After Juventus and Roma, Who Will Claim Italy's Last Champions League Berth?

Paolo Bandini@@Paolo_BandiniSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 19, 2014

After Juventus and Roma, Who Will Claim Italy's Last Champions League Berth?

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    The Serie A season has not yet reached its midway stage, but already the top of the table has acquired a familiar feel. Juventus and Roma occupy the top two spots, separated by just four points (and those will be down to one if the Giallorossi win their game in hand this weekend).

    Behind them lies a gulf wide enough that it is already hard to imagine any rival bridging it this season, given Juventus and Roma’s form over the past 18 months. Those two should finish first and second, in some order, but that still leaves Italy’s final Champions League berth up for grabs.

    From third to eighth in the table, six teams lie within four points of each other. Which are best-equipped to sustain their challenge over the second half of the season, and which are most likely to fall away?

Napoli

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    Current position: Third, 27 points

    Napoli’s present standing is misleading, since they have played a game more than their rivals. Sampdoria, Genoa and Lazio could all overtake them by the end of the weekend, while Milan could also pull level. Nevertheless, the Partenopei will be happy to have beaten Parma 2-0 on Thursday night. They had previously won just one of their last six games.

    Such disappointing form is not easy to explain. Napoli boast the strongest squad among Serie A’s chasing pack, and especially up front, where they have a world-class striker in Gonzalo Higuain, supported by the likes of Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon.

    So far this season, only the latter player has consistently lived up to expectations. Mertens was out of the starting XI prior to Lorenzo Insigne’s season-ending injury. Hamsik plays regularly but seems uncomfortable in Rafael Benítez’s systems, rarely making the incisive runs that characterised his first five seasons in Naples. Higuain has seven league goals, but he got them all during a five-game purple patch.

    Owner Aurelio De Laurentiis has deep-enough pockets that this team can afford to add some fresh faces in January. But there is enough quality in this group already to finish third. The question is whether or not their manager will remember how to get the best out of them.

    Predicted finish: Third

Sampdoria

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    Current position: Joint fourth, 26 points

    Week by week, it becomes harder to dismiss Sampdoria’s early-season form. Operating on a wage budget of just €28 million per year, according to Gazzetta dello Sport (H/T The Guardian), the Blucerchiati should not be capable of standing toe-to-toe with Serie A’s richer clubs.

    And yet, that is precisely what they have done, drawing with Roma, Napoli, and most recently away to Juventusthat last result ending the champions’ run of 25 consecutive home wins in the league. In fact, Samp have lost just one Serie A game all season. Only Juve can boast the same.

    Whether or not the Genoese club can sustain such form might depend on their actions this January. While there are a number of emerging talents in the squad, from Alessio Romagnoli in defence to Stefano Okaka up front, the greatest among them is Manolo Gabbiadini, a versatile forward who most often lines up on the right of attack in Sinisa Mihajlovic's 4-3-3.

    He leads the team with five goals, but he has been heavily linked with a move to Napoli, as per the website of journalist Gianluca Di Marzio (in Italian). Such a player would not easily be replaced, especially as he is co-owned by Juventus, meaning Sampdoria would only take half of the fee from any sale. 

    Predicted finish: Sixth

Genoa

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    Current position: Joint fourth, 26 points

    Much like their neighbours Sampdoria, Genoa have been punching above their weight. A club that seems to exist in a perpetual state of renovation bid farewell to its most prolific forward, Alberto Gilardino, along with a host of other players in the summer, replacing them with a broad selection of low-cost alternatives.

    None of the new arrivals cost more than £1.76 million, per Transfermarkt, and yet several have worked out tremendously. Alessandro Matri, acquired on loan from Milan, has slotted into the spot vacated by Gilardino, and leads the team with six goals. Diego Perotti, a steal at £308,000 from Sevilla, has shown great versatility, playing everywhere from striker to full-back in Gian Piero Gasperini’s ever-shifting tactical schemes.

