Serie A's Relegation Battle: An Early Preview of the Fight Against the Drop
Even though the return leg of the Serie A season has only just begun, there is a general consensus from outside observers that it will take an earth-moving occurrence for Juventus to lose the Scudetto. With an eight-point lead and a 12-game league winning streak, the Bianconeri seem almost free and clear even with 18 games to go. With that said, attention should start turning to two other intriguing races—the race for Europe and the race to beat the drop.
The latter of these races is what will be looked at here.
Hellas Verona, one of this year's new arrivals from the second tier, are currently in sixth place—and only goal difference is keeping them from fifth. Barring something dramatic happening, it's probably safe to say that the Mastiffs will be staying up—meaning at least one established Serie A side will probably be making the drop.
In this article, we will be taking a look at the six teams likeliest to be in the thick of the relegation fight come May. These teams currently rank from 15-20 in the table, and none has garnered more than 20 points in the season's first 20 games.
So who is an early bet to be facing the drop? Let's delve into the league's stragglers.
Table Position: 15
Relegation Risk: Low
After seeing Udinese finish in a Champions League two seasons running and a Europa League spot last season, fans aren't used to seeing the Zebrette so far down the table. But the years of overachievement under Francesco Guidolin had to end sometime, and now, Udinese hovers a mere three points above the relegation zone.
Father Time has finally caught up with talismanic striker Antonio Di Natale, who has only scored one since October and only five times in 18 games overall this campaign. Promising young striker Luis Muriel has failed to capitalize on his chance to truly take center stage, and their lack of production has seen the Friuli outfit fall to a tie for sixth-worst in the league scoring chart.
The good news for Guidolin's men is that they've been a few breaks away from a few more points. They were ahead twice against Lazio last week before an own goal and a brilliant Hernanes strike saw them come away with nothing.
It took Roma—unbeaten and untied league leaders at the time—82 minutes to finally break through for a win at the Stadio Friuli in October.
Juventus weren't able to break them in their daunting home ground until stoppage time.
They've even taken a bite or two out of some of the big clubs. They came from behind twice to draw Napoli 3-3 in the beginning of December and pulled an upset against Fiorentina two weeks earlier that should, given the game's disparity on shots on goal, have been more convincing than 1-0.
Udinese is one of only five teams in the Serie A that has played every single league match of the 21st Century in the top flight. They may have finally sold off too many players to make frequent appearances in the top five, but this is a team that has performed well against all the big clubs (aside from a 3-0 thrashing by Inter).
That bodes well.
They remain alive in the Coppa Italia, but that's a maximum of two extra matches in-season (the final will be played after the league is over) and unlikely to present a problem in terms of sapping energy.
If they can find the points that eluded them against the likes of Atalanta and Chievo in the "andata," they should stay in the top flight.
Table Position: 16
Relegation Risk: Medium
The Flying Donkeys had a rough start to the season. They've been in the relegation spots for much of the season and even spent a few weeks rock bottom. Fortunately for their fans, they ran off three straight wins after Eugenio Corini replaced Giuseppe Sannino as manager, which pulled them up out of the relegation zone, albeit on the basis of a tiebreaker.
They are by no means out of the woods; in the five games following that three-match winning streak, they gained only two points.
The problem for Chievo continues to be goalscoring. They have scored only 15 times all year—fewer than every team in the league, save Catania. They have scored more than once in only three of their 20 league games.
Captain Sergio Pellissier has only played 13 times—eight of them off the bench—and has scored only one goal. Team leader Alberto Paloschi has only five.
Their saving grace has been their defense, which is actually seventh best in the league. With that kind of defense, they should be solidly midtable, which is why their relegation risk is considered medium. Without it, their atrocious attack would make their risk exceptionally high.
They have a shot at solidifying themselves, but if they don't start scoring, they're in for trouble.
Table Position: 17
Relegation Risk: High
Bologna are in a tough situation. They aren't scoring enough, (their top two goalscorers are midfielders) and they aren't defending well.
The defense is a bigger problem. It's not surprising to see a small club like Bologna give up goals to the likes of Juventus and Fiorentina. But to lose 4-1 to a newly promoted team like Hellas Verona—as happened in early October—shouldn't be happening. It's small wonder that the Rossoblu have the league's fourth-worst defense.
