The title race in Italy this season was never expected to go down to the wire considering the lack of squad depth in Napoli and the horrible start to the season that Milan had. However, few would have imagined Milan fighting for second spot at this point in the season. Milan are yet to be beaten in the new year and are perhaps the most in-form side in Serie A presently but having dropped four points over the last two weekends might very well put an end to their hopes for a direct qualification to the next edition of the Champions League. They are still the favourites to hold on to the third spot but with three more supposedly difficult games to play in the coming weeks, you’d rather prefer not to bet your fortune on seeing them in Europe just yet.
Hosting Napoli at San Siro, Milan never looked like the side determined enough to strike a win and close the gap to a solitary point for the second place. It seems Milan have started to rely on Mario Balotelli a little too much for their own good, as the team was found wanting in the absence of Super Mario who was serving a suspension for a rather avoidable act in the previous game against Fiorentina. Pazzini started in the centre for Milan and although his goal-scoring this season has been prolific, he’s no Balotelli. The former Sampdoria striker brings little to the table apart from his accuracy inside the box and finishing prowess. Milan also decided not to start with El Shaarawy for what at that point in time appeared to be a mysterious move. Boateng once again got the nod ahead of Niang which further limited Milan’s opportunity to find that creative spark to unlock the Napoli defence.
The goal came from the unlikeliest source though. Mathieu Flamini has surprised fans having cemented his position in the midfield with Ambrosini having been sidelined through an injury and Nocerino still not having recovered from the trauma of Ibrahimovic’s departure. It was an exquisite finish from the Frenchman from a very well engineered move that gave Milan the lead only to be neutralized moments later as Napoli squared things off. The visitors nearly secured a lead later in the first half when Edinson Cavani showed unimaginable control with his first touch making a long ball look better than it was and tried to lob the ball over a rushing Abbiati. But then, there’s a reason the Milan captain is lauded as an unsung hero. Abbiati showed great composure against the marauding presence of Cavani and denied the Uruguayan an opportunity to put his team in a commanding position.
The second half saw Napoli pass the ball better, Milan go lacklustre in their approach and Flamini turn a villain after his heroics earlier in the game. A badly timed, two-footed tackle quite deservedly earned Flamini a red card and after the numerical disadvantage, Milan never looked like a team hunting for a victory – not that they were even before it. The game finished 1-1 and Napoli must be the happier side with the result. Despite a minor stutter at a point, their season by and large has remained pretty consistent and the second place is now theirs to lose. From the hosts’ perspective, this game was just another indication at the need for reinforcements in the Milan midfield and defence.
There has been only one contender for the title this season and with a stunning 11 point lead over their closest competition, Juventus have reasons to start celebrations already. A first half double from Arturo Vidal took the game out of Lazio’s reach and allowed Juve to further strengthen their position at the top. Antonio Conte deployed a different formation accommodating Paul Pogba in his setup pushing Marchisio to play feeder to Mirko Vucinic, who led the line single-handedly. Whether these tactics will be continued by Conte for the future remains to be seen but with the title nearly having been sealed, Conte is presently at the luxury to try out various formations and combinations of players for the remainder of the season.
While Juventus are marching forward to the defence of their title, their arch rivals Inter on the other hand are falling even further with every round passing. With their second loss on the trot, Inter are now seventh in the table and are almost certain to miss out on Champions League for the second season in running. Although Massimo Moratti has publicly come in support of Stramaccioni after speculation over his future was rife, it is highly unlikely that the former youth team coach will be able to hold on to his job next season. However, the 2-0 win is an outstanding result for Cagliari and given the kind of troubles they have faced as a club this season, their position in the top half of the table is nothing short of a history of sorts.
In an uncharacteristic fashion, Roma triumphed over Torino finding the winner after their early lead having been cancelled out by the hosts. Goals from Osvaldo and Lamela now put the Romans sixth on the table sharing points with Lazio. From the looks of it, they should make it to the Europa League from here on. After the torrid times under Zdenek Zeman, Roma have considerably revived their season but the rescue act should not be enough in comparison to the ambitions they had set for themselves at the start of the season. It is still very hard to come to terms with their performance in the season as their squad strength and depth is easily at the same level of Juventus.
Fiorentina are still in contention for the third spot as an impressive 2-0 win away from home over Atalanta keeps them well within the reach of Milan. David Pizarro scored from the spot at the hour mark and substitute Marcelo Larrondo doubled the lead ten minutes later. Their cause could have greatly been helped had Napoli managed to win at San Siro but a draw is also a result Fiorentina would not really have minded.
In a fight to avoid the relegation, Siena pulled out a marvellous victory over Pescara who are bound to be demoted to the lower division next season. Playing at home, Pescara restored parity after being two goals down, but a late winner from Emeghara earned Siena an invaluable win that now puts them two points above fellow strugglers Palermo. The Sicilians were held to a 1-1 draw by Bologna after an early goal from Ilicic was negated by Gabbiadini.
With an astounding 3-0 win over Parma, Udinese are now in strong contention for a Europa League spot being only two points behind Inter. Luis Muriel scored twice for the visitors while the night was capped off with a third from Pereyra. Parma, who a few months back looked likely to make it to Europe next season have faded away towards the business end of the season and have faltered at the time when it mattered the most.
In an intensely fought derby, Genoa managed to grab a point against Sampdoria with a late equalizer from Matuzalem after Sampdoria were reduced to ten men with Andrea Costa having been given marching orders. Genoa still remain in the relegation zone and it will take a mammoth effort from here on to stay afloat in the top division next season.