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Serie A's entertaining title race

The Scudetto race: Who are Juve's challengers, and who are the pretenders?

January 8, 2021 By Michelle Bonsu
As the Scudetto race heats up, this season looks set to have many teams setting themselves as potential challenges to Juve's quest for a tenth straight title. Which teams have a realistic shot, and which teams are just a flash in the pan?

Reigning champions Juventus will be looking to win a 10th straight Scudetto - something that has never been done in league history - but the Bianconeri will not have it easy this time around. In fact, last season saw La Vecchia Signora only just clinch the league title by the skin of their teeth, and this term now sees them having to work harder than ever to stay ahead of the chasing pack who have closed the gap over the past few years.

Indeed, as this table shows, it's no longer Juventus who are sitting comfortably on top of the table, and the Bianconeri now will have to overcome three sides ahead of them while trying to keep a few others from nipping at their heels as the season approaches its midway point.

From a neutral perspective, it makes for a very interesting title race, and this current campaign has several teams who are all vying to be crowned champions this May. However, who are the sides who have a real shot, and who are the teams who are just making up the numbers? Let's have a look.

The contenders

AC Milan

Current rank: 1

2019/2020 rank: 6

Scudetto titles: 18

Given how Milan have really fallen from grace in recent years - their last Scudetto win was in 2011 - one can certainly understand if many Rossoneri fans felt that the glory days were now a thing of the past. The last overall title the team won was the Supercoppa Italiana, and that was in 2016. Moreover, the team have struggled to make any inroads in European competition, and even failed to qualify for a spell before finally finishing in fifth place during the 2018/2019 season. However, due to not having their financial house in order, they were banned from featuring in the Europa League for that term and the following one.

Last season saw the team again undergo a managerial change midway - something that has become par for the course in recent times - but this time around, Stefano Pioli was able to not just salvage their season but totally revitalize the squad. A ten game unbeaten streak, during which they beat Juventus, Lazio, and Roma, was enough to help Milan secure sixth place and a chance to feature in this year's Europa League, but it's really they performance in Serie A that has everyone talking.

Up until this past Wednesday, Milan were still the only unbeaten team in the league. Although that record has now fallen with a 3-1 defeat to Juventus, the Rossoneri still enjoy a seven point gap over the reigning champions. Seven points, however, is comfortable, but Pioli naturally won't be sitting easy as Juventus have managed to surge up the table in past seasons and in addition, the campaign isn't even halfway over just yet.

Milan do have a good chance to get back to winning ways as their next match will be against struggling Torino. Interestingly enough, the Diavolo will face the Granata twice in just three days as they will lock horns with the same team in the Coppa Italia, but following their first loss of the season in the league, one can certainly bet they will be keen to take advantage of a Torino side who have had nothing short of a nightmare of a season.

And given that the Bianconeri, who have struggled for consistent results against the smaller teams, will meet up with Sassuolo, it is possible that Milan could re-establish their double-digit lead by the time this round of fixtures concludes on Monday. All in all, could this be the season that they finally end their long wait for their 19th Scudetto? Perhaps, but there are a few other sides hoping to end their own long waits, and one of them includes Milan's bitter cross-town rivals Inter.

Inter

Current rank: 2

2019/2020 rank: 2

Scudetto titles: 18

Like Milan, Inter have had quite a fall from grace in the past few years. Their last Scudetto win was in 2010, when they became the first Italian side to win the Treble under then-manager Jose Mourinho, and their last overall trophy was in the 2010/2011 term, when they won the Coppa Italia. Current manager Antonio Conte was painfully close last term to guiding the Nerazzurri to what would have been a well-earned win in the Europa League final, but they were defeated by serial winners Sevilla.

