As for the football on the pitch, this was another significant weekend. On what is effectively the first fixture day of the second half of the season, champions Juventus took up where they left off last weekend to stretch their lead at the top of the table to four points over second placed Inter, with Lazio just two behind them in third.
Are Inter beginning to feel the pressure? As Juventus strolled past Parma, winning 2-1 at home, Inter picked up their second successive draw, 1-1 away to Lecce. More significantly, perhaps, this was their fourth draw in six games.
After the Lecce draw, Conte suggested that Inter had not played at full throttle, adding that if his side travels at ocean-going liner speed, then it simply does not have the necessary quality. Furthermore, when neither Belgian Romelu Lukaku nor Argentine Lautaro Martinez up front manages to score, then Inter are in difficulty.
By way of contrast, Juve’s main man, Cristiano Ronaldo, seems to be playing himself into “Champions League form”. Ronaldo made it 11 goals in the last seven games by scoring both goals against Parma to bring his seasonal tally to 16. Is it possible that what we thought might be a much more closely contested title race is now firmly headed in the familiar direction of yet another Juventus title.
Contrary to the expectations of most of us, it is now possible that the last remaining obstacle on Juve’s Serie A path is not Inter, but rather Lazio. In trouncing Sampdoria 5-1 at home, Lazio picked up a club record 11th consecutive win whilst their centre forward, Ciro Immobile, scored two goals to consolidate his position on top of the goalscorers’ chart with 23 goals.
Lazio have nothing like the squad strength of Juventus. As we head into the second half of the season, it is only reasonable to suspect that, sooner or later, they too will crack. However, Lazio could be helped by having a much lighter fixture list, given that they have already been eliminated from Europa League, whereas Juve, of course, would hope to be bang in there in the Champions League in the crucial March and April months.
The weekend did also produce one important verdict. In the light of Napoli’s 0-2 home loss to Fiorentina, it can now officially be said that ex-coach Carlo Ancelotti, now at Everton in the Premier League, was not the problem.
As Napoli lost their fourth of five games under Gennaro Gattuso, it became obvious that last autumn’s bad blood between players and owner Aurelio De Laurentis, a row that prompted Ancelotti’s dismissal, continues to leave its mark. Napoli, the only side in recent seasons to give Juventus a serious run for their money, are currently in 11th position in Serie A, all of 27 points behind the leaders.
Worse still for Napoli is that their next two outings see them face Lazio in an Italian Cup Quarter Final tie on Tuesday night and then, even more dramatically, a home clash with Juventus next Sunday night. Given the respective current form of all three teams, it is not difficult to imagine further pain and suffering for Gattuso and the Napoli fans.
On a final note, Napoli’s defeat by Fiorentina may not be as devastating as it sounds. The year 2019 ended miserably for the Florence club who lost four straight games to Cagliari, Verona, Lecce and Torino in November and December before bringing the year to a totally disastrous close with a 4-1 home loss to Roma.
That final defeat by Roma essentially cost coach Vincenzo Montella his job, being replaced by experienced old hand, Stefano Pioli. The new man has got off to an auspicious start in 2020, drawing with Bologna and then beating Spal and now Napoli.
Fiorentina’s Christmas time league standing, just three points off the relegation zone, was simply too bad to be true and no reflection of the quality of a talented squad which contains players such as striker Federico Chiesa, 19-year-old Serb forward, Dussan Vlahovic, and 22-year-old midfielder, Gaetano Castrovilli, arguably the discovery of the season thus far. Between now and next May, we expect Fiorentina to spring a few more surprises.
A final sad note. On Monday of this week, Italian football paid homage to former Italy and Juventus striker Pietro Anastasi who died last week at the age of 71. The man who scored the winning goal for Italy in their 1968 European Championship success (their only Euro title win) died after a long battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. When Italy open this summer’s competition in Rome in a game against Turkey, doubtless the name Anastasi will be on the minds of many older fans.
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