Unpredictable; that’s how the title race in Serie A is shaping up this season on the basis of the first 11 games so far. Serie Aa s heyday is long consigned to the past, but it was a glorious thing while it lasted. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, it was the greatest league in Europe. Over the summer many sides had strengthened with the hope of challenging for the European spots. But with defending champions Juventus going through a transitional phase, the battle for the top spot will be fierce this year. THT looks at the early going in what should be a fascinating and enthralling season in Serie A.
Made in Sud: Sarria s Napoli are worthy contenders for the title
Not since the days of Diego Maradona has the team from Naples enjoyed league success. The spring of 1990 was Napoli’s last title triumph which rounded off an extraordinary 10 year period which included both domestic and continental success. Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri has downplayed his team’s chances of winning the Scudetto but their early season form suggest otherwise. Napoli have already got the better of their title rivals Juventus, Fiorentina while mauling Milan and Lazio in the process. It has been over 20 years since Napoli last owned the status of league champions but there has been a talk of challenging for the crown in recent years. Walter Mazzarri led Napoli to a second place finish in 2012-13 while also ending the club’s 22-year wait for silverware with the Coppa Italia triumph over Juventus in 2012. The appointment of Rafa Benitez was a coup for Napoli and the Spaniard was expected to take Napoli to the next level. Despite another Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana, Benitez failed to mount any serious challenge against holders Juventus and eventually left after failing to qualify for the Champions League last season.
A summer of uncertainty prevailed as Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis tried in vain to appoint Jurgen Klopp and Unai Emery as the head coach but ultimately had to settle for the inexperienced Maurizio Sarri. Napoli’s slow start added to the pressure and club legend Diego Maradona claimed that Sarri would ensure Napoli get relegated this season. While the cult hero of Naples is entitled to his opinion about his beloved club, Sarri is proving him wrong and that too in some style. Having left a stuttering start behind them, the Partenopei are currently on a 10-match unbeaten run and are two points behind the leaders in fourth position. A lifelong Napoli supporter, Sarri claimed he would have done this job for free. He started with his favored 4-3-1-2 formation but slowly realized that 4-3-3 module was the best for Napoli. The trident of Insigne-Higuain-Callejon is playing with swagger; the Argentine in particular has been simply majestic leading the team from the front. He has already scored 8 goals and has taken up a dynamic role this season supporting the play along with the wingers. The defence which was Napoli’s Achilles heel under Benitez has already kept six clean sheets this season. Sarri has been a breath of fresh air for his boyhood club and with no team running away with the league after 11 games, Napoli have real hope of a first Scudetto in 26 years.
Can eternal chokers Roma finally win the Scudetto?
No team outside Turin or Milan has won the Scudetto since 2001 when Roma led by the trio of Batistuta-Totti-Montella won the title on a dramatic final day. Roma’s quest to regain the throne has fallen short ever since with eight second place finishes in the last 14 seasons. This could be the best chance for Roma now with defending champions Juventus in doldrums while the chasing pack are fighting to ascend what appears to be a vacant throne. Two seasons back they had amassed record points which would have given them the Scudetto in most years but fell short only because of an extraordinary performance by Antonio Conte’s Juventus. Roma’s recent pedigree, team chemistry and talent make them the most likely heir to Juve’s throne. Manager Rudi Garcia was bullish about his team’s chances last year and that overconfidence backfired badly on his team.
This time around he has kept expectations to a minimum regarding the Scudetto till now. Roma does not have an icon player carrying the team alone but they do have high caliber professionals who have collectively generated 25 goals so far this season. The defence has been a cause for major concern and needs to be resolved fast if they are expecting to challenge for the title. Mohammed Salah has started the season on a positive note while Miralem Pjani has been their best player so far. New signings in defence Antonio Rudiger and Lucas Digne are settling in their new roles while the failed transfer of Ivory Coast winger Gervinho seems like one of the best deals in the summer for Roma. Rudi Garcia must address the issues in defence to be considered as realistic title contenders and once they are done there is little doubt that this team has the potential to lift the Scudetto for the first time in 14 years.
Fashion capital has reasons to smile
The city of Milan certainly has reasons to be optimistic after the positive start to the season by the Milanese clubs. Years of struggle has seen both the sides out of European competitions for the first time in their history this season. However with Inter in second position and Milan fifth, things have started to look a bit better this year. Inter have earned the reputation of being a defensive juggernaut while Milan after some initial hiccups have probably found the right answers after switching to a 4-3-3 system. The Nerazzurri have won seven of their 11 matches with a 1-0 scoreline while they have conceded the fewest number of goals in Serie A. Apart from the horrible first half display against Fiorentina, Inter have looked solid as a team although the lack of goals is a concern for manager Roberto Mancini. Big summer signing Geoffrey Kondogbia has failed to make any impact so far while club captain Mauro Icardi was dropped from the starting eleven ahead of the big game against AS Roma which suggests that there are some issues still unanswered in Appiano Gentile. The impenetrable backline of Miranda and Jeison Murillo has been one of the biggest stories in Italy this season and it is certainly hard to argue with Intera s position at the top of the table. Things will get interesting once the strikers begin to find the back of the net.