    The manager, named by Jose Mourinho as the toughest coach he faced in Italy (H/T The Guardian) is the most crucial pillar to this recent success, but Mattia Perin has also been vital—with the most saves of any goalkeeper in the league, per Squawka. That he has been called into action so often, however, reflects the frailty in some parts of the team. Over the course of a season, those may tell.

    Predicted finish: Eighth

Lazio

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    Current position: Joint fourth, 26 points

    Big things were expected from Lazio after an impressive summer transfer campaign. Dutch defender Stefan De Vrij was signed from Feyenoord within weeks of being named in the Castrol Index’s Top 11 at the World Cup. Midfielder Marco Parolo arrived from Parma, where he had just enjoyed the best season of his career, scoring eight goals and forcing his way into Italy’s squad for the tournament in Brazil.

    Dusan Basta was an astute loan addition, a versatile and reliable full-back whose career had been held back mostly by injuries at Udinese. Striker Filip Djordjevic, picked up on a free transfer, had scored 10 goals in 27 Ligue 1 games for Nantes last season, and would provide a much-needed alternative to the ageing Miroslav Klose up front.

    From an individual perspective, all of those players have done well, even if a returning veteran—Antonio Candreva—has outshone them all. But somehow results have remained inconsistent. The Biancocelesti have won more games than any team outside the top two, but their five defeats are also more than any other side in the chasing pack.

    Perhaps that is simply a question of growing pains suffered by a team with a new manager, Stefano Pioli, as well as so many new players. Or maybe this squad still lacks that little extra bit of quality in key areas.

    Predicted finish: Seventh

Milan

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    Current position: Seventh, 24 points

    Six months into Pippo Inzaghi’s tenure, Milan continue to veer between highs and lows. Last weekend’s 2-0 victory over Napoli was the manager’s best result to date, and his team’s most impressive performance as well. But it was only the Rossoneri’s second victory in eight games.

    Milan have obvious problems in defence, where the likes of Daniele Bonera, Cristian Zapata and new signing Alex have struggled. The team has looked slightly more robust with Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami partnering at centre-back in recent games, but fans have seen enough lapses from both players in the past to keep them from feeling complacent.

    Up front, Jeremy Menez has been the obvious star, leading his club with eight goals. The only question mark attached to the Frenchman’s performances in Milan thus far has been whether he is a false nine or, as Adriano Galliani would have it (H/T ESPNFC), a genuine dyed-in-the-wool striker. 

    But there is a lingering concern over what will happen to Milan if Menez should get injured, or simply go off the boil. Fernando Torres has struggled, and Inzaghi has not demonstrated much faith in Giampaolo Pazzini. 

    Predicted finish: Fourth

Fiorentina

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    Current position: Eighth, 23 points

    Given how poorly they started this season, Fiorentina should feel delighted to remain so close to the Champions League places. The Viola did not collect their fourth Serie A win until 23 November, but have dropped just two points in four matches since.

    Scoring has been a challenge for a side that is making do without its best forward, Giuseppe Rossi, and for whom Mario Gomez also missed the entire month of October with a knee injury. The German has struggled either side of that absence, too, finding the net once in 10 appearances.

    Little wonder the team has been linked with a move for a striker in January, although Alexandre Pato’s agent denied any contact with the Viola this week, per calciomercato.com (in Italian). Rossi’s own agent has said that his client could return in February, per Mediaset, (in Italian) but given the recurring nature of the player’s knee troubles, it might be unwise for the team to place all their eggs in that basket.

    Complicating matters for Fiorentina is the fact that they are also competing in Europe. Napoli share this challenge, but possess a deeper squad than the Viola.

    Predicted finish: Fifth

Anyone Else?

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    There are a number of sides further down the table who continue to aspire to a Champions League berth. Inter posted losses of €87 million on their most recent accounts (H/T fourthofficial.com) and desperately need the funds that competing in Europe’s top club competition would provide, but new manager Roberto Mancini has his work cut out to turn around a team that has lost as many games as it has won this season.

    Udinese might also consider themselves outside contenders, especially if Antonio Di Natale can maintain the form that has brought him eight goals so far. But with so many strong teams ahead of them, it looks like a long shot, at best.