It's difficult to see what the future holds in Serie A over the second half of the season. Unless you have a magic predictive device.
We're not quite halfway through the Serie A season -- only 17 matches have been played, and a couple big sides have yet to face off -- but the ending of one year and the beginning of another seems as good a time as any to check in on how Italy's clubs are faring in the top division.
But this is Italy. And in Italy, there's always an air of unpredictability. For that reason, we've decided to consult the Magic 8 Ball for guidance as to whether sides will continue as they are, improve, or trip, stumble, and fall. And no, we've made no under the table payments to influence the psychic hunk of plastic.
Juventus have won their last nine games in a row and currently sit top of the table, five points clear of Roma. They may have slipped up in Champions League play, mostly due to the innate conservatism of Antonio Conte. The bianconeri are by no means the most exciting side in Serie A, but they are the most consistent. Although at first blush their defense may look to be a bit shaky, they went eight games without conceding -- Gianluigi Buffon certainly helps -- and with Carlos Tévez, Fernando Llorente and Arturo Vidal around, it's difficult to see the Old Lady not scoring in league matches. The moment of truth will be when they face Roma on their first match back from the break.
The giallorossi have undergone a tremendous revival under Rudi Garcia, starting the season with 17 games without a loss. They've conceded just seven goals, with summer arrival Mehdi Benatia at the heart of their defensive solidity. The Moroccan has also scored four goals, sharing the top spot with Gervinho, who has undergone his own personal revival since being brought in from Arsenal. But Roma's 35 goals have been well shared amongst the squad, with Alessandro Florenzi and Kevin Strootman each having four as well. Miralem Pjanic and Francesco Totti each have three. So why is the magic ball saying Roma won't stay undefeated? Well, for one, they've yet to play Juventus, their great challenger. They've also shown weakness without Totti, with a run of four straight draws coinciding with his absence. The giallorossi have an advantage in that they need not rest players for European games, but just a couple of injuries and this side will surely fall.
Magic ball is being nice and preserving hope for the author, who has vesuviana leanings. Napoli have had a tough time of it this season. Put into the Champions League group of death, they managed 12 points, yet still failed to qualify for the knockout stages. Under Rafa Benítez, injuries have decimated the squad, particularly a knock to Marek Hamšík, the essential cog in Napoli's midfield, that's kept the Slovak out for over a month. With the club doing little to prop up an already shaky backline, the defense often goes to pieces. Should Napoli use the January transfer window to bring in actual fullbacks (rather than wingbacks masquerading as such), they'll likely manage to keep hold of third place. Until then, the outlook remains cloudy.
Fiorentina took a chance on Rossi, after two ACL tears kept the forward out of play for well over a year. But the club's faith in the 26-year-old has already been repaid, as Rossi has 14 goals in his 17 games played. That's three more than his nearest competitor, Carlos Tévez. And with Vincenzo Montella focused, as ever, on a free-flowing attacking-minded game, it's hard to believe that Rossi won't continue to be the one knocking in the majority of the viola goals. Of course, things might change when Mario Gómez comes back on the scene, looking to demand his fair share of the goals, but that's assuming SuperMario will ever be healthy enough this season.
Mazzarri, brought in from Napoli in the summer, is too conservative of a coach to put Inter back into a scudetto race -- and he certainly cannot do it with the set of players he's been given. Mazzarri had the summer to try to supplement his squad, but about all that happened was his bringing in Hugo Campagnaro from his former club. Ishak Belfodil and Mauro Icardi were also brought on board, but with Mazzarri's general abhorrence toward anything youthful, they rarely get a start. It's worth remembering, too, that Inter were second in the table midseason. So while Inter at the beginning of the season looked improved from the end of last season, they still don't seem like a squad that could challenge for the title. No, the only salvation for Inter lies in a complete overhaul, one that new owner Erick Thohir is likely to begin in January.
It was fellow newcomers Livorno that caught the eye of most observers at the start of the season, but it was their enemies from the opposite side of the political spectrum that made the most lasting impression. Verona still have lost just once at home (to rivals Chievo, naturally), winning eight of their nine matches. Their away record isn't nearly as impressive, with just one victory, but it's been enough to keep Verona at or around the European positions. It looked like Hellas were in free fall after their first home loss, conceding eight goals in two losses and picking up just four points from four matches. But they ended the season with a 4-1 victory over Lazio, so perhaps it's premature to say they'll slide in the second half. Yet the majority of their goals are coming from 36 year old Luca Toni, and there's no guarantee that other thrilling players, such as Jorginho and Juan Iturbe, will even stick around past January. Finally, it's necessary to note that Verona's next home games are Napoli, Roma and Juventus.
