Storylines to Follow on Final Day of Serie A Season

Sam LoprestiFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2015

Storylines to Follow on Final Day of Serie A Season

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    Napoli and Lazio will throw down for the final Champions League spot.
    Napoli and Lazio will throw down for the final Champions League spot.Getty Images/Getty Images

    The 2014-15 Serie A season will come to a close with two games on Saturday, May 30, and eight on Sunday, May 31.

    The race for the Scudetto may have ended a while ago, but it has still been an entertaining season.  The race for the European places has been tight and still hasn't been fully decided.

    This weekend will also potentially see a head-to-head matchup for the Capocannoniere and a last look at Juventus before they head for Berlin to take on Barcelona in the Champions League final.

    On a more somber note, Sunday may be the last time we see a storied club perform.

    All this and more will underline the last week of the season.  What are the five biggest storylines in this season's final round?  Let's take a look and see.

Napoli vs. Lazio for the Champions League

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    Napoli beat Lazio 1-0 at the Olimpico in January.
    Napoli beat Lazio 1-0 at the Olimpico in January.Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

    The first two of Serie A's three Champions League places have been decided, but the last is still up for grabs and will be decided in the most fitting way possible—a head-to-head showdown between Napoli and Lazio.

    Both teams wasted golden opportunities in the last round.  The Partenopei went into their game on Saturday knowing that Juventus would be sending out a B squad in what for them was a dead rubber.

    But instead of coming out with purpose, they were weirdly flaccid.  They were down 1-0 within 13 minutes and, even after they equalized early in the second half, they showed no urgency.  A lovely turn and goal by Stefano Sturaro put Juve back on top, and a moment of madness from Miguel Britos saw him sent off and giving away a penalty to boot.

    Lazio, with two days foreknowledge of Napoli's result, knew that all they needed to do was draw the Derby della Capitale to secure Champions League soccer.  If they won, they would even overtake city rivals Roma for second.  They had the better of the game but allowed a pair of goals against the run of play to lose 2-1, putting Napoli right back into the running for a spot in Europe's highest competition.

    The commentators on British broadcaster BT Sport's telecast made continuous mention of Lazio's vastly superior goal difference against Napoli throughout the game, making it seem like they would have a place in the Champions League regardless of Monday's result.

    Unfortunately, this is evidence that the men at the microphones hadn't done their homework.  Unlike the Premier League, Serie A uses head-to-head record as their first tiebreaker.  That means that the 13-goal gap in goal difference is meaningless and that Napoli—who won the first game between the two in January 1-0 and trail Lazio by three points—can get back to the Champions League playoff round with a win.

    Lazio, meanwhile, will have to come off of a demoralizing loss and get a result.  A draw will do them, but to get it they'll need to perform in the seething cauldron that is the San Paolo.

    The stakes are huge.  The financial difference between a potential trip to the Champions League group stage and condemnation to the Europa League is massive.  For an up-and-coming club like Lazio, it can be a real shot in the arm.  For Napoli, it could fund the acquisition of the last piece that could get them to a truly elite level.

    There will be further intrigue considering who will be in control of the game.  Or at least who we hope will be in control.  It was reported by Football Italia on Thursday that the man with the whistle at the San Paolo will be Gianluca Rocchi—the man who royally fouled up the October contest between Juventus and Roma and has a laundry list of questionable decisions on his resume.

    We can only hope he performs well this time.

    This will be the fourth meeting between the two sides.  Apart from Napoli's January win, the teams met in the two-legged Coppa Italia semifinal, where Lazio advanced 2-1 on aggregate.  Importantly, they decided the tie with a 1-0 win in the second leg in Naples, although Coppa games tend to have less of an atmosphere than league contests in Italy.

    Italian sides have a spotty track record in the UCL's playoff round, which is where the winner of this one will go, but it's better than being guaranteed a spot on Thursday's TV schedule.  With so much at stake, this game should be fun to watch.

The Battle for Seventh

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    Samp can't catch Genoa but could reach Europe on a technicality.
    Samp can't catch Genoa but could reach Europe on a technicality.Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

    Genoa will finish no worse than sixth in the table.  With the two Coppa Italia finalists both finishing in the top five, that means that they should be going to the Europa League's early qualification rounds.

    Unfortunately for the Griffone, a combination of factors saw the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) deny them a UEFA license.  The club appealed, and the Italian Olympic Committee was supposed to rule on that appeal Thursday.  However, according to a report by Goal's Alex Fisher, the decision will be delayed after the team's lawyer was unable to appear at the hearing.

    With the Griffone potentially out of the picture, seventh is now in play, as it was last year.  In that instance, Parma's exclusion was made common knowledge after the season was over. But with everything in the open this year, it means that Sampdoria and Inter, currently placed sixth and seventh, respectively, will have everything to play for on Sunday if they want to play on the continent again.

