Round six of the 2008/2009 season has seen the Serie A table begin to take shape and whilst the likes of Lazio, Udinese, Inter and Palermo sit admirably at the top of the league, life at the bottom is far different story altogether.
Although considerably early days into the season, the view from the foot of the table for relegation candidates Cagliari, Reggina and Bologna is one of great discomfort.
Tradition suggests that the relegation battle will go down to the final few rounds of matches and often involves the bottom five clubs scrapping for precious points before ultimately three of them take the plunge. Last season saw Empoli, Parma and Livorno (finishing in 18th, 19th and 20th place respectively) fall through the Serie A trapdoor, whilst 17th place Catania retained their top flight status with a total of 37 points – just a single point more than relegated Empoli. Those points signify the marginal difference that will have the early season strugglers looking on in angst as the clubs above them pull further away from the dreaded relegation zone.
Pre-season predictions understandably saw newly promoted sides Bologna, Chievo and Lecce as favourites for the drop, with last season’s strugglers Catania, Reggina and Torino completing the likely group of relegation candidates. The bottom berths are familiar territory to the aforementioned clubs as in the previous three seasons all, except Bologna, have taken residence amongst the Serie A basement boys in the penultimate part of the season.
Of the six sides currently in relegation contention, Sampdoria, irrespective of current form, look to be too strong to go down (although Parma may beg to differ). Nonetheless, the Blucerchiati find themselves amongst the action due to dismal displays which when measured against last seasons performances that merited a sixth place finish are extremely disappointing. But last season was last season and as Serie A rapidly re-establishes itself as one of the greatest leagues in the world, staying in the top division, let alone building on last years achievements, is going to prove a lot harder each year for any of the 20 teams.
During the Calciopoli scandal-hit season of 2005/06, bottom side Treviso were relegated with 21 points, Lecce with 29 and Messina with 31. 18th-placed Messina, on 31 points were saved from relegation by the banishment of Juventus to Serie B, but were scarily still eight points adrift of 17th place Siena. 2006/07 went down to the last day with Messina on 26 points and Ascoli on 27 both relegated before the final round of matches kicked off. The final slot was going to go to one of Parma (39), Chievo (39), Siena (37) or Reggina (37), and it was the Sicilian’s Chievo who went down after losing 2-0 to Catania with the other teams all managed to better that result. Remarkably Chievo, 18th placed and on 39points, were a single point (and several goals difference) from staying in the division, where a 14th place finish flattered Reggina, who themselves ended on 40 points.
If, as being indicated by previous seasons survival is becoming harder, where exactly are these teams to improve?
Over the 38-game-season a points tally of 40 points should ensure safety and at first glance Cagliari -currently at the very foot of the table- look most in danger having mustered up just a single point from their opening six games. Equaling last season’s impressive 42-point tally and preserving their Serie A status will become a near-impossible fete if they don’t start collecting soon. One positive taken however, is that nothing more than four points separates the rooted Cagliari and 16th-placed Chievo. With it being so early on in the season, where three points can lift you a few places at either end of the table, there is no immediate sense of panic, but some kind of form must be found before a further gap develops.
A lesson learnt by any team to have ever experienced a relegation battle is the importance of taking maximum points from the teams around you. Worryingly Chievo, last season’s Serie B champions are in 16th place with just five points – a poor return considering all but one of their games has been against a team closely ranked or expected to be in the relegation battle. It’s a similar story in Turin where Torino – also on five points – have failed to capitalise on a fixture list that pitted them against three of their relegation peers. With a perilously weak squad, I Granata will rely on Coach Gianni De Biasi and his motivational skills to steer them away from danger just as he did late on last season in what is his third spell in charge of the club. Had they taken maximum points at this stage of the season, both Chievo and Torino would be sat comfortably in the safety of mid-table. For Bologna, the fixtures compilation was not so generous – Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, Napoli, Udinese and Atalanta all featuring as opposition in their opening six games. To their credit, the Rossoblu managed to grab three points where one would have been an achievement, so it’s a good return for a newly promoted side returning after a three-year absence. If they can steal points from the fixtures against the likes of Chievo, Reggina, Cagliari and co, they stand a good chance of survival. Tellingly, after five successive defeats, Coach Daniele Arrigoni remains under no such illusions:
“I am fully aware that in my line of work it isn’t easy to stay in your job when losing five on the trot. I am ready for anything.”
Lecce, back in Serie A as playoff winners, were seen as the weakest of the bottom clubs but have started strongly enough to suggest they are not ready to go down without some kind of fight. Vitally, they’ve already taken points from fellow strugglers and appear to have their answer the greatest problem facing the bottom clubs by managing to concede very few goals to counteract the lack of scoring many.
Under promising tactician Mario Barretta, the Pugliesi have managed two each of wins, losses and draws – good form for a newly promoted side. When considered that two of those six matches have come against Jose Mourinho’s Inter and top of the table Lazio respectively, the latter most recently held to a 1-1 home draw. If Lecce can continue such stubborn resistance (scored six and conceded six, in six), then maybe the safety of mid-table mediocrity is achievable. As proven, relegation battles are not pretty – points need to come by whatever means necessary and whilst Lecce are not scoring freely, they are giving away very little either, less in fact, than early pacesetters Lazio whose ability to create and convert chances masks a defense that has been breached seven times so far.
Unfortunately, not everyone can employ the ‘less is more’ theory, Reggina a fine example. Having already shipped ten the Amaranto will rely on the experienced, yet oft-hapless Bernardo Corradi -once of Azzurri prominence- to provide the firepower they so desperately need to balance out their defensive shortcomings. Cagliari have a similar problem with ten conceded and striker Joaquin Lerrivey accounting for their sole league goal scored so far, but the Argentine’s goals-to-games ratio of one in 27 forecasts hard times ahead for a side lacking any potential match-winners.
A much needed international break will give the troubled clubs an opportunity to regroup and ready themselves for what will be one slug of a winter.
The returning week Seven fixtures will see chances for all the lower placed sides to trade places. Torino host bottom of the league Cagliari, high flying Lecce host the even higher flying Udinese, Reggina are in Florence, struggling Chievo face surprise package Atalanta and Bologna have the small matter of a visit from Serie A leaders Lazio…