Torino did manage a few high scoring contests last year, but having just returned to Serie A, they played a bit cautiously, notching seven scoreless draws. Add eight 1-1 or 1-0 scorelines and the granata just weren't all that fun to watch. But Giampiero Ventura has proved willing to stick his neck out more this season, and the result is that Toro are currently in seventh place. Torino may have seven draws, but they've rarely been boring ones, including back and forth games against Verona and Inter, as well as being the first side to take points off Roma. Much of the resurgence can be attributed to Alessio Cerci who, away from the shadow of Rolando Bianchi, already has nine goals this season, a goal better than last year.
Parma doesn't have a lot of avid devotees, at least, not outside of Parma. But since being promoted back to Serie A in 2009-2010, the ducali have finished in the top half in three out of four of their seasons. Not bad for a team that gets hardly any attention. Probably because Parma have never won a scudetto. But that's no reason to ignore this side. Roberto Donadoni, with the side for two years now (nearly a record in Serie A) has created a side that's eager, and able, to take points from top teams. They were the first to score against Roma, they beat Milan and Napoli, drew Inter and Fiorentina and gave Juventus a scare. Who cares that The Don has a strange attachment to Amauri? In any case, it's always fun to watch a side with Antonio Cassano.
Under Fabio Liverani, Genoa picked up just four points from six matches. The young manager was swiftly sacked, and Genoa returned to a hero, bringing in Gian Piero Gasperini. Gasperini has had a turbulent time of it recently, at Inter and, especially, at Palermo. But he and Genoa seem destined to be together and, although the manager almost certainly won't equal his best finish by reaching the European positions once more, he'll almost certainly keep the grifone from struggling. There's no real flash in the side - the goals are coming almost entirely from Alberto Gilardino - but they're a tight ship. Genoa have let in the third-lowest amount of goals this season, and that's including an early season 5-3 loss to Fiorentina. Since Gasp's appointment, Genoa have conceded twice in just two matches, and one of those opponents was Juventus. They don't need to fret anymore.
At the end of 2013, the biancocelesti are in 10th, a full 11 points out of fifth, 16 out of third. Sure, they could pick themselves up and mount a revival, but they're not better than Juve, Roma, Napoli or Fiorentina. They're not even better than Inter, and with the way they're playing, it's tough to see Lazio finishing above even Torino or Parma. It's tough to say exactly why Lazio have slid. It certainly wasn't from selling top players - they're not suffering as a result of losing Matuzalém, say, or Libor Kozák. But Claudio Lotito isn't exactly generous with the funds, and Lazio neglected to really reinforce their squad over the summer. They were still relying on Miroslav Klose to provide goals, and, as it turns out, putting your faith in a 35 year old striker with a tendency to get injured was not the best strategy.
Well that's an appropriate response. In recent years, Udinese are Serie A's perennial late-starters. Francesco Guidolin is a man who has a system and buys players to fit into it, rather than adapting his tactics to flashy names. It allows the club a steady stream of cash, buying young players and selling them on as soon as they've qualified for Europe --as they almost always do. Yet this season, it doesn't look as though the zebrette have another Alexis Sánchez in their flock. Luis Muriel is disappointing. Antonio Di Natale hasn't come anywhere close to competing for the capocannoniere title. But, again, Udi were 9th at this point last season. Guidolin still has time to fill in the cracks and make the counter-attack pop.
Cagliari have the same record as Parma: 20 points, with 4 wins, 8 draws and 5 losses. Yet Parma's five extra goals somehow provide infinite increases in entertainment value. The Sardinian side have yet to score more than two goals in a match (although they generously allowed both Milan and Bologna to do so against them) and have failed to score in five matches. Their complete and utter inability to win on the road leads to composed matches and, more often than not, draws. And since they rarely manage to muster a home advantage, they're drawing at the Stadio Sant'Elia as well. Seems like right now, Cagliari just exists to fill column inches speculating on where Radja Nainggolan, Davide Astori or Victor Ibarbo might end up.