    The two teams traded 1-0 wins in league play this year.  The Nerazzurri also claimed a 2-0 win in the Coppa Italia, but it's those league results that are at issue here.

    Inter are three points adrift of the Blucerchiati.  Because of their head-to-head, a tie on points would send the classification of the teams to the third tiebreaker—overall goal difference.  That means that if Inter beat Empoli and Parma pull a surprise against Samp, Roberto Mancini's side will be going to the Europa League for the second consecutive year.

    It's certainly not where a proud club like Inter want to be, but any European revenue will aid Inter's rebuilding process.  For Samp, a place in Europe's secondary competition will be a major milestone on their road back to their Luigi Del Neri heyday.  They need to avoid a surprise and come away from their match against Parma with a point to seal their ticket.

The Battle for the Capocannoniere

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    Toni has a chance to be the oldest scoring champ in Italian league history.
    Toni has a chance to be the oldest scoring champ in Italian league history.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

    The resurgence of Luca Toni at Hellas Verona has been one of the most uplifting stories in the league the last two years.

    Toni has scored 41 times in a Verona shirt, earning the Mastiff's captain's armband in the process.  With one game to go, Toni holds a one-goal lead on Juventus hitman Carlos Tevez and Inter's Mauro Icardi in the race to become Capocannoniere—the league's top scorer.

    Toni and Tevez could go head-to-head on Saturday for the mantle.  It may sound like a risk for Juve to put Tevez on the field so close to the Champions League final in a game that means nothing, but Tevez barely missed out on the scoring title last year because he never played after the team clinched the Scudetto, and he deserves a chance to pass Toni.

    Playing on Saturday may also be beneficial to the Argentinian international looking ahead to June 6.  Tevez has only played three games since the Bianconeri locked in the title on May 2 against Sampdoria.  That lack of game time showed in the Coppa Italia final last week.  Tevez never really got going.  He simply looked rusty.

    The rust versus rest argument is a classic in any sport, but Tevez's performance against Lazio certainly suggests that it will be better for him to knock the rust off before he plays Barca rather than go in cold.  If he manages to score a brace and pip Toni as Cappocannoniere, he'll also go in with a confidence surge that could spell trouble for the Blaugrana.

    It's just as likely that Massimiliano Allegri won't risk injury to his top scorer, making the race for the top of the scoring chart strictly an affair between Toni and Icardi.  The latter will be going up against a tactically sound and stingy Empoli side led defensively by Juve product Daniele Rugani, who will want to make an impression before his return to his parent club this summer.

Will Juve Get Through Healthy?

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    The Bianconeri will be looking to get through Saturday without injuries.
    The Bianconeri will be looking to get through Saturday without injuries.Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

    Tevez's potential pursuit of the scoring title aside, Saturday's game means absolutely nothing for Juventus.  The most important thing that can come out of the game will be that the team's key players come out healthy.

    There is already some concern about Andrea Barzagli, who could be a key man against Barca.  The center-back suffered a grade-one quadriceps strain on Saturday against Napoli and could be a doubt for the big game.

    The usual recovery time is one to three weeks, so he could indeed be healthy, but Juve want to be sure their big players, like Arturo Vidal, Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, Tevez and Gigi Buffon, all get through the end of the season as fit as possible while balancing the need to keep joints greased.

    Look for a largely reserve side to play, but a few key men could get some minutes just to stay warm.

Parma's Last Hurrah?

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    Parma may cease to exist if no one buys the club at auction.
    Parma may cease to exist if no one buys the club at auction.Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

    One of Italy's most storied clubs could have its final bow on Sunday in Genoa.

    Parma's financial collapse has been swift and ugly in the year since it became public after the team was denied a UEFA license a year ago for late payment of a tax bill.  The team has gone from sixth last year to rock bottom this year and would only have been one place better had it not been docked seven points for their financial irregularities.

    Now, had the saga of unpaid wages and lights being turned off in the training facilities not played out and things been normal, its entirely possible that the Crusaders would have avoided the drop this year, maybe even played well.  As it stands, though, Parma is not only facing the prospect of relegation but of ceasing to exist.

    Friday saw a fourth auction for the bankrupt club pass by without any takers.  A fifth will now be set up at a reduced starting price slightly more than €6 million.  For the team to survive in its current form and play in Serie B next year, someone would have to both win the auction and pay off the team's sporting debt by the registration deadline at the end of June.

    That sporting debt was determined to be €75 million when the club entered administration, but most players and staffers have forgone portions of their owed wages in order to make getting the club to Serie B more palatable for a prospective buyer.

    Even Antonio Cassano, who was released from his contract midseason, has waived portions of what he's owed, as Football Italia reported after his wife tweeted the news.

    The sporting debt is now a much more manageable €19 million, leaving hope that the club can indeed be saved.

    But right now, the club's fate is still in the air, and it's entirely possible that the club once known as one of the Seven Sisters of Italy could hear its final whistle blown on Sunday afternoon.

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