Never before in Serie A have two teams entered the second half of the season tied at the top of the table on 45 points. Over the past eight years, we’ve come to expect these standards from Juventus, who are no strangers to this sort of pace. Seeing Inter mostly set that pace makes them different to other challengers in recent years.
If Inter won the title, it wouldn’t feel like a fairy tale in the same way it would have for Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli (2018) or Rudi Garcia’s Roma (2014). This team is an unrelenting machine, as we’ve come to expect from Antonio Conte-coached sides. It means Juventus have absolutely no margin for error. Sarri has had to win practically every week, all while introducing new concepts that could quite as easily have been rejected at club with Juve’s pedigree and composition. What we’re left with is one of the tensest title races in years and one that promises not only to go the distance but has the feel of a three-horse race.
Will Juve make it nine in a row? Can Conte and Inter unseat the champions? James Horncastle previews what is to come in 2020 in Italy’s top flight. (Serie A is available on ESPN+ in the United States all season long).
Can Inter keep this up?
Conte has repeatedly raised awareness of Inter’s shallow squad depth while simultaneously making it look deeper than it is by coaxing performances out of defenders Andrea Ranocchia, Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni, Borja Valero and Roberto Gagliardini in midfield and Sebastiano Esposito in attack. The club will back him financially in January and are hopeful of reuniting the former Juventus and Chelsea coach with combative central midfielder Arturo Vidal. Also expected to arrive are a wing-back and a backup striker, which should ensure Inter fortify rather than wane.
Throw in the return of Stefano Sensi, who hasn’t started since the Derby d’Italia in October, and Alexis Sanchez, who tore ankle ligaments shortly afterwards, and fans have cause for optimism. Conte always finds a way. If you break the season up into sections, the midfield won games for Inter in the first couple of months. Then, once Sensi and Nicola Barella went down injured, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez stepped up, emerging as one of the top strike partnerships in the world.
The defence should not be overlooked either. It is the meanest in Serie A, and as Max Allegri always used to say, in Italy, the team that concedes the fewest almost always stitches the Scudetto on its shirt come May.
And what about Juventus?
Whatever acquisitions Inter make in January, Juventus will still go into the spring with the stronger and more talented squad. Conte continues to give the impression Inter are running at full throttle and while room for improvement remains, there is a sense Juventus’ ceiling is higher. The champions have been without captain Giorgio Chiellini since his match-winning performance on the opening weekend and the defence has missed him, quite uncharacteristically struggling to shut out opponents and close down games.
Chiellini claimed back in August we’d only start to see the real Juve now, and this January period — free of European and international football — gives Sarri the time on the training ground he has craved. If things suddenly start to click for Juventus — as they are for the in-form Cristiano Ronaldo (eight goals in his past five league games) — then maybe they can see off Conte and his blue-and-black demolition crew. It sounds odd but Juventus are one of the teams that can develop the most in the second half of the season. Juve’s attack ranked just sixth at Christmas, while its normally stingy defence ranked third. In other words, don’t be surprised to see the Old Lady improve.
Where Eagles dare
Lazio sure ended 2019 on a high. Simone Inzaghi’s side dinted Juventus’ aura, beating them twice in a fortnight to lift another trophy. Ciro Immobile finished the year as the Capocannoniere and is on track to break the single-season record set by Gonzalo Higuain in 2016. The Eagles also picked up where they left off when the campaign resumed, matching the achievements of their last title-winning side with a ninth straight victory in the league.
Lazio deserve to be taken seriously. This team has been together for a long time, has won three pieces of silverware and believes in itself — see the late wins against Cagliari, Sassuolo and Brescia. Out of Europe, Lazio can also focus solely on the league and boasts a team with very few holes in it. Francesco Acerbi is now a starting centre-back for Italy, Lazio have nothing to envy Juventus or Inter for in midfield and the proven Immobile has already won the scoring crown twice. What’s more, the bench is contributing with Felipe Caicedo coming on and scoring late winners, Jony whipping in assists for them and Danilo Cataldi hitting match-ending free kicks.
This team is as ready as it’ll ever be to contend.
Battle for fourth spot
Now that Cagliari have fallen away, the final Champions League place comes down to Roma and Atalanta. Paulo Fonseca has made a very impressive start to life in Serie A when you consider the churn of players at the club, the need to nurture new leadership in the absence of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, the youthful makeup of the side and the sheer number of injuries that ravaged the team through October. Roma mix defending well with an attacking fluency not seen since Luciano Spalletti’s time at the club.
Atalanta, meanwhile, continue to make the extraordinary look like everyday business. Leaving aside qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League, they’re nine points better off than at this stage than they were last season and have scored more goals than any team after 18 games with the exception of Fiorentina … in 1958. Mostly without Duvan Zapata, who has been missing since the start of October with a thigh injury. Is it any wonder Gian Piero Gasperini and Alejandro Gomez have been made honorary citizens of Bergamo?
The Ibra effect
Milan need a hero and have turned to a familiar face in 38-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic played only 35 minutes in his debut and looks as if he will require time to get up to speed. Milan don’t have time, though, and their deep-rooted problems will not be solved, even by a character the size of Zlatan.
A revelation of the first half of the season, Dejan Kulusevski will relocate to Juventus in the summer. Now that the Swedish teenager has got his big move, it’ll be interesting to see if he maintains his focus and performance levels over the next four months for Parma. Pavel Nedved, Juventus’ vice president, will be in his ear if he doesn’t.
Kulusevski has been involved in 11 of Parma’s 24 goals this season, and it’s his lucid decision-making as well as his ability to progress the ball up the field that stand out. Bought for just €100,000 by Atalanta (and sold for upwards of €35 million), Kulusevski has played across the attack, even as a false nine at times, and has had to carry Parma on his young shoulders when Gervinho, Roberto Inglese and Yann Karamoh have sustained injuries.
We should never lose sight of what Sinisa Mihajlovic has been through and continues to go through: round after round of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and remission induction therapy to destroy the leukemia cells in his body. When he was able to appear on the bench, it was hard not to draw inspiration from it.
His staff have done as good a job as they could have in his absence, but Bologna are a different team when he’s on the touchline. Results have improved since he returned and perhaps will see them go on the kind of tear they did in the second half of last season. In the event they do, the Europa League is a distinct possibility.
Those who need a fresh start
Aside from the obvious (Napoli, I’m looking at you), Fiorentina have disappointed (again) this season. Franck Ribery‘s suspension and injury have cost them, while Federico Chiesa‘s head has sometimes appeared to be elsewhere. Despite bright sparks from Dusan Vlahovic, the team lacks a goal-scoring centre-forward.
Rocco Commisso has generated great enthusiasm since buying the club and it would be a shame to see that fade. Former fan favourite Giuseppe Iachini is now in the dugout, too. “Kick ’em for us” was the chant they used to have for him. Up until now, though, Fiorentina are the ones who have been booted around too much for the crowd’s liking.