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Rich Old Lady

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The decision to move Friday night’s Cagliari-Juventus clash to the Ennio Tardini Stadium provided a fitting an end to this calendar year for the Bianconeri who dealt with unusual circumstances throughout, including the absence of a manager for the first 15 rounds of this season, but persevered to the tune of 94 points in 12 months, and look set to run away with another Serie A title.   

Alessandro Matri scored twice in the final 15 minutes, and Mirko Vucinic added the clincher in stoppage time, as Juventus rallied for a 3-1 victory on Friday, upping its lead to eight points atop the standing. The halfway point in terms of matches played doesn’t come until early January, but the winter break does represent a time for reflection, and in the case of Juventus, celebration.

With Antonio Conte back on the bench, and Andrea Pirlo’s midfield presence helping the Bianconeri control matches in Italy almost to the same degree Barcelona does in Spain, the outlook is certainly bright. The Champions League draw was also kind with a gritty, but eminently beatable Celtic side on the horizon. Just reward after Juventus won a very tough group with Shakhtar Donetsk and Chelsea.

Pirlo remains the outstanding player in Serie A and has been absolutely lethal in dead ball situations this season, scoring four times from direct free kicks, while the Juventus back line looks as imperious as ever, having conceded a league-low 11 goals. And if Athletic Bilbao hitman Fernando Llorente does indeed arrive in January, few teams in Europe will boast a more complete squad than the Old Lady.

The Champions League draw was not as kind to AC Milan, which is headed for certain elimination at the hands of Barcelona in the next round. It is a measure of how far the rest of Serie A has fallen that the Rossoneri appeared at times in recent weeks like the second best team in Italy before crashing back down to earth this past weekend with a not-as-close-as-the-score 4-2 defeat to Roma at the Olimpico.   

Stephan El Shaarawy failed to find the back of the net for the only fourth time in the last 15 league games, but still leads the pack in the Capocannoniere race with 14 goals. The “Little Pharaoh” has been the pleasant surprise of the season, and the only reason Milan’s campaign hasn’t devolved into a debacle of historic proportions given the lack of quality at Massimo Allegri’s disposal.

The Rossoneri probably won’t strengthen in the winter market, though the likely departures of Robinho and Alexandre Pato both fall under the category of addition by subtraction.  The same is true of Wesley Sneijder whose contract dispute has become an enormous distraction for Inter-Milan in recent weeks, contributing in part to a lousy run of only two wins in seven league games to close out the year.

A late equalizer by Esteban Cambiasso salvaged a 1-1 home draw with Genoa this past weekend, as the Nerazzurri slipped to third in the standings. The Antonio Cassano-Diego Milito partnership was a bright spot early on, and the rousing victory over Juventus in Turin showcased the potential of Andrea Stramaccioni’s side, but inconsistency at the back has proved difficult to overcome.

Roma, meanwhile, has been consistently weak in defense, but downright scary going forward with the latest outburst against Milan raising its total to a league-high 42 goals. The Giallorossi are certainly the most exciting team in Italy with Francesco Totti producing a string of turn-back-the-clock performances in recent weeks, and Argentinean youngster Erik Lamela emerging as a genuine star.

Lamela scored twice against the Rossoneri, while Pablo Osvaldo found the back of the net as well, but Roma still trails crosstown rivals Lazio in the standings. The Biancocelesti are perhaps the only big club besides Juventus that can have little complaints about its season thus far with Miroslav Klose avoiding injury, and the rest of Vladimir Petkovic’s side performing up to expectations, including midfield maestro Hernanes who fired the winner this past weekend in a 1-0 away victory over Sampdoria.

Lazio is unbeaten in seven league games and up to second in the table. The Biancocelesti are also one of three Italians teams still alive in the Europa League along with Inter-Milan and Napoli, and Serie A could certainly use strong performances from those sides to boost its credibility, though the best hope for Italian success in Europe this season remains, of course, Juventus, which thanks to a new stadium and astute management somehow continues to avoid the pitfalls plaguing the rest of the country.  

Some Other Thoughts:

*The hammer came down on Napoli last week in the latest betting scandal involving a Serie A club, as Walter Mazzarri’s side was deduced two points due to the actions of former goalkeeper Matteo Gianello who attempted to fix a league match against Sampdoria three seasons ago. Napoli promptly dropped from third to fifth in the standings entering this past round, but faces an even bigger loss.

Both Paolo Cannavaro and Gianluca Grava received six-month bans for failing to report the incident to authorities, and while Napoli is planning to appeal, the absence of Cannavaro would be devastating. The club captain has started 16 games in the center of defense and was enjoying a strong campaign. Napoli did earn a 2-0 win at Siena on Saturday courtesy of goals from Christian Maggio and Edinson Cavani.

*Stevan Jovetic is all the way back from the muscle injury that sidelined him for over a month. The 23-year-old scored twice this past weekend in Fiorentina’s 3-0 thrashing of Palermo, as the Viola moved level on points with Inter for third in the standings. Ironically enough, the absence of Jovetic could prove beneficial with his name no longer being linked as often to bigger clubs and a January move.

*Siena is the latest club to discover that a new manager is no panacea, as Beppe Iachini suffered a 2-0 defeat to Napoli in his debut. The Bianconeri arrive at the Christmas break last in the table and almost certain of relegation, while Torino and Pescara were big winners this past weekend with important victories over Chievo and Catania respectively to distance themselves from the drop zone.