On the other side of the city, Milan are certainly on the rise after a bright start to their campaign and are currently five points behind the league leaders. A summer of heavy spending was always going to create pressure on new manager Sinisa Mihajlovic and the start of the season was a bit shaky for the Rossoneri. However three straight wins plus a first clean sheet of the season has raised the spirits in the group. Mihajlovic has finally found the 4-3-3 formation to settle with and his players are slowly beginning to understand their roles better. The form of Alessio Cerci has been one of the highlights for Milan this season. Giacomo Bonaventura has earned rave reviews for his displays so far while there is little doubt that Carlos Bacca has been an instrumental figure for the club accounting for 43% of the goals scored by Milan so far. Milan still have some pressing issues to sort out in defence although their 16-year old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma looks like a safe bet for the future. While none of the above reasons suggest that Milan will run away with the Scudetto this season, it has been a welcome sight for the fans after several seasons of disappointment.
Sousaa s surprise package Fiorentina are certainly not gatecrashers in the title race
There were big concerns in the summer for Fiorentina fans when Vincenzo Montella was surprisingly removed from his position as the head coach. Mohamed Salah, Norbeto Neto and Joaquin also left the team in controversial circumstances and the appointment of former Juventus star Paulo Sousa did not particularly impress the hardcore fans. But Sousa has managed to match and has actually surpassed the Italian in the opening months of the season. Montella’s elegant style has now been replaced with an attractive but more aggressive and attacking side. This side is beautiful but ruthless too. Sousa’s side press high up the pitch in order to retain possession and this approach led to their empathic 4-1 away win against their rivals Inter earlier this season. Sousa has already used 23 players this term with 21 of them getting a start which shows they have the strength in depth to compete till the end.
They are the second highest scorers in the division behind Roma and have rightfully earned their place at the top of the table. The big question for Fiorentina is to overcome their psychological disadvantage and have the required belief that they can actually win the Scudetto, their first since 1969. They have a tendency of choking in big games like the Europa league semis last year and also the Coppa Italia final against Napoli in 2014. Worryingly they have lost to both Roma and Napoli who are their direct competitors for the Scudetto. Sousa has the redress the balance and make sure they are not just pretenders to the throne. The table suggests they have 8 wins from 11 games. They have a strong side and should definitely be viewed as a bona fide Scudetto candidate.
Trapattoni is correct; Juventus are a a dragon with seven headsa
Juventus were the overwhelming favorites before the start of the season with some even suggesting that Max Allegri might prioritize the Champions League ahead of the Serie A, such was the gulf in quality between them and the challenging teams. However after 11 matches those same voices feel that the title is out of reach for the defending champions and they might even struggle to qualify for the Champions League next season too. While it is still very early in the season to arrive at such conclusions, one thing cannot be denied that Juventus are no longer the favorites to clinch a fifth straight Scudetto. The start of the season saw them suffer a shock defeat at home in the very first game against Udinese and Allegri’s men have lost three more games which include their direct title challengers Roma and Napoli. Juventus are currently nine points behind the leaders in 12th position and although the gap can be reduced yet the on-field displays have done little to give confidence to the fans. The title is slowly but surely moving out of their reach. The senior members of the team like Buffon and Evra have categorically dismissed any talk of the Scudetto and the history books do not make a good reading for the Old Lady. Over the past nine years, no team has won the league title from a position lower than third after round six. Several factors can be attributed for this slow start ranging from the loss of influential names to injuries, strange decisions from the coach but one thing that cannot be justified is the attitude of the players on the pitch. The frontline has little or no chemistry, Paul Pogba has looked a shadow of his former self this year while sloppy mistakes in defence have led to goals. It will be a very difficult task for the Bianconeri to get back into the title race even if they recover from a poor start.
The troubles that they have faced this season began in summer when they lost the players who had contributed 114 of the 210 goals scored in the last two years. The new players were always going to need time to settle but Juventus should not panic just yet. Losing their director Andrea Pirlo has forced Juventus to make changes in their approach which has subsequently led to some difficult moments on the pitch as can be witnessed by the large number of turnovers this season. The lack of ideas in the middle of the park is quite evident plus the injuries to Claudio Marchisio and summer signing Sami Khedira have not helped either. Juventus still have lots to do before getting back in contention but it would be a mistake to count them out. The early season struggle was somewhat expected (not of this magnitude) but no other team has threatened to run away with league so far. If the Bianconeri can put together a run of positive results then the nine point gap will evaporate soon. Only one defeat in October suggests maybe they have weathered the storm for now. Juventus will not give up the fight so soon.
It is no longer a one-horse race in Serie A. The past four years were a relatively easy ride for Juventus, but they face more than one obstacle as they look for their fifth consecutive title. Serie A is wide-open and set for a classic title race.