Inter also mounted a strong challenge for the league title during the 2019/2020 term, and in fact, were on top of the table for various points of the season, putting a Juventus side led by Maurizio Sarri under pressure throughout. They only missed out by a point, with Juventus sealing their ninth title despite losing their final two games of the campaign, and three of their last four overall, which included surprise defeats to teams like Udinese and Cagliari. Indeed, the saving grace for Juventus was their 2-0 win over Inter in their crunch clash in March, coupled with Conte's side picking up way too many draws (they drew ten of their matches versus Juve's five).

This season, the Nerazzurri have come roaring back, ready to battle once again, and so far, it's been pretty smooth sailing. Despite suffering a surprise 2-1 reversal to mid-table Sampdoria this past Wednesday, which ended an eight game winning streak and is their first loss since the Derby Della Madonnina defeat in October, they are currently six points ahead of Juventus at this juncture.

However, Inter will now face a very tough test in their next match as they will square off against third-placed Roma, another team who are making serious waves this term. This game could indeed prove to be quite decisive, and the Nerazzurri, having already lost to a fellow title challenger, will be loath to drop points in this one - but after Roma, it's yet another major test as Juventus will be coming to town.

In short, these two matches will be a real test of Inter's credentials as a serious contender for the Scudetto this season. If they can avoid defeat to both, they certainly will further cement their status as a team who are well-positioned to deny Juventus from making it an unprecedented 10th straight Scudetto this May.

Major tests await Inter in their next couple of fixtures - will they pass or fail?

Roma

Current rank: 3

2019/2020 rank: 6

Scudetto titles: 3

Roma, to say the least, are a very interesting side. Currently, the Giallorossi sit in third spot, and have had their share of ups and downs this season. They kicked off proceedings with a 3-0 loss to Hellas Verona, which obviously is not the way any team would want to start any campaign. Moreover, the defeat to the minnows wasn't even on the pitch, and rather because of an administrative error on Roma's part.

Still, Paulo Fonesca's side quickly moved on past that and earned a hard-fought 2-2 draw with Juventus in their second game, and overall they've been pretty solid. They are the first team to successfully nick points off a very resurgent Milan side, and despite some bad showings in heavy 4-0 and 4-1 losses to Napoli and Atalanta, the Lupi have positioned themselves well to keep within touching distance of the top of the table.

Moreover, with Juventus seemingly losing some of that verve that made them the most dominant side in Serie A, Roma is well positioned to take advantage of this. They do face a tough examination in their upcoming showdown with Inter, who are another side eager to end Juve's long reign as champions of Italy, followed by what will be a fierce battle against Lazio in the Derby della Capitale. Could this be the season they end their nearly 20 year wait for the league title?

Roma have a tricky fixture list ahead, but if they can get it right, things could get interesting

If Roma can get things up and running over the next few fixtures they certainly do have a shot. Both Milan and Inter are formidable opponents, but the fact that they managed to draw Juventus shows a much more improved Giallorossi side in previous seasons.

The pretenders

Napoli

Current rank: 6

2019/2020 rank: 7

Scudetto titles: 2

Some may not agree with Napoli being placed in the pretenders category, but there are several reasons behind this. For starters, although Napoli have also finished as runners-up on several occasions, there is one season that remains a major blemish on their record. That was during the 2017/2018 season, when the Partenopei earned a club-record 91 points, but failed to win the Scudetto. The issue here isn't the number of points - other leagues have seen teams earn that amount and it's still not enough to win the league title. Rather, the main negative factor is how the team were unable to keep it together and collapsed just at the last minute.

Then under the leadership of Maurizio Sarri, the Partenopei were tasked with winning the Scudetto at all costs. That meant a laser-focus on the league title, and eschewing all other competitions; in short, putting all one's eggs in one basket. As such, they failed to make inroads in either the Champions League or the Europa League (group stage and round of 32 exits) and bowed out of the Coppa Italia at the quarter-finals stage. But that was a clear strategy by Sarri, who felt that all other competitions were secondary and he needed his team to focus all their efforts on winning their third title.

