Calcio is back. After being forced to draw to a temporary close on 8 March and following months of deliberating and arguing, Italian football is set for its long-awaited return.
Admittedly, we’ve already been handed a tasty antipasto in the form of the Coppa Italia only the week before, and that trio of hard-fought appetisers have only whetted the appetite further for the main course. And boy oh boy, we’re in for a treat.
A look around Europe could lead you to believe that the rest of the campaign will be nothing more than a formality, being rounded off purely to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
The title has already been distributed to its respective winners in France and Germany, while Liverpool’s gargantuan lead puts them within a fingernail of crossing the Premier League finish line. But in Italy, it’s a very different story. With 12 full match-days still to be contested, everything remains up in the air in Serie A.
But what exactly is the current state of play in the race for title glory?
Let’s face it, the Serie A title race has hardly been a great source of entertainment in recent years. In fact, the scudetto has been Juventus’ plaything for the last eight seasons, and the Turin giants are in no mood for sharing.
But I Bianconeri face their biggest challenge to date in trying to hold on to their throne, and judging by their lacklustre and blunt displays against Milan and Napoli, the possibility that the crown may finally slip has never been higher.
And that’s all down to the ultimate underdog of this 2019/20 season. Lazio have been the surprise package of the campaign, and they look set to push Juve all the way over the next couple of months. Although they made very few additions to their squad last summer – a team which finished eighth in the league – they performed miracles in retaining the core group of players, amid strong interest from some top European clubs.
That consistency and continuity has proved to be the backbone behind their success, with the seamless link up between Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Luis Alberto and Ciro Immobile crushing every opponent in its wake.
As it stands, however, it remains ‘advantage Juventus’. I Bianconeri went into this break at the Serie A summit, having put in one of their most convincing performances of the season in a 2-0 win over Inter. But any positivity that had been harboured over the past three months evaporated in the space of 180 painstaking minutes of Coppa Italia action, in which Juve huffed and puffed but eventually failed to even make a dent in the opposition door.
Make no mistake, as far as crises go, Juve may well be in the midst of a disastrous collapse. Defeat in the Italian Supercup to Lazio, a morale-crushing loss in the Coppa Italia final, and now the toughest battle they’ve faced in years for the Serie A trophy. It’s do or die.
Not only are they struggling to win matches, but the entire team has lacked cohesion and a cutting edge for some time. And while Maurizio Sarri has finally settled on his attacking trident, nothing seems to be gelling as of yet. The Italian will be hoping for a swift return to form for Cristiano Ronaldo, that’s for sure.
So where is the title heading?
Had the season continued throughout March and reached its conclusion in May, many truly believed it was Lazio’s destiny to end their 20-year title drought.
Much will depend on how Lazio begin the restart, as their title charge has come in the wake of a 21-game unbeaten run, in which they have won 17 of those battles. They’ll need to carry that momentum through in their opening clash, when they travel to Bergamo to take on Atalanta, one of the most dangerous attacking sides in Europe. Victory in that encounter and it could be a serious warning shot to rivals Juve.
Claiming three points against La Dea would leave them brimming with confidence, which they’ll certainly need when travelling to Turin to face title hopefuls Juve, and then Naples in the last game of the season.
Despite Le Aquile’s tough return to action, the fixture list does not make for pleasant viewing for I Bianconeri supporters, either. Should Lazio continue their impeccable form, then Juve must hope to gain positive results from a tough trip to a stubborn Milan, before hosting free-scoring Atalanta, I Biancocelesti in a potential title shoot-out, and then Roma on the final day of the season – though we shouldn’t pin too much expectation on I Giallorossi doing their bitter capital city rivals a favour any time soon.
As far as final day drama goes then, we could be in for an absolute rollercoaster.
While the top two are the odds-on favourites in this fight, there is one straggler bringing up the rear. When Christmas rolled around, Inter were considered best-placed to topple Juve, and after clinching Christian Eriksen’s signature, they looked ready to go the distance.
But poor results have seen them drop like a stone, and I Nerazzurri now sit nine points behind the leaders – albeit with a game in hand. So although they are mathematically in with a shout, it would take a major drop off in form for them to re-enter the race.
In Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku, however, Antonio Conte’s side is full of goals, and on their day, they can blow away any team in the division. So although they are trailing pretty significantly, it would be foolish to rule them out at this stage – for now.
If Inter were to dramatically turn their campaign around, then their supporters had better brace themselves for a nail-biting final two matches. A home clash with Napoli, followed by a voyage to Atalanta. Not for the faint-hearted.
Stranger things have happened in this beautiful game, though…