Serie A: Previewing the Biggest Games in Italy This Weekend
The international break is over, and the race for the Scudetto is back on in Italy.
Serie A will grace its fans with a set of good matches, but three of them in particular are standouts.
One is a high-table clash between the champions and in-form European hopefuls. The second comes from the other end of the table and could prove supremely important in the relegation battle. The third brings two of the world's fiercest rivals for their 183rd league meeting.
Today we'll take a closer look at these three matches, check out some of the key players and see who will take the spoils.
Lazio vs. Juventus
Lazio started the season in a horrible rut, losing three of their first four games. Since their 1-0 loss against Udinese on September 25, though, they won four straight and have won five, drawn one and lost only once in their last seven matches. It's been good enough to vault the capital club into sixth place, level on points with fifth-ranked Genoa.
They'll be looking for revenge against Juventus after the beatings they took last year. The two clubs met three times between the league and the Supercoppa Italiana, and the Bianconeri outscored Lazio 9-2. That included a pair of early season hammerings—4-1 in the Supercoppa and 4-0 in a Serie A rematch two weeks later—that seemed to kill the confidence of Federico Marchetti to the point where he lost the job as Lazio's No. 1 keeper halfway through the season.
The Biancocelesti did manage to halt Juve's 12-game league winning streak at the Olimpico in January by earning a 1-1 draw. Saturday's game will be played in Rome, but how valuable that home-field advantage will be is debatable. Last year was the first time since 2009 that Lazio had avoided defeat at home against Juve, and it was only the second draw they'd earned since the last time they beat the Bianconeri in Rome in the 2003-04 season.
It's also worth noting that during last year's draw Juve played with 10 men for the final 69 minutes of the game—and that Lazio blew a 1-0 lead while playing with the advantage.
Juve and Lazio are the top two scoring teams in the league this year, with 25 and 21 goals, respectively. We could be in store for an entertaining, end-to-end contest that will keep us on the edge of our seats for the full 90 minutes as the teams test each other's defenses—both of which have question marks coming in.
For Juve, the key is going to be Arturo Vidal—and maybe not in the way you'd think.
It's possible Leonardo Bonucci will miss time after suffering an injury in Tuesday's friendly against Albania. That would bring the Bianconeri down to one—count 'em, one—healthy center-back: Giorgio Chiellini. With Angelo Ogbonna, Martin Caceres and Andrea Barzagli all out with various injuries, the Bianconeri would likely to turn to Il Guerriero as an emergency fill-in.
It's something he did twice under Antonio Conte, once in 2011-12 and once last season. With his excellent defensive skills and leaping ability, he's been able to slip into the role quite comfortably.
Juve likely wouldn't miss much of a beat defensively, but they'd miss his contributions further forward. While still not 100 percent after the knee injuries he suffered late last season, his match fitness has slowly improved. His last game—the make-or-break Champions League contest against Olympiakos on November 4—was easily his best of the season.
With more chances to run for Chile during the international break, he will be that much closer to full fitness this weekend. He's also had a habit of making the Biancocelesti his personal whipping boys—in his three seasons in Italy he's scored four league goals against them and one more in the Coppa Italia—and three of them came in Rome.
On the other side, Antonio Candreva will be Lazio's key man. According to WhoScored.com he has two goals and seven assists. That latter number is three more than any other player in the league, including Juve's Carlos Tevez and Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Candreva opened his account for his country this weekend against Croatia, and despite the 1-1 result of that game his confidence should be sky-high. If Juve does indeed have to employ a makeshift defense, look for him to attack it quickly to probe for weaknesses. When Candreva has free reign, Lazio can be scary dangerous. If Juve can put a leash on him, however, they will take away much of the capital club's teeth.
This is an important game for both sides. With Roma still only three points away, any slip-up could be costly for Juve in the title race. Lazio are lodged in a gaggle of teams that are within two points of each other ranging from third to eighth in the table. A loss to Juve could instantly bury them and put as many as four teams between themselves and a berth in Europe.
On paper, Lazio is more in danger of a loss. They may be the second-highest scoring team in the league, but they're ninth in goals allowed. There have been problems defending set pieces—a special concern when the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Tevez will be providing service. They've let in some goals as well, and their loss to Empoli two weeks ago was worrisome.
If the Juventus attack keeps flourishing in the 4-3-1-2 that Massimiliano Allegri has unleashed in the club's last two games, Lazio is going to be in serious trouble. There is little to suggest that that won't happen. Juve extend their decade-long unbeaten run at the Olimpico and win the game 3-1.
Parma vs. Empoli
You really have to feel sorry for Parma.
Last season the team finished sixth. Because both Coppa Italia finalists had already finished in the top five, that meant that Parma should have been heading to Europe unaided (they made the UEFA Cup in 2005-06 only after Calciopoli) since the collapse of Parmalat left them insolvent and nearly saw them relegated.
But it wasn't to be. They paid a tax bill late at the end of last season, and the FIGC denied them a UEFA license, giving their place to Torino instead.
Their season so far has been a disaster. Star midfielder Jonathan Biabiany is out indefinitely with a heart condition, and little was done over the summer to improve an aging roster. Antonio Cassano has failed to carry the team, which is sitting at the bottom of the table with a 2-0-9 record. TParma were last seen two weeks ago being annihilated by Juventus to the tune of 7-0.
On Monday they missed the deadline to pay several outstanding debts, a mishap that will almost certainly cost them a points penalty at the time they can least afford it.
