When the Serie A ceded its third spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings to Germany two seasons ago, it saw the number of berths given to Italian teams in the Champions League reduced from four to three. It made the Champions League spots in Serie A that much more precious, and the race for them that much more determined.
Today, we'll look at the clubs in the Serie A who have the best chances of claiming one of the coveted top-three slots in the league table and the lucrative Champions League play that come with them.
For the record, I have included on this list of contenders all teams that are within six points of Champions League position. At this point in the league table, with 26 matches played and 12 remaining for every club, a six-point swing for any of these clubs is within the realm of possibility, although obviously far more or less probable given the individual club.
Also included on every slide is the number of "big matches" the team has left this season. For our purposes, a "big match" constitutes any game against another team on this list, plus any other potential trap game from those on the outside.
Table Position: 7
Points: 42 (Goal difference: +3)
Big Matches: 5
Obviously the rank outsiders of this group, gli elefanti are playing impressive soccer and have proven that the strides they made under Vincenzo Montella a year ago were not rolled back by the former Italy international's departure to coach at Fiorentina.
Working against them is the obvious gap in quality between them and the top clubs, as is their remaining schedule.
Catania play five "big matches" for the rest of the season, and all of them are within the next eight weeks. The brutal stretch starts with a home match against Inter, then a daunting trip to the Juventus Stadium a week later. A week's respite comes against an under-powered Udinese side before another tough away game, this time at Lazio.
Two weeks after that, back-to-back big games close the eight-week stretch. First comes the Sicilian Derby against Palermo—always an emotional clash regardless of how badly the rosaneri are playing at the moment—followed by a trip to the San Siro to face Milan.
Catania play very good defense—they're sixth in the league in goals allowed—led by former Juve center-back Nicola Legrottaglie and vice-captian Ciro Capuano, and have a solid midfield led by playmaker Francesco Lodi and Mario Paglialunga. Their biggest weakness is up front. Gonzalo Bergessio leads the team with nine goals, but four of their next five top scorers are midfielders (winger Alejandro Gomez is the exception). Overall they're only ninth in the league in goals.
Their defensive organization will serve them well in the grueling stretch to come, but their lack of scoring punch will be their downfall. It's unlikely that they're going to be able to navigate this nightmare stretch of games and jump the four teams between them and a spot in Europe's most prestigious competition.
Their best bet for a first go at European play is the Europa League. Even if that becomes their goal, if they can't beat Inter next week they're likely going to have to hope that the nerazzurri come from behind in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. Inter and Lazio are both likely to finish top-five, thereby opening the sixth spot in Serie A to the Europa League—and Catania is only in seventh on goal difference.
Regardless of whether or not they find their way into Europe next year, Catania has ensured that at least one team in the Serie A has represented Sicily with honor this season.
Final Verdict: Extreme long-shot.
Table Position: 6
Points: 42 (Goal difference: +15)
Big Matches: 3
Montella went from Sicily to Florence over the summer, and the fortunes of the viola immediately improved over last season's 15th-place finish that saw the team flirt with relegation and go through three different managers.
In a season preview that I collaborated on this summer, I predicted Fiorentina would claim the third and final Champions League spot this season (it should be said that the rest of my collaborators did not rate the viola nearly as highly—they finished eighth in the final poll).
My reasons for the prediction was both the arrival of Montella and one of the best transfer markets in recent memory. Fiorentina lost Riccardo Montolivo on a Bosman but reinforced both the midfield the defense by bringing Alberto Aquilani back to Italy for good, buying Italy international Emiliano Viviano from Palermo to mind the goal and pillaging relegated Spanish side Villareal for Borja Valero and Gonzalo Rodriguez—to say nothing to buying injured star Giuseppe Rossi from the Yellow Submarine in January.
Combined with Stevan Jovetic and Luca Toni atop the line, Fiorentina's slick-passing midfield makes their attack a terror to behold when it's clicking, and they've proven they can go toe-to-toe with the big boys. They held Juventus to a goalless draw in their first meeting this season, beat Lazio 2-0, Milan 3-1 and is coming off a 4-1 thrashing of Inter Milan.
Working in their favor is that they have very few big games left: Against Lazio, Milan and Roma, a tricky team that possesses quality players—and beat the viola 4-2 earlier this year.
The teams they're chasing for a Champions League spot all have tougher roads to the end of the season, and Fiorentina is starting to hit their stride. The match with Lazio on March 10 is key. The biancocelesti currently hold the last Champions League place, but will be three days removed from a Europa League road game in Stuttgart on matchday.
If Fiorentina can gain those three points on Lazio—they currently trail by five—they have more than a chance of making the top three. However, points against the teams ahead of them—Lazio and Milan—are vital
Final Verdict: The talent is there, but they may have dug too deep a hole. The Europa is probably the more likely bet unless everything goes right for them.
