Serie A Round 7: 5 Key Matchups for This Weekend's Games
It's the last week before an international break, and Serie A is gearing up for the season's seventh round of games.
The first six matchdays of the year have started to make the league's picture a bit more clear. Roma has so far reigned supreme, but an improved Napoli side and the two-time defending champions Juventus are hot on their heels with both just two points behind.
This weekend will feature several matches between big clubs that could go a long way toward determining the season's future. It may turn out to be one of the more important early-season rounds of the year.
With that in mind, here are five key matchups between individuals or units could be the deciding factors in these important matches.
All statistics from WhoScored.com
Juventus' Right Flank vs. Milan's Left Flank
Wednesday's Champions League action added a further dimension to what was already a key matchup in Sunday's game between Milan and Juventus.
Juve wing-back Stephan Lichtsteiner has enjoyed an excellent start to the season. He has marauded freely down the right side and stretched opposing defenses, leaving room for the likes of Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal to finish with relish.
Visiting Milan's best answer to him at left-back is youngster Mattia De Sciglio, but he has undergone surgery to repair torn knee cartilage. This has left converted midfielder Kevin Constant to cover at left-back.
In a matchup between Lichtsteiner and Constant, a fan can be forgiven for giving the edge to the Juve man.
It's not certain, however, that that is what we are going to see.
Lichtsteiner was forced off at halftime due to injury in Wednesday's match, and Football-Italia reports that the Swiss international needs further examination on Friday before it can be determined if he can play.
Juve's options to replace Lichtsteiner can't really match his quality.
Mauricio Isla was abysmal in relief of the injured player on Wednesday. In light of that and his poor performance last week against Chievo, it's hard to see him playing in this one. Simone Padoin was Lichtsteiner's deputy for much of last season and is a hard worker, but he's only played 19 minutes this season. Another option is Marco Motta—a name that sends shivers up the spines of Juve fans who remember his poor play in the team's unhappy 2010-11 season.
Unfortunately for Conte, his two best options to replace Lichtsteiner—Simone Pepe and Martin Caceres—are both nursing injuries themselves.
Should Lichtsteiner not play, Padoin is probably the best replacement available. Even if he does play he may not be 100 percent. If Constant can take advantage of an unfit Lichtsteiner or a replacement, it could give Milan valuable width in the attack and deprive Juve of the same. The winner in this battle will probably give his team the upper hand in the match as a whole.
Ricardo Alvarez vs. Mehdi Benatia
Inter manager Walter Mazzarri's preferred strike arrangement this season has been placing Ricardo Alvarez in the hole behind Rodrigo Palacio in a 3-5-1-1 formation.
Alvarez has responded by scoring twice, notching three assists and garnering four Man of the Match ratings from WhoScored. He's averaging nearly three key passes per match and is completing 89.3 percent of his passes.
The Argentine is a key part of Inter's good start, but he'll be put to the test against Roma's Mehdi Benatia.
WhoScored rates Benatia as Roma's best player so far this season. He's been averaging 2.3 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game in the center of the Giallorossi defense and has even potted two goals.
After the sale of Marquinhos this summer, central defense was considered a weaker point for Roma. Benatia's arrival from Udinese has turned it into a rock. Following his lead Rudi Garcia's men have only conceded one goal in the first six matches of the season.
While Roma's start has been flawless, only in the derby two weeks ago were they playing against a team that really approached their level. This matchup against Inter will be their first true test of mettle—and in order to stop Inter, they have to stop Alvarez.
That will be Benatia's main task come Saturday. Whoever comes out on top here will swing the balance of the game—and quite possibly the standings as Roma is top with 18 points and host Inter fourth with 14.
Giuseppe Rossi vs. Michael Ciani
Regardless of the end result of Fiorentina's season, the return of star striker Giuseppe Rossi is one of the best stories in Italy—if not the world.
La Viola bought Rossi from Villarreal—one of several raids Fiorentina made on the relegated Yellow Submarine last season—in January. The Italy international was in the middle of rehabbing following a series of injuries to the ACL in his right knee. The initial tear happened in a La Liga game against Real Madrid in October 2011, and the relapse occurred in training at the tail end of the 2011-12 season as he was trying to get back on the field for Euro 2012 and to help his club stave off the drop.
After a long spell on the sidelines, Rossi debuted for Fiorentina as a sub in the season finale against Pescara. He formed a potent striking pair with summer signing Mario Gomez, and then took on the brunt of the goalscoring load after the German went down with an injury after three matches. He has scored six goals in all competitions this season—the payoff on a low-risk, high-reward purchase.
He will lead his fifth-place club into the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday night to face sixth-place Lazio. The man tasked with stopping him will be French center-back Michael Ciani.
Ciani has been a fixture on the Lazio back line since arriving last year from Bordeaux. He has played well so far, averaging 3.3 tackles per match and 3.0 interceptions after replacing an injured Giuseppe Biava against Chievo on September 15.
Ciani will be facing a freight train with Rossi in such good form. But without Gomez to divide Lazio's focus, if he and partner Lorik Cana can neutralize Rossi and force Fiorentina to look for their goals elsewhere, they stand a better chance at holding serve at home.
Radja Nainggolan vs. Allan
Radja Nainggolan continues to be one of the most unheralded midfielders in the Italian game. The Cagliari man has scored twice this year, including the late equalizer last week against Inter. He's also been a rock in defense, averaging 3.8 tackles per match.
On the other end of Sunday's match between the Isolani and Udinese is Allan. The Brazilian plays a bit further up the field than his Belgian adversary, but his defensive contributions are even more eye-opening—he's averaged 6.0 tackles in his five matches along with 2.4 interceptions. In last week's midweek win over Genoa he made three key passes and completed 14 of his 17 long balls.
Both players are key to their respective clubs' control of midfield. That control is usually a good measure of a team's success—and whichever of these two young midfielders can achieve that will have his team one step closer to victory. Both sides have seven points, with host Cagliari at 11th place on goal differential.
Alessio Cerci vs. Manolo Gabbiadini
Alessio Cerci has always played as a winger, but Giampiero Ventura has played him exclusively as a striker this season. The results have been extremely positive—five goals on 16 shots along with an assist.
Cerci has resurrected his career at Torino, but the striker that he will be trying to match on Sunday is giving birth to his. Twenty-one-year-old Manolo Gabbiadini—co-owned by Juventus—has scored twice in six starts for Sampdoria. He played extraordinarily well at the Under-21 European Championships and its qualifiers, and now he's finally started carrying that form into league play.
Torino is 10th in the table with eight points, while Samp is second from the bottom on goal differential with two points.
The two are very different forwards. As a natural winger, Cerci is a dribbler who can set his teammates up from the outside and free himself for his own shots. Gabbiadini is three inches taller and in possession of a cannon header. He's not too shabby with his feet either, but unlike Cerci he needs service to excel.
Whichever of these two utilize their strengths the best against their opponents' sometimes-suspect defense will give their side the edge.