Unfortunately, all that came to naught as a 3-0 shock loss to Fiorentina proved to be catastrophic, and they were unable to regain their footing as they stumbled to a two-all draw with Torino. By the time the dust settled, Napoli concluded the season in second, four points behind Juventus, and all in all a very disappointing result considering what had been put into their title challenge. Unfortunately, the Southern Italian never been able to really challenge since then, despite finishing as runners-up the following season as there was an 11 point gap between them and Juventus. And this season, while they have made some efforts, it's hard to see how they can position themselves among the major contenders; to date, they've lost to both Inter and Milan and most recently ended up losing to newly promoted Spezia.

Napoli do have a chance to rebound after a shock loss in their next few games but it's not going to be enough to help them position themselves as Scudetto contenders

So, all in all, Napoli, despite boasting some very talented players at their disposal, simply don't have what it takes to be counted among the challengers for the 2020/2021 Scudetto. Their sole wins were in 1987 and 1990 when iconic striker Diego Maradona was part of the team, and it looks like they will have to wait a bit longer to get their hands on their third league crown.

Sassuolo

Current rank: 4

2019/2020 rank: 8

Scudetto titles: Zero

Yes, the Neroverdi are certainly having one of their best seasons to date, but it's important to remember that this is a team that were playing in the third tier a bit over a decade ago. Although it's not unheard of surprise teams to make the quick jump from the lower tiers and shock everyone by winning the top flight championship - Leicester City is a prime example of this - Sassuolo is not the Italian version of the Foxes.

They have pulled off some shock results, and indeed have built their reputation as being a thorn in the side of many of the bigger teams in Serie A - including subjecting AC Milan to a 4-3 humiliation back in January 2014 during which young striker Domenico Berardi made history by scoring a poker. At 19, he became the second-youngest player in league history to achieve this feat, and in addition, became the first player ever to net four goals against the Rossoneri in one match.

Sassuolo have also proven to be a nuisance for Inter and Juventus as well, such that fans of both teams have come to feel a bit uneasy when it comes to facing the plucky side from Emilia-Romagna. And they do have some solid talent - Berardi, when not getting himself into trouble due to a lack of discipline, is a reliable option up front. Then, there's the veteran striker Francesco Caputo, who has had quite a bit of a nomadic career through Italy's lower divisions before finally making his Serie A breakthrough after Sassuolo signed him in 2019.

Caputo, who was Serie B's Capocannoniere in the 2017/2018 season, finally got his first senior call-up to the Azzurri in 2020, and some have likened his story to Leicester's Jamie Vardy. Both are what one could call "late" bloomers - they didn't make their national debuts until their 30s, and have spent much of their careers toiling in the lower divisions until finally getting their big break with a smaller team in the top flight. And both play for teams that no one payed much attention to until they started making major waves - in Leicester's case, it was when they shocked the footballing world to win the Premier League title; whereas for Sassuolo, it's been they way they've still been going strong as we approach the midway point of the current campaign. 

But to call them a challenger for the league title? No. That is simply a bridge too far. Yes, odd things have happened in football, but a better comparison for Sassuolo would be more like a potential Udinese in the making. Today, the Zebrette are unfortunately battling relegation more than a European football spot, but a little over a decade ago, when they were spearheaded by Antonio "Toto" Di Natale, they were consistently among the teams featuring in the top six in Serie A - which guaranteed them at least a spot in the Europa League. To date, the Neroverdi have only qualified for European competition once, and that was during the 2016/2017 season.

Sassuolo face Juventus in a very interesting clash. Will they be up to the challenge?

If Roberto De Zerbi can lead them to finish in the top four and they can achieve this for at least a few seasons, then they will be able to at least prove they're more than just a flash in the pan and can be really taken seriously as one of those smaller clubs to watch out for as a real contender for a European football spot. And once a team is a contender for a European football spot, it's not too long until they can be considered as a challenger for the league title.


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