As the season enters the final stretch, Football Italiano takes a look at the run-ins that matter. The title race, race for fourth spot and the relegation battle all throw up some intriguing battles in the final ten weeks of the season. Part one looks at the teams fighting it out at the top of the table.
Inter – 1st, 66 points
Target – Scudetto: With no European football as a distraction after the third successive Champions League last 16 exit in as many years, Inter will be striving to become the first team since il Grande Torino to win four successive Scudetti whilst also pulling level with rivals Milan on 17 titles.
Fixtures: While a trip to UEFA Cup contenders Udinese, a Derby d’Italia in Turin against Juventus and a visit to the Stadio San Paolo to play Napoli would seemingly appear the assignments most likely to unhinge the Nerazzurri’s challenge, Jose Mourinho’s side have every reason to be confident of being crowned champions given their away form in Serie A this season. La Beneamata have won as many games and scored more goals on the road than at San Siro and with Lazio and Palermo the highest-placed teams still to visit Milan, Inter’s run-in appears highly favourable.
Key game: Juventus (a), April 19 – Should Inter still boast a sizeable advantage over their nearest challenges come mid-April, then the only thing they need do at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino is not lose. Avoiding defeat would keep Juventus at arm’s length, although a victory for the Old Lady could throw the title race wide open.
Chances: With Inter on a nine-match unbeaten run stretching back to a 3-1 defeat by Atalanta on January 18, and Reggina, Siena and the return fixture against the Orobici still to come at home, Inter not securing the Scudetto would be an almighty surprise.
Juventus – 2nd, 59 points
Target – Scudetto: The Bianconeri are aiming to win their first official Scudetto since 2002/03 although they require an Inter team who have lost only twice all season in the league to implode in the final ten games.
Fixtures: With four of the top six still to play, Juventus need a run of championship-winning form to overhaul Inter at the Serie A summit. Never mind the must-win game against the Nerazzurri on April 19, la Vecchia Signora’s title challenge could be in tatters should they come a cropper against Roma and Genoa in the two away games that precede the visit of Mourinho’s men. Should they still be in contention after those fixtures, a trip to play a Milan team that could be fighting to cling on to a Champions League qualifying place awaits in Week 35.
Key game: Roma (a), March 21 – While the importance of the home game against Inter goes without saying, Juventus need to keep in touch by winning matches beforehand, starting with the Giallorossi. That will be easier said than done, with their hosts chasing a Champions League berth and having been beaten just once at home all season – by Inter. Throw into the mix that Pavel Nedved limped out of the draw with Chelsea and 12-goal leading scorer Amauri will miss at least five weeks because of a right thigh injury sustained in training, then the Bianconeri are really up against it.
Chances: Their seven-point gap to Inter aside, the Bianconeri’s run-in looks enormously difficult. Moreover, given that they must play Roma and Genoa away in the next month, talk of the Scudetto could be no more should Juventus fail to win either of those matches.
Milan – 3rd, 54 points
Target – Champions League qualification: With the Rossoneri trailing their city rivals Inter by twelve points, even the most ardent supporter would take some convincing that Milan are still in with a chance of Scudetto glory. Holding an eight-point cushion over fifth-placed Fiorentina, the focus for Carlo Ancelotti and his players should be ensuring that it is Champions League not UEFA Europa League football gracing the San Siro next season.
Fixtures: With Napoli, Lecce, Chievo and Torino to come in the next few weeks, il Diavolo should all but confirm their place in the top three. Ancelotti and his players certainly need to cash in on such a kind run of games as their final four matches are anything but, with Juventus (h), Udinese (a) and top-four hopefuls Roma (h) and Fiorentina (a) providing a testing and potentially nerve-racking end to the campaign.
Key game: Juventus (h), May 10 – Although each game will rightly be considered as important as the next, the visit of Juventus to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza in Week 35 really stands out. Beginning a tough run of fixtures that also features Udinese, Roma and Fiorentina, it is vital that Milan kick-off the sequence by defeating a Bianconeri team which could be in with a chance of winning the title.
Chances: No Coppa Italia or UEFA Cup distractions should – coupled with a relatively gentle run of fixtures in the coming weeks – ensure that the Rossoneri achieve their pre-season goal of qualifying for the Champions League. Boosted by the availability of David Beckham until the end of the season and already holding a buffer over the chasing pack, it is Milan’s to lose.