Empoli, on the other hand, are currently two points clear of the drop despite being the pick of most pundits to prop up the league. Their attack has been surprisingly strong, and they have the services of one of the best young defenders in Italy in Daniele Rugani.
This game is critical for both Parma and Roberto Donadoni. A loss will keep them anywhere from four to seven points away from safety and could all but condemn them to the drop—as well as cost Donadoni his job.
Antonio Cassano has to come through for Parma. In the absence of Biabiany and the departed Amauri, the scoring load has fallen on him. He's managed five goals and an assist, but more will be needed if the Crusaders are to stay in the top flight.
The only Parma player capable of creating his own shot on a consistent basis, Cassano will have an opportunity against a callow Empoli defense. That unit has exceeded expectations, but they're still second-bottom in the league in goals allowed, and neither of the regular central defenders are older than 24. If he can boss the young Azzurri defenders, he can throw his club a vital lifeline.
The key for the newly-promoted side will be one of those defenders. Lorenzo Tonelli is WhoScored's top-rated Empoli player. He's averaged 1.9 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per match and has added a trio of goals from the back—tying him for top of the team's scoring chart.
Paired with Juve loanee Rugani—one of the hottest young defenders on the peninsula—Tonelli has the potential to lock down Cassano the way he did Paulo Dybala six weeks ago against Palermo. If he does, Empoli will be one step closer to an improbable survival.
It's been bad news heaped on bad news for Parma—and it doesn't look like things will get any better.
The Crusaders have been uninspired this season. Play has been poor all around. Particularly bad has been goalkeeper Antonio Mirante, who has gone from an alternate on Cesare Prandelli's World Cup roster to the laughingstock of the league in the space of five months.
Empoli has played with heart and gotten results. They will heap more misery on Parma and win this game 2-0.
AC Milan vs. Inter
The Derby della Madonnina is the biggest in Italy. It's also one of the most closely contested in all of Europe.
Over 212 official matches—spanning the various forms of Italian league play, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa and the Champions League—Inter has won 76 games to Milan's 74, with 62 draws. The goal difference in those games is in Inter's favor at a razor-thin margin of four.
Sunday will see the 213th edition of the rivalry overall and the 183rd in league play. It usually pits two teams at the top of the table, but the Milan clubs have crumbled over the last few years. Milan finished eighth last year. Inter is two years removed from a debacle of a season in which they ended ninth.
The turmoil continues to swirl around both of the San Siro's occupants.
Milan's summer transfer window was considered a dismal failure. Striker Mario Balotelli was sold to Liverpool at a price that was far too low given what the club paid for him a year-and-a-half ago. Up-and-coming midfielder Bryan Cristante was inexplicably sold outright to Benfica, causing significant consternation among the fanbase.
The team has had three coaches in the last year, and in the back of everyone's mind is the possibility that current manager Filippo Inzaghi isn't altogether safe.
Inzaghi's machinations have created an exciting, attacking side, but the defensive deficiencies that have been the team's biggest weakness since the sale of Thiago Silva continue to dog the team.
One of the biggest problems has been the continued presence of Daniele Bonera in the lineup. The defender is a leading candidate for the satirical "Bidone d'Oro"—Golden Trash Can—as the worst player in the league. It's probably a good thing for Inzaghi that the player is suspended for the game following his second red card of the season.
On the blue side, the manager's office has already been vacated this season. The Nerazzurri sacked struggling manager Walter Mazzarri and replaced him with Roberto Mancini, who led the team to three titles in the middle of the last decade. He will now have to negotiate a tricky league and the grueling demands of the Europa League.
Last year's transfer saga involving Keisuke Honda was a major storyline for the Rossoneri.
Unable to coax Honda from CSKA Moscow in the summer transfer window, Milan had to wait until January to sign him on a Bosman. When he did arrive, his performance was underwhelming—certainly not the commanding presence people were used to seeing when he wore the Samurai Blue of Japan. Early signs were that all he would do would block promising youngster Riccardo Saponara in the advanced midfield.
Honda has turned that on its head this year. Switched to the wing in Inzaghi's 4-3-3, he has thrived. WhoScored clocks him at three assists and a team-high six goals while averaging a key pass per game and completing 80.5 percent of his passes.
In the absence of a dominant striker, his play from the wing has carried the team. With Inter likely making an abrupt and potentially awkward switch from a back three to a back four, he may be able to take advantage of the confusion.
On the opposite end, Inter's fortunes will lie on Mateo Kovacic. After a season-and-a-half, the Croatian international is finally stamping his mark on the team and is the engine driving its attack. WhoScored's stat line on him reads two goals, an assist, 85.7 percent pass completion and an average of 2.6 key passes per game.
The problem will be getting Kovacic's service into the net. Last year's leading scorer, Rodrigo Palacio, has carried his poor World Cup form into the season. Mauro Icardi leads the way with seven strikes, but two of them were from the penalty spot and three more came at one time against Sassuolo. Dani Osvaldo has been injured and is only just coming back.
Kovacic will give his team their chances, but the trick will be to finish them.
This will be a hard-fought game, as are all of the games in this series. Both sides are suffering from defensive issues. Milan's stem from a simple lack of quality in the back. Inter's imminent switch to a four-man defense could cause confusion that would compound their own weaknesses in their own third.
I think this game turns into an end-to-end goal-fest. The deciding factor may end up being goalkeeping—and the advantage in that area is decidedly Inter's thanks to Samir Handanovic, who might be one of the 10 best at his position in the world.
Handanovic will tip the scales here. My call is a 3-2 Inter victory.