This season’s Serie A has turned into the battle between Juventus and “Anti-Juve”, as the Italian media has named teams expected to challenge Antonio Conte’s side for the Scudetto. The anti-Juve tag has been given to a number of teams till now. Napoli was thought to be anti-Juve when the season started while Inter, Fiorentina and even AS Roma have been dubbed the same in the past few months. The first match-day of 2013 was a mixed bag for anti-Juve teams but it is unlikely to match the calamitous performance showed by Juventus at home. This was also a week where two youngsters – 19 year old Mauro Icardi and 20 year old Mattia Perin – helped their teams pick up completely unexpected wins.
Quite unlike their sigil, Lazio have flown under the radar and established themselves as one of the most consistent teams in the league. Expected to struggle under Vladimir Petkovic, the sky blue side from Rome has so far outperformed their much hyped neighbours.
Petkovic’s Lazio isn’t a spectacular side but they are solid and know how to get results when needed. In the past few seasons Lazio have often started strongly to falter later and this has further decreased expectations on them. Before their game against Cagliari, Petkovic insisted that Lazio wasn’t an “anti-Juve” saying that his team was “pro-Lazio” instead. A victory against Cagliari would have seen Lazio finish with 39 points at the halfway mark, same as Sven Gorn Ericsson’s title winning side more than a decade before.
Lazio didn’t start as expected in their home match against Cagliari, a side which had lost 5 matches on the bounce and fielded an 17 year old Dario Del Fabro in defence. The visitors took a shock lead two minutes after the hour mark as Sau beat Marchetti for the first time in 606 minutes to give the lead to Cagliari. Lazio got their equalizer 17 minutes later through Konko and all hell would break lose minutes later. Cagliari custodian Agazzi was sent off controversially for a second yellow card and Cossu followed him soon, after arguing vehemently with the referee. Lazio got the match winner from a controversial penalty to move to five points within Juventus. It will be interesting to see how Petkovic deals with the increased expecations on his side from hereon.
One team which is clearly not dealing with heightened expectations is Internazionale. The Nerazzuri were branded as anti-Juve after halting Juve’s unbeaten streak brilliantly in early November. Since then, they have won just two of their eight matches and lost to the likes of Parma and Atalanta. Andrea Stramaccioni’s side once again faced the music on Saturday as they were blanked 3-0 by a Toto Di Natale inspired Udinese. The Friulians have struggled a lot this season and look unlikely to repeat their Champions League berth sealing finish of past two seasons. This was Udinese’s first victory since December 2nd and will undoubtedly help them salvage something from 2012/13 season.
Vincenzo Montella’s Fiorentina, another “anti-Juve”, slumped to a shock home loss against basement boys Pescara.
Fiorentina were the only side with an unbeaten home record before the last matchday and they were undone by a heroic display by 20-year-old goalkeeper Mattia Perin. Couple of months ago Perin had to suffer from the ignominy of conceding a bunch of goals on his birthday while playing Juventus but things were totally different on Sunday. He pulled off stunning saves off almost every Fiorentina outfield player as Pescara didn’t show signs of crossing the half-line in Florence. They took a shock lead in the 51st minute through Jonathas as Perin continued his incredible performance between the sticks. Celik’s goal in injury time was just a formality as Fiorentina dropped to fourth spot after this loss.
Juventus themselves dished out one of their worst performances under Antonio Conte as they fell at home against strugglers Sampdoria. The Bianconeri started the match brightly but became lethargic as the game wore on. Three points looked likely when Sampdoria lost Berardi two minutes after Sebastien Giovinco had put the Old Lady ahead from a well taken spot kick. However, things went haywire in the second half as Sampdoria didn’t resemble a team with only 10 men. Juventus was clearly missing the presence of Asamoah, Chiellini, Lichtsteiner and Vidal as the defence faltered time and again. Federico Peluso looked like a deer caught in the headlights on his debut as Sampdoria forayed down his side frequently. To make matters worse, a rare error from Gianluigi Buffon gave Sampdoria a well-deserved equalizer seven minutes into the second half.
Juventus did manage to create a number of chances in the second half but never looked like a team playing a 10 men opponent at home. Icardi’s second goal in the 68th minute was hardly a surprise and it eventually proved to be the match winner. Mauro Icardi, a former Barcelona academy player scored and in the process picked up a big, big platform to score his first senior brace.
Juventus’ performance against Sampdoria was calamitous though the club was spared more bad news as Claudio Marchisio’s injury was declared to be minor. A standard practice under Conte has been to let a new signing integrate with the team before making his debut. The decision to start Peluso, despite his joining only a couple of days ago completely backfired. A bigger worry for Conte will be how weak the Juventus defence looked without Asamoah and Chiellini, two players who will not feature for a while.
The side which gained most from round 19 was Napoli who blanked out Zdenek Zeman’s hapless Roma side thanks to a Cavani hat-trick. The Neapolitans knew that they needed a win to take advantage of Inter and Fiorentina slipping earlier and they delivered the perfect result in front of the home crowd. December was a tough month for Diego Maradona’s former club as they went through a dodgy spell of form coupled with player suspensions and points penalty due to Scomessopoli scandal.
Roma, on the other hand, had found a remedy to their inconsistency and snapped up six wins out of their last seven matches. Goals were expected in the Derby del Sud and Edinson Cavani sent the home fans in raptures just four minutes after the kick-off, latching on to a pass from Pandev. The Pandev-Cavani combo would double Napoli’s lead in the 48th minute and the Uruguayan completed his hat-trick 22 minutes later. Goals from Osvaldo and Maggio would round off a good day for Napoli as they moved to third in the table.
Roma’s loss was good news for AC Milan as well as the Rossoneri moved within 2 points of Zeman’s team after a 2-1 win over Siena. Completing a hat-trick of victories Parma sit a point behind AC Milan. Things are not going well for Palermo as they lost to Parma on Sunday. Losing to a last gasp goal from Amauri, who ironically enjoyed his best times in Italy in Palermo, the Sicilians are now second from bottom with 15 points at the half way mark. Reaching 40 points, the tally to usually escape relegation, seems a daunting prospect for them now.
The second round of matches begin next week with Udinese hosting Fiorentina being the standout fixture.