Key Battles to Watch in Italy's Serie A This Weekend
This weekend will be a strange one for Italian soccer.
Due to the international break and the fact that this Sunday is Easter, all 10 matches in the Serie A will be played on the same day, Saturday.
There are some important matches this weekend. Some will have a big impact on European qualification, one will be absolutely critical in the relegation fight, and some are just plain interesting.
Let's take a look at some of the week's most interesting matches, and the individual battles that will decide them.
Inter vs Juventus
On November 3, Inter arrived at the Juventus Stadium with a daunting task: end Juve's 49-match league unbeaten run in their palatial new stadium, which had gone nearly 14 months without seeing a visitor gain victory.
The nerazzurri weren't coming in cold, however. They had won their previous eight matches in all competitions, and falling behind mere seconds from the opening kickoff, they stormed back to control the match and score three unanswered goals in the second half to end Juve's streak and kick off talk that they could win the scudetto themselves.
How much things can change.
Inter, second in the league after that win, won their next Europa League match that weekend to stretch their winning streak to 10, but fell to Atalanta after that. Including that loss, Inter are 5-5-6 (W-D-L) since beating Juve and have dropped to sixth in the table. While Champions League qualification is seven points away, leaving the proud club once again fighting just to play in the Europa League again next year.
Juve has had their fare share of puzzling losses as the season has worn one, but the bianconeri are 11-4-3 since losing to Inter and come into the match with a significant nine-point advantage in the standings with nine games remaining. Topping off their form was the systematic dismantling of Celtic in the Champions League Round of 16.
The fact that Juve play Bayern Munich on Tuesday may be a saving grace for Inter. With a big points cushion Antonio Conte may elect to rest key players in order to have them ready for the trip to Bavaria.
Still, Inter are a team in crisis, with Andrea Stramaccioni unable to settle on tactics or a lineup. Conte has his team at their best despite injuries that have lately depleted his defensive line. Giorgio Chiellini missed both of Italy's recent international matches with an ankle injury, and utility defender Martin Caceres is recovering from injuries sustained during an early-morning car accident in Turin on March 17.
That said, the form book says Juve will have the upper hand at the San Siro. Inter will be fighting for their European lives, and could well make an upset. It could be one of the more interesting matchups of the day.
Key Matchup: Antonio Cassano vs Juve's Defense
Two weeks ago I posted an article about Antonio Cassano and his importance to the nerazzurri. His creativity and finishing ability up front makes up for Inter's lack of a true midfield playmaker, and he'll give defenses fits.
When he's off, as he was in the first leg of Inter's Europa League Round of 16 matchup against Tottenham Hotspur, he can look like he doesn't belong in top-flight soccer. But when he's on, as he was just a week later when he mauled the North Londoners when they travelled to San Siro, he looks like an absolute world-beater.
With Juve superior to Inter in the midfield, Andrea Stramaccioni will be counting on him to create up top. His contributions will be especially vital with Diego Milito out for the rest of the season after sustaining knee ligament damage against Cluj in the Europa League Round of 32.
Despite being a key part of Cesare Prandelli's national side in the run-up to Euro 2012—he was Italy's top scorer in qualifying and came back early from a heart procedure to notch a goal and an assist in the tournament—Cassano hasn't played a part for the Azzurri so far in World Cup qualifying.
That will likely be to his advantage Saturday, as Juve stalwarts Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci played all 90 minutes against both Brazil and Malta this week.
If Chiellini and Caceres are unavailable for the match, the empty spot beside the two Italy internationals will likely be filled by Luca Marrone, the midfielder-turned-center-back whose role in the team is looking less and less clear by the week. How a tired and depleted Juve defense will deal with the machinations of Cassano and strike partner Rodrigo Palacio will go a long way to determining who emerges from the San Siro with points.
Lazio vs Catania
Seventh and eighth, respectively, in the Serie A standings, Lazio and Catania are in close fights for Italy's final European qualification spot. The capital club are tied with Roma and Inter on 47 points. They are currently behind both teams on goal difference, and both return matches are pending to determine the head-to-head tiebreak.