Table Position: 5
Big Matches: 5
Inter started the season like gangbusters, winning 10 straight games in all competitions and peaking at the second position on the table before Andrea Stramaccioni's tinkering proved a bit too much for the team's form to handle.
The nerazzurri have won only two games since the season resumed following the winter break. News only got worse when talismanic striker Diego Milito suffered a hellish knee injury in the Europa League Round of 32 against Cluj. The Argentine will miss the rest of the season, heaping the burden of the goalscoring onto Rodrigo Palacio and Antonio Cassano.
Young coach Stramaccioni has been waffling between a three- and four-man back line throughout the entire season, which hasn't allowed his players to acquire a rhythm or identity. Injury and a general lack of creativity in the midfield has bitten the team as well.
The maturation of winter signing Mateo Kovacic may eventually alleviate the latter flaw, but this season Inter is a team in trouble, and they're going to have to dig deep if they're going to remain in the European qualifying spots.
They did show a measure of resilience when they came back to earn a draw in Sunday's derby della madonnina, but the difficult games don't end with their crosstown rivals.
Their next three games are relatively winnable (although the road game at Catania is important for holding the Sicilians off), but are sandwiched around their Europa League tie with Tottenham Hotspur. After the trip to Genoa, Inter welcomes leaders Juventus to the San Siro for a game against a bianconeri side that will be itching for revenge against the team that ended their 49-match unbeaten run in front of their own fans.
A further test will come in two of the last three weeks of the season, when the team faces Lazio and Napoli in back-to-back weeks. By that point, Inter could be fighting for a Champions League spot or European survival—or not be in the mix at all.
Final Verdict: Inter's great start is the reason they've held on to a top-five place this long, but that cushion is wearing awfully thin. The lack of Milito at the front will cause problems, and Strama is now fighting for his job. This is a tough call, and to be quite honest it's hard to see Inter hanging on to European qualification in their current form. A comeback against Roma in the Coppa Italia semis might be the key to getting to Europe this season.
Table Position: 4
Big Matches: 6
Milan's horrific start to the season saw them drop to as far as 15th eight games into the season, but eventually the rossoneri roared back and are now in the thick of things for a return to the Champions League.
The inverse of Inter, the wintertime has brought a huge boost to them in terms of goal-scoring with the arrival of the mercurial Mario Balotelli, who scored four goals in his first three games with the club, and has formed what could be a truly frightening strike force alongside fellow young international Stephan El Shaarawy.
That said, there are some significant holes in this side. Their defense, so weakened by the summertime departure of Thiago Silva, is still a work in progress. They're solid on the right side with Ignazio Abate and 20-year-old phenom Mattia De Sciglio, but they're trying to convert Kevin Constant into a left-back, and the various combination of center-backs they've tried—most centered around Philippe Mexes—have not inspired the confidence that last year's pairing of Silva and Alessandro Nesta.
Goalkeeping can be a concern as well—Christian Abbiati is getting older and Marco Amelia isn't a long-term No. 1 for a team of Milan's level.
Their road to the Champions League will be difficult, as half of the team's 12 games fall under our criteria of "big matches." Chief amongst them is a brutal three-week stretch in which the Milan giants will face Fiorentina (on the road), Napoli (at home) and Juventus (away). The rossoneri were 1-1-1 in the corresponding fixtures this season with a loss to Fiorentina, a 2-2 draw against Napoli and a controversial 1-0 victory against Juve. They also fell to the bianconeri 2-1 in extra time in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal.
Things don't get much easier for them, either, as the week after going to Turin they welcome Catania to the San Siro—a critical game in terms of keeping gli elefanti off their backs going forward. They also face a potentially tough matchup against a Roma team that dismantled them right before the winter break in a 4-2 game that wasn't that close.
Opportunity does knock, however. The first of the team's six big matches comes against Lazio, the team directly above them. Trailing the capitol club by only two points, Milan will vault themselves back into Champions League qualification territory if they can pull out a victory.
Final Verdict: A good bet to complete their incredible comeback. Napoli, as we'll discuss shortly, is showing some alarming signs that they may repeat their late collapse of last season, which could leave one of the Champions League spots wide open.
Ironically, their continued presence in the Champions League this season could hamper this. They're not a particularly deep team, especially on defense, so if they hang on to their well-earned lead against Barcelona and continue to expend energy in Europe, it could leave them susceptible to a lean performance domestically.
Table Position: 3
Big Matches: 6
Another team with a multitude of "big matches" as the season comes to a close, Lazio will be facing down a lot of these important games in bunches, starting in the next two weeks with back-to-back games against Milan and Fiorentina.