Rossoneri fans will argue that Milan were in a similar position last season, then brought in Mario Balotelli and guess what, it all worked out ok because they wound up finishing in third. Sorry to burst your bubble, but with 17 games played in 2012-2013, Milan were up to seventh, had just won four in a row, and had 27 points. Currently, they're in 13th with just 19 points, keeping them 27 points out of first, and 17 out of third. At this point last season, they were only 14 out of first place. Milan's troubles are real, and they're not going to get better until Massimiliano Allegri finally departs and they start to spend a little cash. Bringing in washed-up players at still-inflated prices, and failing to provide anything resembling defense, is simply tarnishing the historical club.
Since replacing Delio Rossi after the former Samp manager was fired for losing to Fiorentina (Rossi must really despise Fiorentina) Mihajlović has yet to lose a match, drawing Lazio, Inter and Parma and beating Chievo and Catania. But Miha is still Miha, and the goals scored reflect that: five goals in five matches. Only against Inter did 'Doria take the initiative. The conservative approach will keep the side afloat, but there's no possibility of Sampdoria going 26 games unbeaten.
La Dea aren't tipped to survive because they're of such high quality. They're going to stay in Serie A because there are definitely four, maybe five, sides that are worse. Sure, Atalanta are winless in five, but they're still strong at home and they can continue to grab a point here and there against top half sides. Alas, there's also nothing really exciting about Atalanta save for Germán Denis, so there's nothing more to say here.
When it comes to the bottom of the Serie A table, where four sides are separated by just two points, the Magic 8 Ball's predictive qualities start to deteriorate. Take Chievo, for instance. The Flying Donkeys are currently in 16th, a point above the relegation zone. But just a few short weeks ago, they were dead last. Then Chievo kicked out Giuseppe Sannino, who'd secured just five points from eleven matches, and brought in Eugenio Corini, who they'd inexplicably let go last May. Perhaps it was an attempt to make Chievo more watchable, but Di Carlo didn't succeed in that, and now it's back to boring, boring Chievo. Or is it? The Flying Donkeys won three in a row after Corini came in on November 12, and even scored three goals in one match. Turned out that was against Livorno, though, so it doesn't count. The other wins were 1-0 snoozefests, and Chievo rounded out the year with a 4-1 loss to Torino. They may survive, but it won't be easy.
Many fans of Serie A have a weird, possibly misplaced affection for Bologna coach Stefano Pioli, but the tactician hasn't exactly proved himself infallible. The rossoblu have won just three games and have let in 31 goals, the second-highest total in Serie A. Bologna managed to end 2013 with a 1-0 victory over Genoa, but that was their first win in eight games. But since Pioli is such a great manager, the Magic 8 Ball is left scratching its head, uncertain as to the fate of Bologna.
Magic 8 Ball, will Eusebio ... ah, screw it. Your guess is as good as ours. And as good as the Magic 8 Ball's, apparently.
Lovers of socialism the world over were delighted when Livorno, after losing to Roma to start off the season, went on to thrash Sassuolo, beat Catania and draw with Genoa and Cagliari. It looked as though the amaranto would be a solid mid-table side upon their return to Serie A. Except, of course, the sides they were beating were set to fight relegation battles as well. Livorno then went seven games without a win and is now in a six match run in which they haven't managed to collect all three points. While other sides are adapting -- Genoa, Chievo and Sampdoria switched managers, Eusebio Di Francesco learned how to modify his tactics to Serie A -- Livorno aren't. There simply aren't three sides in Serie A worse than this one.
It's not that Catania are unlikely to undergo a dramatic transformation in the second half of season, pulling themselves off the bottom. No, it's that it's quite possible that Palermo, currently top of Serie B, will be back in the top flight next year. As for their Sicilian rivals, well, it'll be tough for them to avoid the drop. Catania lost Alejandro Gómez over the summer and have been without Pablo Barrientos for much of the season, but they just brought back Francesco Lodi. The squad seems to be constantly rotating, no manager has figured out how to make the best use of Lucas Castro, and attempts to prop up the aging back line with young players aren't working out so well. Five points from safety and with zero points on the road, it's hard to fathom Catania will stay up.
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