Serie A race for Champions League spot heats up

Only four rounds remain and the race to secure the final Champions League position is still wide open. Five sides – Lazio, Napoli, Udinese, Inter and Roma – are in the hunt but after respective runs of pitiful form, are crawling towards the finish line. Two direct matchups take place this weekend, making Round 35 pivotal in the final reckoning.

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Somehow still third, Lazio – 55 points – travels north to face Udinese (fifth, 52). Whilst many of the plaudits for their seasons to date fall at the feet of lethal marksmen Miroslav Klose and Antonio Di Natale, at the other end, two of Serie A’s best goalkeepers have enjoyed exceptional campaigns.
In Rome, Federico Marchetti has resurrected his career after the debacle at Cagliari saw him miss all of 2010-11. Marchetti hit an all-time low after such a high months earlier when he stepped in for the injured Gianluigi Buffon at the 2010 World Cup. The Veneto native has once more proven to be the assured goalkeeper who forced his way into the Azzurri squad. Marchetti’s performance at Napoli last November was particularly outstanding – after which Ezequiel Lavezzi said “Tonight Marchetti performed some incredible saves” – and was part of a run where he and Lazio conceded just one goal in five matches. 35 goals conceded in 30 games does not tell the full story: a fine shot-stopper, he not only frustrated Napoli but many other strikers in Serie A and almost single-handedly kept Juventus at bay a fortnight ago.
His opposite number in Udine, Samir Handanovic – the howler in midweek against Inter aside – is another enjoying a fine term, putting him in the shop window. As is customary at Udinese, the top performers are sold and Handanovic’s future could be at a leading European club. For now, the Slovenian international is crucial to the Friuli outfit and like Marchetti has also conceded 35 goals, but from 34 matches. His agility and reflexes are particularly impressive. This assists him at saving penalties – as achieved twice this season to follow his six in 2010-11.
Stuttering Roma (seventh, 50) hosts rejuvenated Napoli (fourth, 54) in the ‘Derby del Sole’. Only Milan with 64 goals have scored more than the Partenopei’s 60, whilst Luis Enrique’s men are fourth on the scorer’s charts with 53 goals. The pair have conceded 48 and 41 goals respectively and so this has the potential to be a high-scoring affair.
Interestingly, this fixture has on seven occasions produced matches of more than five goals. Furthermore, Napoli have been on the receiving end all but once, the most recent of these results, the 4-4 draw in 2007-08. Roma won 5-1 in 1941-42 on the road to their maiden Scudetto and triumphed 5-2 11 years later. At the end of the 1950s they thumped the Azzurri 8-0. The Giallorossi then won by scores of 5-2 and 5-1 in consecutive seasons during the triumphant 1982-83 campaign and 1983-84. Finally, when Napoli were relegated in 1997-98 they were served a warning in Round 5, going down 6-2 in Rome.
Inter (sixth, 52) remained unbeaten under Andrea Stramaccioni with a 3-1 win at Udinese on Wednesday as they prepare to face already relegated Cesena. In a disastrous campaign, the Nerazzurri looked as good as gone in the race for the Champions League towards the back-end of Claudio Ranieri’s reign, but could still – incredibly – secure the place.
A win for Inter is imperative and should they reach third, or failing that, finish in the Europa League positions, it will continue a run of 12 consecutive seasons contesting European football. The last time Inter failed to qualify for at least the old UEFA Cup came in 1998-99 as they experienced a season as troubling as the current campaign. Four tacticians – Luigi Simoni, Mircea Lucescu, Luciano Castellini and Roy Hodgson – sat on the bench. Inter finished eighth, missing out even on an Intertoto Cup lifeline. During their 12 season run, Massimo Moratti’s squad have won one Champions League crown.
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