After a week layoff against Torino, the biancocelesti then face games against Catania and Juventus, sandwiched around one of the biggest days on Lazio's calander—the derby della capitale against Roma. Roma is talented enough to be dangerous in all circumstances, which is why they've been included in the list of "big matches" for nearly every team on this list. But in a game as emotionally charged as the Rome Derby, anything can happen, making this match quite possibly the most important.
The capitol club has been maddeningly inconsistent this season. From a November 11 win over Roma to a January 19 draw against Palermo, the team didn't lose a game. The next week, they lost 1-0 to Chievo and didn't win another game until this weekend against Pescara—losing twice more in that span to relegation battlers Genoa and Siena.
That dip in form roughly conforms to the time Lazio lost Miroslav Klose for two months to a knee injury. The legendary German striker is key to Lazio's attack, scoring 11 goals in all competitions and acting as a stabilizing force for the entire team. When he went down last season, Lazio crumbled. They have to make sure that a similar collapse doesn't happen if they intend to play for Europe's greatest prize next season.
Final Verdict: The loss of Klose is already starting to show signs. Add to that the fact that Lazio is the only club in Italy still currently active in three competitions, and the biancocelesti have a lot on their plate with Hernanes and Sergio Floccari shouldering a heavy part of the goalscoring load in Klose's absence.
The injury came at the worst possible time for Lazio. They will have to do without their best player with consecutive games against the two best teams in Italy. This is on top of the fatigue a potentially deep Europa League run may cause to a team that isn't hugely deep.
They might find themselves dropping into a hole deep enough to be playing on Thursdays again next year. Still, their form has been better than the team directly above them, and given the choice I'd take Lazio to be the one to hold on.
Table Position: 2
Big Matches: 4
Napoli's season is basically boiled down to this Friday.
After failing to maintain contact with Juventus on Monday following a dull goalless draw with Udinese, and dropping to six points down in the standings, Juve's visit to the San Paolo on Friday evening could end up deciding the title.
Napoli is an interesting case. The race for the scudetto would be pretty much over right now if the club hadn't gotten a two-point penalty for connection to the calcioscommesse match-fixing scandal overturned on appeal. Had the punishment stuck, they'd be eight points down, and for all intents and purposes the season would be over.
Napoli's form has been slightly odd lately. The partenopei have only lost four times this season, and not since a 3-2 blip against Bologna on December 16. Their last three league matches, however, have been draws, with the club's high-powered attack scoring only once. Expand the scope to look at Europe, and things get stranger.
Napoli crashed out of the Europa League with a whimper this past week, falling to Viktoria Plzen 5-0 on aggregate. Combine the two legs of that Round of 32 tie with the two scoreless draws they've played out in their last two league games, and they haven't scored since Hugo Campagnero's 87th minute equalizer against Lazio on the ninth of February, a total of 363 minutes.
It's an odd power outage for a team with a high-powered attack and a world-class striker in Edinson Cavani. Their recent form calls to mind a five-week stretch last season that saw Napoli draw two games and then lose three, part of a 4-1-4 (W-D-L) finish that saw them drop to fifth in the standings.
Final Verdict: Napoli's mental toughness has been a question for the better part of a year. Whether it was Walter Mazzarri complaining about fatigue from European competition to whining about the referee and pulling his players from the medal ceremony after the Supercoppa, this team always seems to find excuses. In this recent skid they've just looked indifferent. For them to drop out of Champions League position would be quite the feat, but I don't see them holding on to their spot.
Table Position: 1
Big Matches: 6
On Friday, Juventus have the chance to end the race for the scudetto. A victory would drop Napoli nine points back of the bianconeri with 11 games to play.
Simply put, Juve are the best, most balanced team in Italy. They're one of the two or three best defensive teams in Europe, and will only be more formidable following the return of Giorgio Chiellini from injury. Their midfield core of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, and Andrea Pirlo (affectionately known by Juve fans as the MVP midfield) is one of the best in the world and has young, talented depth behind it in Luca Marrone and Paul Pogba.
They don't have a killer striker in the vein of a Jovetic or Cavani, but they do carry a quartet of quality forwards who can put the ball into the net when they need to.
The bianconeri have six big matches left in the year, but the champions will be going into three of them looking for revenge: Inter and Milan both beat them in their first league matches, and Lazio held them to a goalless draw. Apart from the five teams on this list that they are set to play, they will also contest the second derby della mole of the season against Torino. Always hotly contested, it's a fixture that could always surprise. Still, failure to make the Champions League would take a failure of epic proportions this year, and this team is far too good for that to happen.
Final Verdict: This is a mortal lock. Juve will be playing in the Champions League next season.