Worse than that, however, is the utter lack of production that has come from Bologna's forward position. Their nominal forwards have scored a mere five goals in a combined 47 appearances.
Ineptness at both ends is a bad combination. A team like Sassuolo, with a competent attack, can beat them to crucial points, and their leaky defense may prevent them from picking up their own.
We may finally see Alessandro Diamanti leaving to a bigger club this year—spurred on by Bologna's relegation.
Table Position: 18
Relegation Risk: High
Sassuolo are the opposite of Chievo. They have an attack that, led by Juventus loanees Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza, is good enough to keep them up in the top flight for a second year. The back line, however, is another story.
The Neroverdi have the worst defense in Serie A. They've let though 43 goals so far this season—six more than bottom side Catania.
They've seen some epic shellackings. In their second game ever as a Serie A team, fellow promotees Livorno gave them a 4-1 spanking. Three weeks later, Inter arrived at Reggio Emilia and obliterated the newcomers, 7-0. In December, they took a trip to Turin, where a Juventus side was upset over having just been eliminated from the Champions League. The two-time defending champions took their anger out on their opponents and scored three goals in the first half en route to a 4-0 win.
Even their two biggest triumphs this season saw them concede freely. Berardi scored three in Genoa against Sampdoria and four at the Stadio Citta del Tricolore against AC Milan, but both games saw their opponents score three goals and make nervy ends to games that should have been comfortable.
Sassuolo's defensive task becomes even more difficult after losing their best defensive player, Francesco Acerbi, to a recurrence of testicular cancer that was discovered after a returning tumor triggered a false positive on a drug test.
The team will now have to turn to Luca Antei to lead the back line. If they can improve even a little bit defensively in the second half of the season, Berardi and Zaza may be able to fire them above the drop.
That improvement must happen, though, or else they are likely to stay in the bottom three. History has not been kind in relegation battles to teams as deficient at the back.
Table Position: 19
Relegation Risk: High
Like fellow strugglers Chievo and Bologna, Livorno have struggled to score. The Amaranto have been shut out in half of their league matches and don't have a defense that can compensate.
What they do have is Italy U-21 No. 1 Francesco Bardi. The goalkeeper is on loan from Inter and is turning into this year's version of Mattia Perin. He possibly has a better defense in front of him than the epically bad Pescara back line that let Perin get pelted with shots while on loan from Genoa.
No, that defense isn't all that great—they've let in the third-most goals in the league. That defensive record was a major factor in the dismissal of manager Davide Nicola. In his press conference announcing the sacking, team president Aldo Spinelli expressed pessimism about the team's chances of staying up this year, via Fabio Giorgi of La Gazzetta dello Sport (via Ben Gladwell of ESPN FC).
A goalkeeper of Bardi's caliber can be the difference in a game or two during the course of the season. At this end of the table, a single win could be the difference between staying in the top flight and heading back down to Serie B.
With that said, Livorno's inability to score is likely to mean doom for this team regardless of its first-division pedigree.
Table Position: 20
Relegation Risk: High
A year removed from a team-record 56 Serie A points and an eighth-place finish, the Elefanti are the worst team in Serie A. They have scored the least goals and allowed the second most.
Some of those offensive problems can be traced to the absence of Gonzalo Bergessio due to an injury he suffered against Juventus. But Bergessio is the only forward on the team to score more than once. The only other forward that has scored for Catania is Maxi Lopez. Yeah, that Maxi Lopez—remember when?
On the defensive side, the team has allowed three or more goals in seven of 20 matches and allowed more than one goal in all but seven. This is a team that allowed Alessandro Matri, who scored one goal in 825 minutes with Milan this season, to score two in 45 minutes on his debut with Fiorentina.
The most incredible thing about Catania's season is that they are yet to gain a point away from home: 10 games, 10 losses. Every other team in the league has at least four.
Rolando Maran—the man who guided Catania to their best season ever last year—was fired in October and then rehired last week, but any number of coaching changes is unlikely to have much effect on the fate of this squad.
Sicilian fans should hope that Palermo keeps their place in the Serie B standings. If they fail to gain promotion, Sicily is almost certain to be unrepresented in Serie A next year.