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Serie A battle for third place shaping up

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By Luca Cetta

Tuesday 07 February 2012

The negative consequence of Italian clubs underperforming in Europe during recent seasons (despite two Champions League crowns) was the loss of the coveted fourth Champions League position. Nonetheless, it has ensured a fascinating showdown in the league this season for third, now the last qualifying spot. Juventus and Milan look to have a lock on the top two, but behind is a cluster of hopefuls seeking a place at Europe’s top table.

Udinese (41 points) and Lazio (39) have led from the front. The two fought for fourth last season but with one less position available either would be a surprise qualifier. While Udinese’s unambitious public deflections claim avoiding the drop as the only season goal, this must surely be refuted internally. Their home record is Serie A’s best but question marks loom over their away form and squad depth. They struggled for consistency in January with African Cup of Nations absentees and could find juggling Europa League commitments while fending off those in pursuit a tough task. Yet Francesco Guidolin is a smart boss, adept tactically and as a player-manager.

Edy Reja is hoping to steer Lazio one step better than 2010/11. After experiencing a high last Wednesday by defeating Milan, Lazio crashed at Genoa after a troubled few days, one exacerbated by off-field issues relating to the January transfer campaign. As Reja lamented: “Five players were sold and only [Antonio] Candreva was bought.” They sold two strikers and injuries to key players Hernanes and Tomasso Rocchi on Sunday affected Lazio and highlighted the difficulties Reja must overcome.

A positive for the two clubs is the goal-scoring exploits of Antonio Di Natale (16 goals) and Miroslav Klose (12), who consistently find the net. Up the other end, they each boast a fine goalkeeper in Samir Handanovic and Federico Marchetti respectively.

Inter (36) were spoken about as a possible Scudetto challenger after their derby triumph over Milan in which the defence stood firm. That defensive solidarity seems a lifetime ago after three costly results against Lecce (0-1), Palermo (4-4) and Roma (0-4) means they have the worst defensive record of clubs featured here. Defensive personnel alterations between goal-fests changed little as Walter Samuel, Lucio, Andrea Ranocchia and Ivan Cordoba all struggled. The reintegration of Wesley Sneijder also upset their balanced 4-4-2 system which featured through a seven-match winning run, while the sale of Thiago Motta was puzzling. However, Diego Milito has rediscovered his scoring touch and they have two upcoming home matches with Novara and Bologna to get back on the right track.

Roma (34) and Napoli (31) are struggling for consistency. The capital club showed their good and bad sides last week, succumbing to Cagliari in a display Luis Enrique labelled “pathetic at times,” but turning it around days later versus Inter. In a week to sum up their season, Roma looked brilliant in attack but fragile in defence. This campaign is a learning curve for all involved at the club and fixtures against Siena, Parma and Atalanta before the return derby will give an indication whether the squad is on the right path.

Like Roma, seventh-placed Napoli have offered dazzling displays with ones less-so. Their fluent counter-attacking system has been out-thought by opposing tacticians this term, especially those lower on the ladder. In matches Napoli needs to take the initiative the system plays into opposition hands, meaning they rely on individual moments. While a devastating outfit at times, the ability to do this over the course of a season has been called into question - their ten draws perhaps the answer.

The trio of Inter, Roma and Napoli can look to the fact Udinese came from eight points down at the winter break last season to claim fourth spot, proving it is possible to reduce a deficit. Inter’s run of wins also proved it was possible to make significant progress up the ladder but they will need to act quickly. Serie A fans are witness to a fascinating battle, with each club having its positives and flaws, meaning there is no standout squad from the bunch. This makes the battle for third difficult to predict, but fascinating to ponder and behold.

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