For many of the teams in Serie A the international break will have come as a welcome respite but the league returns with a bang in week Seven with some mouthwatering ties.
At the top of the table, early leaders Lazio and fellow title hopefuls Inter, Palermo and Udinese will hope that none of the pre-break momentum is lost and will aim to pick up exactly where they left off. Mid-table, Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus shall all be looking to continue to improve after indifferent starts to their respective campaigns. Roma and Sampdoria will no doubt be hoping to kick-start their highly disappointing terms so far and for the teams at the foot of the table, the chance to start picking up points again will be of huge relief.
Week Seven sees some exciting fixtures – The Sicilian derby, Scudetto holders and favorites Inter traveling to the capital to face three-time runners-up Roma, relegation strugglers Torino against bottom-of-the-table Cagliari and some of the country’s most illustrious clubs lock horns as Milan take on Sampdoria and Napoli host Juventus.
When Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea successor Avram Grant was ruthlessly discarded by the powers that be at Stamford Bridge, many names were thrown into the hat as to who would take over the reigns as the “Special One’s” long-term replacement. One of those names was that of Roma coach Luciano Spalletti – the very man Mourinho and his traveling Inter side will take on in undoubtedly the weekend’s most exciting fixture.
In the past three seasons Inter have pipped the Gialliorossi to the Serie A title, and after last season’s pulsating final day climax and the 2-2 Italian Super Cup game that ended with a 6-5 penalty shoot out handing the Nerazzurri victory – a Mourinho-Spalletti face off was eagerly anticipated. The game, however, does not quite hold the significance many would have expected – Roma, 14th-placed with just seven points from the opening six matches, are nowhere near the current champions and although relatively early days, victory for the away side would be critical to Spalletti’s men’s interest in attaining a long-awaited Scudetto.
In contrast to Roma’s poor points tally and despite themselves far from firing on all cylinders, Inter have looked stronger than last season and have been picking up the points. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano are flourishing and the former is beginning to add goals to a repertoire that includes flicks and tricks- his effort against Bologna in week Six a fine example of the confidence Ibra is playing with right now. In stark contrast to their opponents, Roma have been hampered by the absence of the imperial Francesco Totti, an out-of-sorts defence, goal-shy attack and more recently, disciplinary issues – Philip Mexes and Christian Panucci will both miss Inter’s visit due to suspension. The Giallorossi will need to draw on all reserves to come out as victors in this, but it may just be the big match factor, home advantage and the importance of a win that could see their attempted revival of faint championship hopes fall short so early in the season. Title hopes that in the blue half of Milan are well and truly high.
Lazio find themselves as early frontrunners in the 2008/09 campaign and will be optimistic of retaining top spot as they travel to 18th-placed Bologna. The Rossoblu are historically Serie A’s sixth most successful club, ahead of Roma, Fiorentina, Napoli and the visiting Lazio, but past glories are not going to aid a club who look like real relegation candidates. Five straight defeats mean Daniele Arrigoni’s men currently have the worst form of the 20 league teams, so now would be no time to take on the current leaders. The facts read worryingly for the Coach with his side having scored three and conceded nine. Compare this to Lazio’s strike-partnership of Mauro Zarate and Goran Pandev which has hit ten goals between them already. Bologna should aim to emulate Lazio’s last league opponents Lecce (another team tipped for relegation), who left the Stadio Olimpico with a well-earned point. Attack could prove the best line of defence for Bologna as the number of goals conceded by Biancocelesti highlights frailties at the back so a shock result isn’t entirely out of the question.
February 2nd 2007 will go down as one of the darkest days in Italian football. Catania hosted Palermo in the Sicilian derby and the fixture – and Serie A – has been clouded in controversy ever since due to the football related violence involving the Catania Ultra’s which ultimately resulted in the death of police officer Filippo Raciti. Knock-on effects of the day’s tragic events meant all Serie A and international matches at the time were temporarily suspended and even now, some twenty months on, the off-field events of the fixture remain viewed with great shame.
On the field and like many of the great Italian derbies, a high tempo, passionate game can be expected. The corresponding fixture of 2007/08 saw traveling Palermo fans banned from the game as Catania – who went on to escape relegation by a single point – ran out 3-1 winners. The home side are currently enjoying seventh-place residence in Serie A but will do well to halt an impressive fourth-placed Palermo side with 12 points. The Rosanero are sitting just a point off leaders Lazio despite losing the free scoring Amauri to Juve and captain Andrea Barzagli during the summer transfer window.
Like Sicily, Naples too will be under heavy Police scrutiny, as the Stadio San Paolo and Napoli play host to eleventh-placed Juventus.
Claudio Ranieri would have hoped to be taking his Juve side to southern Italy in a slightly better vein of form and will in no way want to underestimate a re-born Napoli side, stabilized and rapidly improving after previous financial mismanagements. Despite adding the nationalized Amauri to his attacking options, Ranieri has struggled to coax goals from his impressive frontline which has managed just four so far. Serie A’s most successful club sit mid-table and hardly looking like the force of old – a point personified by the shape of Alex Del Piero. Napoli and the passionate Neapolitan fans on the other hand will be confident having taken 11 points from their opening six games that include opposition of Roma, Fiorentina, Udinese and Palermo. The under pressure ‘tinkerman’ knows that his tenure as Juve coach is again being questioned;
“Do I feel threatened? I don’t read the newspapers, but I did receive a great deal of telephone calls from friends being reassuring, which suggests someone really blasted me…”
At the San Siro, Carlo Ancellotti felt at much greater ease following his side’s impressive 1-0 victory over their great rivals Inter in the Milan derby.
“Now I can say it: We are among the favourites for the title,” was the bold post-match statement made by the Rossoneri boss, but it looked a hollow claim as his team followed that result up with a goalless draw with bottom club Cagliari. Milan would have started this campaign hell-bent on challenging once more for the Scudetto, but their tendency to blow hot and cold is hindering any real challenge they aim to mount.
Looking through the Milan squad suggests players of such quality should have enough about them to be counted in the title race, but questions will be asked of their continuing inconsistency and week Seven opposition Sampdoria are the kind of side capable of further derailing their challenge. Last year’s sixth-placed side would have hoped to build upon such achievements, but the Blucerchiati are struggling. Currently winless, with four draws and just four goals scored, how they need the enigmatic Antonio Cassano to spark them into life. A match against Milan – one of many clubs previously interested in the hell raiser during his tempestuous career – would be the perfect opportunity for Cassano to lift his team.
Elsewhere, the winners of Genoa or Siena could boost their bid for European football, the highly impressive Lecce play host to Pasquale Marino’s joint top Udinese and the relegation battle draws on. Torino will be looking to lift themselves further away from the dreaded drop zone by taking points from a Cagliari side that currently prop up the Serie A division. With 19th-place Reggina on a slightly daunting visit to Florence and Chievo hosting a Christiano Doni-inspired Atalanta – the game in Turin could prove pivotal in the long fight for survival.
With title-race clashes, passionate derbies, gruesome relegation battles and crucial tussles between under-performing giants, it’s hard to know where to look this weekend. Rest assured, footballitaliano.co.uk will have all the highlights from what will be an explosive weekend of action.