Genoa – 4th, 48 points
Target – Champions League qualification: Although Rossoblu Coach Gian Piero Gasperini may dislike talking about the prospect of playing in Europe’s premier club competition next season, Genoa are very much in the running for a maiden appearance in the Champions League in 2009/10. Having come this far, they will certainly not want to miss out now. (FYI fourth-place finishers enter the Play-off round)
Fixtures: Genoa’s strength this season has been their impressive form at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris where the tifosi have witnessed their team lose just once, to Inter earlier this month. That said, Genoa’s top-four credentials will be severely tested in the run-in with Udinese, Juventus and Lazio still to visit the port city, not to mention a Derby della Lanterna against Sampdoria on May 3. Add in trips to Reggina, Bologna and Torino – all teams fighting for salvezza – and il Grifone have a fight on their hands to realise their dream.
Key game: Juventus (h), April 11 – Having lost 4-1 to the Bianconeri in November and boasting several players (Sculli, Palladino, Criscito, Paro, Olivera), not to mention a Coach, with Juventus connections, then Genoa will be eager to redress the balance and maintain their push for a place in Europe next term. Milan and Roma have already been beaten at home this season and with 15-goal leading scorer Diego Milito chasing the Capocannoniere crown, then Genoa has every chance of collecting all three points.
Chances: While il Grifone boast an excellent home record, their tally of just 12 goals in 15 away matches should be a cause for concern. Only Milito has reached double figures and with no-one else coming anywhere close, the Argentinean striker cannot be wholly relied upon to fire Genoa in to the top four. Several testing home matches and a flurry of away games against teams fighting to stay up does not bode well for the club’s Champions League aspirations.
Fiorentina – 5th, 46 points
Target – Champions League qualification: La Viola will be striving to ensure that their first appearance in the Champions League since 1999/00 earlier this term was not a one-off.
Fixtures: Fiorentina face two of their rivals for a top-four finish – Milan and Roma – in the final ten matches and crucially for la Viola, both fixtures come at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. Cesare Prandelli’s team can feel confident of taking points from home games against Tuscan neighbours Siena, Cagliari and Torino, although journeys to Udinese, Atalanta, Catania and Lecce could pose their own problems.
Key game: Milan (h), May 31 – The visit of the Rossoneri on the final day of the season may be a crucial one in deciding who goes forth to represent Serie A in Europe’s premier club competition in 2009/10. A lot depends on what happens in the nine games that precede this, of course, including Roma’s arrival, but the potential importance of this fixture cannot be overstated.
Chances: With Adrian Mutu and Alberto Gilardino boasting almost 30 league goals between them, i Gigliati have every chance of finishing in the top four. Their home games are favourable and, crucially, the games against Roma and Milan are also in Florence.
Roma – 6th, 46 points
Target – Champions League qualification: Having qualified for the competition in five of the last seven seasons, the Giallorossi will be aiming to reach their pre-season goal of dining at European football’s top table once again.
Fixtures: In Juventus (h), Fiorentina (a) and Milan (a), i Lupi have three of the top six still to play in their final ten matches along with the Derby della Capitale ‘away’ to Lazio. These matches would, on paper, appear to represent Roma’s most difficult assignments but with strugglers Lecce, Chievo and Torino all due at the Stadio Olimpico, and sure to be fighting for their lives, then nothing can be taken for granted.
Key game: Lazio (a), April 11 – The Biancocelesti still have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe themselves and so will be desperate to enhance their prospects while seriously denting those of their bitter city rivals. Roma has been erratic at times this season and in what is sure to be a red-hot atmosphere, the team which keeps its cool and tries to play football will have the best chance of securing three points and the bragging rights for the remainder of the campaign.
Chances: A lot depends on the fitness of talismanic captain Francesco Totti, who has endured a stop-start season and only recently returned from a knee injury for the Champions League first knockout round second leg against Arsenal. Mirko Vucinic and Julio Baptista have done their bit in Totti’s absence but with a number of key assignments against sides around them in the table, Roma really need Totti fit and firing to take points from their rivals.