The Italian Job
Juventus was a double winner on Saturday after picking up a 2-0 home victory over Fiorentina then watching its two nearest competitors, Napoli and Lazio, play to a 1-1 draw at the Olimpico. And the extra breathing room atop the standings is certainly welcomed with the Champions League returning, and the Bianconeri set to play in their most important match of the season so far.
Antonio Conte’s side travels to Scotland this week to face plucky Celtic in the opening leg of one of the more highly anticipated round of 16 ties. Juventus is favored to advance, and with AC Milan squaring off against Barcelona minus Mario Balotelli, the Old Lady offers the only realistic hope for a deep Italian run in the competition at a time when Serie A is in desperate need of the credibility boost.
While the recent Europol investigation made it clear match-fixing is a problem that extends well beyond the peninsula, Italian football is still regarded as perhaps the most corrupt in all of Europe. And results on the field have also proved damaging with no Italian club making it past the quarterfinals the last two seasons, and Serie A suffering the ignominy of losing a Champions League spot to the Bundesliga.
The inability to land an elite center forward during the January transfer window greatly hampered the Bianconeri’s chances of winning the competition, but a side that has dropped just three Serie A games the last 18 months should still be expected to brush side Celtic, especially with Kwadwo Asamoah back in the fold following his African Cup of Nations exertions.
Milan was extremely competitive against Barcelona in the quarterfinals last season without the injured Thiago Silva, but the absence of both the Brazilian and Zlatan Ibrahimovic this time around makes it difficult to envision the Rossoneri putting up much of a fight, despite the emergence of Stephan El Shaarawy and the momentum generated by Balotelli’s arrival.
The former Manchester City striker was on target again from the penalty spot this weekend in Milan’s 1-1 draw away to Cagliari, but the Rossoneri dipped to fifth in the standings after crosstown rival Inter ended its crisis with a 3-1 home win over Chievo. Diego Milito found the back of the net for the first time in 2013, while Antonio Cassano and Andrea Ranocchia added goals as well.
Inter is one of three Italian clubs along with Napoli and Lazio taking part in the Europa League round of 32, and the Nerazzurri host Romanian side CFR Cluj in the opening leg this week. Napoli also begins at home against Viktoria Plzen, while Lazio travels to Germany to take on Borussia Monchengladbach. All three are capable of lifting the trophy, provided they field their strongest lineups from here on out.
The Europa League represents a good opportunity for Serie A to showcase its strength in numbers, which makes Udinese’s performance so disappointing. After crashing out of the Champions League in the playoff round, Francesco Guidolin’s side finished last in its Europa group. The club’s domestic form has picked, however, with a 1-0 home win over Torino on Sunday moving Udinese up to seventh place.
After missing out on European football this season, Roma looked a strong bet to at least claim a Europa League berth for the following campaign, but the Giallorossi are still without a league victory in 2013. New manager Aurelio Andreazzoli made a disastrous start with a 3-1 defeat away to Sampdoria this weekend in a match highlighted by Pablo Osvaldo’s embarrassing second-half penalty attempt.
Elsewhere, Parma has suffered a major dip in form and was very fortunate to escape with a scoreless home draw against Genoa this weekend, as the Rossoblu rattled the woodwork twice. Siena continued its mini-revival by earning a 1-1 draw away to Bologna, while Atalanta and Catania played to a scoreless draw in Bergamo with both sides squandering numerous chances throughout the match.
Some Other Thoughts:
*The news that Lazio added striker Louis Saha on a free transfer was met with some bemusement in England given the Frenchman’s form in recent seasons, which led him to be released by Sunderland. The Biancocelesti were in desperate need of help up front after Miroslav Klose was ruled out for two months with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen whether Saha can make any impact.
*Sampdoria’s refusal to allow Mauro Icardi to take part in the South American Under-20 Championship has proved a stroke of genius with the young Argentine exploding for seven goals in the last 6 Serie A matches to help the Blucerchiati distance themselves from the relegation zone. Icardi was on target again this weekend against Roma, and is drawing comparisons to Fiorentina legend Gabriel Batistuta.
*Palermo continues to change managers to little effect with Alberto Malesani making a disappointing debut this weekend, as the Rosanero were held to a 1-1 draw at home by Pescara. Gian Piero Gasperini was sacked last week with director Pietro Lo Monaco following him out the door, and Palermo finds itself level on points with Siena for last place. Relegation seems a near certainty right now.