Last season, the fourth Champions League spot was not decided until the final minute when Lazio and Inter squared off in a truly thrilling finale. In the end, it was heartbreak for Simone Inzaghi and his Biancocelesti, as they had a dream ticket ripped from their fingertips by Matias Vecino. But, by the looks of the current table, it appears we are in for yet another drama-filled race for fourth involving several clubs.
If the race for the top two is already over, then it’s a goalmouth scramble for every other valuable place up for grabs. There is one point separating fourth from seventh, while even Inter in third are only 11 points clear of Fiorentina in 10th. Once these sides start facing off against each other, it’s going to be even more volatile and unpredictable, starting with this Saturday’s showdown in Bergamo between Milan and Atalanta. Whoever slips up there could transform the standings.
We had a situation in Week 23 where all five teams knew they could not afford to drop a single point, but they all emerged intact.
Lazio kicked off the round with a narrow victory over Empoli, stringing together consecutive wins domestically for the first time since late December. Inzaghi’s men have found it extremely difficult this current campaign to mimic what they accomplished last season, with the likes of Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and even Ciro Immobile performing a notch or two lower than anticipated – statistically speaking.
Despite that, the Aquile have managed to see their way into the Coppa Italia semi-finals, the Europa League Round of 32 and be right in the thick of things for UCL qualification. They are the only Italian club to still be competing on three fronts in February and that is to be applauded.
Meanwhile, their city rivals Roma matched them with three points of their own on Friday, toppling cellar-dweller Chievo 3-0. When looking at the Giallorossi’s season, it has been just as mixed a bag as their Olimpico rivals, dropping points to SPAL, Udinese and Cagliari earlier in the campaign.
Beyond turbulence and inconsistency however, Eusebio Di Francesco has somehow managed to avoid the sack after the 7-1 beating Fiorentina dealt them in the Coppa Italia, and still be both a legit dog in the fight for fourth and in the Champions League Round of 16, where they take on Porto tomorrow.
To cap off the weekend, both Atalanta and Milan took the proper measures to ensure they did not slip up and allow the two Rome outfits to surpass them in the table.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s Bergamo-based side trailed early, but clawed their way back to overturn the game thanks to the exploits of Josip Ilicic and sizzling-hot Capocannoniere dark horse Duvan Zapata.
The 27-year-old Colombian striker is on the form of his life at the moment, having scored 15 goals in his last 10 Serie A appearances. His nine strikes since the beginning of 2019 are a joint-record in Europe’s top five leagues (when considering all competitions) alongside Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani. There were some who anticipated La Dea would drop off, but Gasperini’s football has rendered tremendous results and given the club staying power to have a special season domestically – both in the league and Cup play, as a semi-finalist after a roaring 3-0 demolition of Juventus.
About an hour away in Milan, the Rossoneri steamrolled relegation-threatened Cagliari by a 3-0 scoreline. New kids on the block Lucas Paquetá and Krzysztof Piatek each found the back of the net in a performance in line with the club’s current run of form built around defensive solidity and elite goalkeeping from Gianluigi Donnarumma, who also celebrated his 150th appearance with a clean sheet – his sixth in his last nine domestically.
After conceding 14 goals in the first 10 rounds of the season, the Rossoneri leaked just seven goals over their last 13 league matches. These numbers lend credence to a side exuding confidence and benefitting from the return of captain Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio centrally, as well as the surge in form of young youth product Davide Calabria.
As the current table shows, Milan sit alone in fourth by a narrow margin of one point above Roma, Lazio and Atalanta, who they will pay a visit this weekend at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. Unlike the Capital clubs, Milan and Atalanta could greatly benefit from the lack of European commitments, lending all attention and effort to achieving domestic objectives.
This group is considered the true contenders for Italy’s coveted final UCL spot, and perhaps to unseat Inter in third. The Nerazzurri picked up a 1-0 win over Parma over the weekend, but have been stumbling since the new year.
For months, the conversation has always revolved around fourth place. However, there is a shared feeling amongst Nerazzurri supporters that if Luciano Spalletti fails to find his bearings, and have captain Mauro Icardi snap out of his current goal-scoring funk, the San Siro club could bow out of the Europa League and run the risk of coming up empty-handed in May too after such a promising start.
The plot for UCL football thickens – so much that Serie A could yet again become the talk of Europe.