A thrilling five-way fight for European football unfolded in Serie A over Easter weekend. Giancarlo Rinaldi reports on the closest conflict remaining in Italy’s top division.
The Old Lady has already got out the needle and thread to stitch another Scudetto on her famous little black-and-white number. And Roma and Napoli are digging out their satellite navigation systems to plot their paths through next season’s Champions League competition. But, after a hectic single-day schedule on Saturday, the fight for at least one European football berth looks harder to predict than which Serie A star will disgrace themselves on Twitter next.
Fiorentina’s Coppa Italia Final with Napoli looks likely to guarantee them one of Italy’s spots in the Europa League. And Inter, barring a calamity not even they can surely conspire to complete, should take another. However, five teams remain within a couple of points of sixth spot which will almost certainly carry the dubious boost of continental football in UEFA’s lesser competition.
Another late-season rush of form could yet see Milan compete in an event which the club has come to consider beneath itself in recent years. The Rossoneri swept aside Livorno with goals from Mario Balotelli - a personal best 14th for the League season - Adel Taarabt and Giampaolo Pazzini continuing their improbable revival. “The players are united and Clarence Seedorf helps us out a lot,” said Super Mario. “We are playing to win and try to at least get into the Europa League - but we will have to fight right to the end.”
Their city cousins, of course, could have a big say in their fate with a Derby della Madonnina still to play. However, La Beneamata was in benevolent mood at the weekend as Walter Mazzarri’s side shot down Parma - one of the Rossoneri’s key rivals for that European goal. They had Samir Handanovic to thank as he saved a penalty from Antonio Cassano which laid the foundations for goals from Rolando and Fredy Guarin to clinch the win. “It was an important save,” said the Inter keeper - who stops about one in three spot-kicks. “But don’t ask me what my secret is because you know I don’t speak about these things.”
Nor is Luca Toni likely to divulge the reasons behind his incredible goalscoring Indian summer with Verona. He struck once more in a 2-1 away win over Atalanta which keeps Hellas in the hunt for that top six finish too. “Only one result could keep us hanging on in there and we did well to give it everything,” said Coach Andrea Mandorlini. “I’ve never spoken to the boys about the Europa League but they have the attitude and ability to get there.”
The final couple of rivals in the race - Torino and Lazio - served up a sumptuous 3-3 draw which probably satisfied neither side. “We’re a couple of points off sixth place and with three points for a win anything could happen,” said Biancocelesti boss Edy Reja. “We are still alive, but still a bit adrift.” His opposite number on the Granata bench, Giampiero Ventura, had similar thoughts. “If everyone else on 49 points says they’ve got a shot at Europe, then we’ve got a shot at it too.”
The relegation fight, too, looks to involve a quintet of sides - this time desperately trying to avoid three drop spots. Sassuolo dragged Chievo back into the mire thanks to a Domenico Berardi strike which gave them the three points. “Apart from the win, it was a while since I’d seen a good performance - a focused team, playing nice football,” admitted Eusebio Di Francesco. “We’ve got a tough run-in but we have to have faith right until the end.”
With Cagliari getting a precious win to see off Genoa, it looks like Livorno, Bologna and Catania are the other sides flirting with Serie B. The Sicilians looked doomed but a gutsy win over Sampdoria gave them a sliver of hope. “We are still alive,” insisted boss Maurizio Pellegrino. “The important thing is to play with determination and, as long as there are points still to play for, why give up hope?”
Up at the top end of the table, of course, Roma are continuing to dream of some sort of massive malfunction in Juve’s serene surge to the title. The two teams have one more meeting to come and Rudi Garcia’s side continued to do everything they could to keep up a little pressure on the Bianconeri with a relatively comfortable 1-0 win away to Fiorentina, with Radja Nainggolan getting the game’s only goal. “We’ll fight until the end,” insisted Adem Ljajic of the Giallorossi. “Juve might lose a match and then they’ve got to come to the Olimpico and then anything could happen.”
Few people really believe that is likely, however. Antonio Conte’s men gave another example on Saturday of why the chances of their engines blowing on the final lap look more improbable than a week going by without a rumour of Paul Pogba signing for someone else. The young Frenchman struck again to help see off a stubborn Bologna side and move the Turin giants one step closer to the title. “There are four games to go, we are really close to that third Scudetto in a row which we desperately want,” admitted Giorgio Chiellini. “We should thank Roma for keeping us on our toes and making it difficult for us.”
The capital club has done its best to make it a genuine duel for the title but, in the closing stages, they are surely too distant to land a knockout blow. The intensity and focus Juventus have shown all season seems unlikely to desert them in these final rounds. The only real question is where and when their title celebrations will begin.