The Sicilians are two points behind that threesome with 45, and are hoping for their first European berth in club history. They ended a two-match losing streak last round with a 3-1 victory at Udinese, but there was no shame in either of the previous losses—they came against Inter and Juventus.
Lazio are in troubling form as well. They have lost their last three games in the league and six of their last eight. Their last two have been to tough opposition in AC Milan and Fiorentina, but the last in an upset to Torino. The cause? Injury to star striker Miroslav Klose, the same cause of their swoon from a year ago.
As badly as things have gone for them in Italy, European competition has brought them great success in the new year. They've comfortable seen off German opposition in the Europa League knockouts, taking both Borussia Monchengladbach and Stuttgart out of the competition.
Three points for either side would greatly enhance their European cause. With the opportunities for points dwindling, this could turn out to be a six-pointer in the chase for the Europa League.
Key Matchup: Francesco Lodi vs Hernanes
Both teams have exceptional midfielders keying their attack. Catania's Lodi is the team's second-leading scorer with eight goals in all competitions along with two assists, and he has worked magic on set pieces this year. His pinpoint passing (82.5 percent completion, 1.8 key passes per game according to WhoScored.com) has led gli elefanti to an excellent followup to last year's huge step forward under Vincenzo Montella.
Lazio's midfield maestro has scored eight goals in Serie A to go along with seven assists in all competitions, and has been named man of the match seven times this season. He's completed nearly 85 percent of his passes and his traditional Brazilian dribbling flair has set up a number of quality chances for Lazio. His goalscoring ability has been all the more crucial with leading scorer Klose shelved.
Hernanes tends to play a more advanced role than Lodi does with Catania, but the Italian exerts just as much influence over the outcome of a game. Whichever player is able to command the middle in this battle of European hopefuls will be that much closer to leading his team to the top five.
Genoa vs Siena
The last two rounds have produced a genuine relegation battle out of what looked to be a snoozer at the bottom of the table.
Siena would have been clear of the relegation zone at that point if not for the six-point penalty they were hit with by FIGC in the summer for their involvement in the calcioscommesse match-fixing scandal. Instead they were level with Pescara and Palermo in last place, but facing a match against the rosaneri while the team they were pursuing, Genoa, was starting down the barrel of a red-hot Milan side.
The Ligurians lost that match 2-0 despite having a man advantage, and Siena came from behind to win 2-1, putting them only two points behind the grifone. A draw against Cagliari two weeks ago and a 3-2 loss by Genoa to Fiorentina put the robur just a point down heading into a true six-point match if there ever was one.
Siena is a team that can play in their own half, attack through the wings and defend leads once they've gotten them. Genoa prefers to use the middle of the field but they're prone to individual mistakes and have coughed up enough leads this season to make it their own fault that they're in this situation for the second straight year.
Key Matchup: Marco Boriello and Ciro Immobile vs Siena's Defense
Boriello and Immobile have combined for 13 of the 29 goals Genoa has scored this year—45 percent of the grifone's total. Whether Davide Ballardini plays only one of them—as he has in 14 games this season—or both, stopping them will be key to a Siena win and survival.
Siena has played a three-man defense (either a 3-5-2 or the preferred 3-4-2-1) all season long. The back three has been spearheaded by Brazilian Felipe this season, especially after the sale of Luis Neto to Zenit St. Petersburg.
The 3-4-2-1 has been by far the better for the side, offensively and defensively. They've conceded 24 goals using the formation, but in only nine games using the 3-5-2 have given up 16. The defensive contribution of Francesco Della Rocca and Simone Vergassola in central midfield have aided them in their efforts, and has allowed them to pull a few upsets, like their 3-0 win against Lazio last month.
Siena has done well to preserve leads when they get them, and they would be five points ahead of Genoa without the point penalty. Despite their effectiveness this season, Boriello and Immobile well have a lot to do in order to breach Gianluca Pegolo's goal.