The final round of Serie A fixtures before the season reaches its mid-point throws in some interesting propositions. Neither of the top two teams is expected to face any real challenge from their games and hence there’s little chance of a change at the top of the table. The battle for the final Champions League spot might turn intense in the forthcoming weeks but as things stand, none of those contenders look anywhere close to being good enough to give the top two a run for their money. Let’s take a look at some of the key fixtures that you might want to look forward to.
Lazio & Napoli heat up the battle for third spot
Neither of the sides is coming into this game in the best possible frame. Though Lazio have remained unbeaten for six round in the league, they’d very much repent having conceded a two goal lead to the fiercest rivals Roma in last week’s derby. Napoli on the other hand failed to convert their chances against a ruthless Juventus side at San Paolo and paid dearly for their mistakes in defence as the reigning champions took three points off Naples. A visit to Olimpico is going to put some more challenges in front of Rafa Benitez’s men as they see themselves with an opportunity to supersede Lazio for the third spot on the table.
Lazio this season have been buoyed by the form of their Brazilian attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson. His absence for three weeks therefore might prove to be a very costly one and it’d be hard for his replacement to have that kind of impact straightaway. However, the return of Antonio Candreva has majorly boosted the team’s ability to create chances from out wide; his influence on the derby last week was pretty evident. Another major setback for Stefano Pioli’s side is the absence of their most reliable central defensive pillar – Stefan de Vrij. The fragile looking defence will be majorly tested by Napoli’s potent attacking line with the in-form attacking duo of Jose Callejon and Gonzalo Higuain. Manolo Gabbiadini’s addition has further bolstered the squad’s attacking potency and has provided Benitez with ample room to maneuver his offensive alternatives.
The consequences of the result of this game are massive given the fact only a point separates the two sides at the moment and the race for the third spot is only going to get more intense from here on. The margins are getting finer and one mistake could cost either side severely. A victory would surely boost their contention for next season’s Champions League hugely.
Expected Starting Lineup
Lazio [4-3-3]: Berisha; Basta, Cana, Radu, Cavanda; Parolo, Biglia, Mauri; Candreva; Djordjevic, Keita
Napoli [4-2-3-1]: Rafael; Maggio, Albiol, Koulibaly, Mesto; Gargano, Lopez; Callejon, Hamsik, De Guzman; Higuain
Prediction: Lazio 2-2 Napoli
Juventus host Verona in a bid to be crowned Winter Champions
The kind of form Juventus are riding currently, no coach in Italy would prefer his side face them at all, let alone twice in a week. But that’s exactly what Andrea Mandorlini will be up against as his side takes on the high-flying Bianconeri days after being humiliated in the midweek Coppa Italia clash. And that’s surely the biggest challenge he’d be facing in the New Year, where his side is yet to lose in the league.
Barring an odd result against Lazio, Verona have had a miserable track record to show for against the top sides in Serie A and that doesn’t look like changing given the ruthlessness with which the Juventus juggernaut has been operating of late. Max Allegri has enjoyed every minute of his time as the Juventus coach and has ensured the team’s quality hasn’t dipped even by the tiniest of fraction with the departure of the much-celebrated former coach Antonio Conte. Allegri understandably chose to rest some of his key players for the Cup game but wouldn’t want to take any chances on Sunday. Both Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo should be resuming their respective roles in the side. Allegri’s insistence on fielding a four-man defence has ensured Juventus are forced to play four top quality passers in the middle and that has allowed Claudio Marchisio far more game time than what he’d have expected at the start of the season. Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente complement each other perfectly in the attack and Juventus midfield has a handful of goal-scorers in itself. Despite several moments of lapse in concentration from the defence, no side in Serie A has been able to test Juventus to its limit till this point and Verona is certainly not going to change that trend.
Unless Juventus take their foot off the gas, there’s no way Verona are leaving Turin unscathed. They’d do well for themselves should they avoid a second successive humiliation. Luca Toni is expected to return to the side and his strong frame in the middle might prove handy in the set-piece situations, he’s unlikely to give any sleepless nights to either of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci ahead of the game. To put things mildly, this should be business as usual for the home side.
Expected Starting Lineup
Juventus [4-3-1-2]: Buffon, Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Chiellini, Evra; Vidal, Pirlo, Pogba; Marchisio; Tevez, Llorente
Verona [4-3-3]: Benussi; Martic, Marquez, Rodriquez, Agostini; Sala, Tachtsidis, Campanharo; Nico Lopez, Toni, Greco
Prediction: Juventus 3-0 Verona
AC Milan host the fellow Lombardy side Atalanta
Can Milan win a game of Football? Well, Filippo Inzaghi surely doesn’t seem to have an answer to that as his side has only slipped from bad to worse in the recent games. To say the performances have been below par will be understating the reality significantly. The team’s gameplay in general isn’t befitting of the big club label that the club enjoys in European sporting circles and people would surely question Silvio Berlusconi’s silence especially given the fact he was pretty quick to dismiss Clarence Seedorf who surely looked more impressive in comparison.
The winter acquisition of former Torino winger Alessio Cerci has been met with some growing optimism and the Italian is expected to be slotted into the attacking three on Sunday. Cerci being a proven goal-scorer too in addition to his skills from the wing could share some of the scoring burden with the in-form Jeremy Menez. Stephan El Shaarawy’s indifferent form is a matter of great concern but the young Italian forward should still continue to find his place in the XI starting on the left flank of the attack. Milan’s real problems lie with the defence – defending the set-pieces in particular. The defence in general has been pretty leaky throughout the season and none of the combinations tried by Inzaghi so far has yielded the desired results. Mattia De Sciglio faces a suspension for this game after having been sent off last week which means Ignazio Abate should start from the right.
Atalanta have won only one of their last eleven league games and don’t find themselves too safe above the relegation zone. At some stage, they’d need to start collecting points off the big teams and Milan is perhaps the most generous of all big teams in the league presently. German Denis hasn’t quite been his usual self this season but Mauricio Pinilla has been a crucial addition to the squad. Luca Cigarini’s form remains critical to the visitors’ hope as they gear up to face Giacomo Bonaventura for the first time since he switched loyalties to the other club from Lombardy.
Expected Starting Lineup
Milan [4-3-3]: Lopez; Abate, Rami, Mexes, Armero; Bonaventura, De Jong, Montolivo; Cerci, Menez, El Shaarawy
Atalanta [4-4-2]: Sportiello; Benalouane, Stendardo, Biava, Drame; Zappacosta, Baselli, Carmona, Moralez; Pinilla, Denis
Prediction: Milan 2-1 Atalanta