on the road to full health, and they can't be expected to play this badly when they're at full strength.
Last year Walter Mazzari blamed Napoli's late-season swoon on the extra baggage of the Champions League, but Mazzari is at fault as well for not getting his team the necessary depth through the transfer market. The partenopei may not go as all-out in the Europa League, but if they're going to be a championship team, Napoli need to stop making excuses and step up. Beating Juve at the San Paolo on March 3 is a must.
Table Position: First
Other Competitions: Champions League
Juve are the team best-equipped to go all the way in the Champions League. They have weathered what has become their now-traditional January swoon, and despite the impression that their 2-1 victory this weekend was hard-fought, Chievo never really had a chance to win.
In the coming weeks, with Claudio Marchisio and Giorgio Chiellini set to rejoin the squad through injury and Kwadwo Asamoah due to return from the Africa Cup of Nations, the team will soon be back to full strength, and the depth that Beppe Marotta and Antonio Conte endeavored to create over the summer will likely serve them well in the Champions League, where they received a favorable draw against Celtic.
The biggest problem for the team is up front: the Italian champions still don't have a top-notch finisher on their front line. They were unable to make an immediate move for Fernando Llorente in the January transfer window, settling for a Bosman over the summer. For the rest of the summer, Juve will have to rely on the team of Sebastian Giovinco, Alessandro Matri, Fabio Quagliarella, Mirko Vucinic, and loanee Nicolas Anelka.
Verdict: Juve's tactics are uniquely suited to allow their midfielders to supplement the forwards in the absence of a go-to scorer, but without one they'll be hard-pressed to move beyond the quarterfinals in the Champions League, but their depth and diversity in attack should be able to keep them atop the table at home. It could go down to the last day, but Juve are the best bet to claim the scudetto this season.
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