5 Serie A Battles to Watch This Weekend
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After all the midweek drama, when the hijinks of Europe’s inter-continental competitions took centre stage, attention now turns back to the domestic leagues that seem almost corollary.
In a week where questionable dismissals and scorelines balanced on a knife’s edge took precedence, those who follow Serie A can attest to the fact that such occurrences are the norm for most installments. This weekend looks similarly intriguing.
With 27 games now played, teams have just 11 chances left to firm up their season’s aspirations: Whether it be winning the title, qualifying for Europe or avoiding the drop, now is the time when hopes and dreams come to fruition or shatter into a million pieces.
Battle for Europe: Lazio vs. Fiorentina
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It had all looked so promising for Lazio.
They had shaken off the mediocrity that had dogged them so avidly over recent years, they had a forward-thinking coach, and the ageing mercurial German striker Miroslav Klose—who had originally looked a speculative acquisition—could not stop scoring.
At first, there was talk of winning the domestic cup; they had galloped into the final, awaiting either Inter or Roma, depending on the outcome of their second leg. And then there was talk of qualifying for the Champions League—they had expertly navigated a tricky Europa League group, why not aim higher?
And then—whisper it—there was talk of the title. Juventus had just seen their gargantuan unbeaten run come to an end, one game shy of 50, at the hands of Inter Milan. Lazio looked like capitalising and potentially capturing a trophy that had evaded them since 2000, during that heady Sven-Goran Eriksson era.
Now, though, things do not look so hedonistic. Sitting in fifth, Vladimir Petkovic’s side have endured a torrid run of form: one win in their last seven games has seen them slip to 17th in the form table.
So now is probably not the best time to welcome Fiorentina, a side just one place below them. Victory for the visitors would see them overcome the current two-point margin and leapfrog their opponents.
One glimmer of hope is Fiorentina’s futility away from home: out of 13 games, they have lost seven. Three of those defeats have come in their last three away games.
But with Lazio’s neighbours Roma—one place below La Viola in seventh—experiencing resurgence in form, victory for Fiorentina would cement their European hopes. If other results go their way, taking all three points may even be enough to grab fourth spot.
Defeat would round off a miserable slump for Petkovic’s charges, consigning all that previous speculation about their hopes and dreams as exactly that: speculation.
Relegation Rut: Palermo vs. Siena
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It wasn't meant to be like this for Palermo. Last season's finish in 16th was meant to be the wake-up call needed to shake them from the malaise that has gripped the Aquile in recent years.
But with 27 games gone, they are currently swapping positions with Pescara on a weekly basis for rock bottom in the table.
Following four successive draws, however, Palermo have clawed away the title of basement boys. Pescara, on the other hand—only promoted last season after topping Serie B in impressive fashion—have the dubious honour of propping up the league table and also the form table, with seven defeats in their last eight games.
This weekend is an acid test for Palermo, as they host fellow strugglers, Siena. Just one place above the hosts, Siena round off the current occupants of the relegation spots.
With all three on 21 points, they are all five points from safety. Pescara’s goal difference of minus-34 looks particularly ominous—as opposed minus-12 and minus-17 of Siena and Palermo respectively—but at least one of the three could still avoid the drop.
That assertion will look more defined after this weekend. Siena have accrued some serious scalps since the start of the year: in between the expected losses to AC Milan and Juventus, there have also been victories over Lazio and Inter Milan.
However, they have also registered the least amount of shots on target than any other team, as well as having the least amount of average possession. The rudimentary basics, yes, but also the key to staying in this division.
They have also, in news that will encourage Palermo fans, only won one game on the road this season. If they are to stay up, they will need to travel to Sicily hoping that number can be doubled.
Scrap of the Stalwarts: Totti vs. Di Natale
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In amongst the relegation scraps, the assaults on Europe and the tit-for-tat games taking place this weekend, two of the most revered players of the modern Italian game will lock horns in a feisty battle.
With almost 400 top-flight league goals between them, and playing careers that span almost 20 years, Francesco Totti and Antonio Di Natale have proved, countless times, to be shining examples of the archetypal ultimate professional.
In Saturday’s only game, Totti’s Roma travel to Udinese’s Stadio Friuli for a match which pits not only ninth against seventh, but also two players who have worn their No. 10 shirts with gusto and aplomb.
With Totti at 36 years of age and Di Natale at 35, they are entering their twilight years. It is these games which extol their cavernous experiences within the game, where they thrive as the spearhead of their team’s attack.
As Totti currently sits third in the list of all-time top Serie A goalscorers with his haul of 225 goals in 525 games, and Di Natale further down the table in 13th with 168 goals from 346 outings, their respective coaches can rest assured that with them on the field, a polished and established display will follow.
Out of Form, out of Sorts: Parma vs. Torino
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Amongst all the column inches dedicated to documenting the battles at each end of the table, those in the middle, those select few who are content to settle for survival but lack the resources to push on for Europe, are not given much air time.
Whilst you could pontificate that if they are content for apathy, then the lack of coverage is a just outcome. But there are intriguing mini-battles that display how versatile the league is.
Both 11 points clear of the trapdoor, but 15 points off qualifying for Europe, it looks as if they will continue to haunt the middle of the table for another season yet.
They are also both in dire form. Parma have not won in six—with five of those games ending in defeat—whilst Il Toro have left fans raging at their results, with their last win coming three weeks ago.
Interestingly, if games were to finish at half-time, the fortunes of these two teams would be different: Torino would be up to seventh, whilst Parma would occupy the last relegation spot in 18th.
Having both registered the same amount of goals, 32, after their 27 league games, their strikers do know where the net is. However, the victor of this bout could begin to look at climbing another one or two places, whilst the loser could still drop into the mire of the bottom reaches.
Unbeaten and Unequivocal: Genoa vs. AC Milan
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If you're of the black and red Milanese persuasion, the form table makes for encouraging reading: played six, won four, drawn two.
And that doesn't include the draw and two previous successes since the turn of the year—unbeaten in nine.
That is a contributing factor to a resurgent Rossoneri storming up to third in the table, and only five points behind the bridesmaids Napoli.
The 11-point chasm between Milan and leaders Juventus may yet prove too wide, with early season hiccups looking costly, but they could still vanquish second place.
Heading into the second leg of their Champions League encounter with the revered Barcelona, the 2-0 advantage they hold over the Spanish giants may yet carry them through to the quarter-finals. And if it does, 2013 is looking good for AC Milan.
It is possible to pinpoint the purchase of Mario Balotelli as a catalyst. Before capturing the tempestuous former Manchester City striker, Milan had just secured three league wins in a row with the prolific Stephan El Shaarawy proving to be pivotal. But in return for Balotelli's added impetus, Milan has proved to be a sanctuary.
And this is before we have mentioned Giampaolo Pazzini's mini renaissance last weekend. His brace, coupled with Kevin-Prince Boateng's striker, easily saw off Lazio.
As they head to Genoa for Friday's kickoff—setting the ball rolling for the weekend's football—the visitors may fancy their chances, and on paper that looks founded. But the home support will think otherwise.
In 17th position, fans of Il Grifone probably have a stiff neck, what with all that looking up the table. Only one loss in their last six has provided a renewed hope that they can survive, especially as that run includes a 1-1 draw with Juventus and victories over Lazio and Udinese.
Knowing they can hoodwink the bigger boys, a home tie against a team who has their eye on next week's big bounty of Barcelona is a salivating prospect. Win and their rejuvenation continues; lose, and the deficit between the relegation zone is potentially cut to a non-fatal two points.