When at school, your biggest exams are just before half-term and on your final day of education. The Serie A fixture list for 2019-20 seems to have created a similar situation.
We reach the midway mark of the season with a potentially pivotal weekend. Lazio were pushed all the way by struggling Napoli, eventually setting a new club record of 10 consecutive victories thanks to a David Ospina howler, with that man Ciro Immobile ready to pounce, as always. Rene Higuita would have looked on with pride as the Colombian goalkeeper inexplicably gave the ball away while trying to dribble the current Capocannoniere.
Hosting Atalanta at San Siro is arguably a far bigger test than Napoli nowadays, and it’s perhaps the first time we have seen Inter comprehensively out-played. Just days after Antonio Conte angrily rejected Fabio Capello’s suggestion they were a defend-and-counter team, the joint Serie A leaders spent the entire second half pinned into their own final third.
Many have been questioning the Aquile’s ability to sustain a title challenge. The obvious strength in depth of the squad has been the main element of contention, but as the games roll on, they continue to impress.
The jury is still out on whether Simone Inzaghi’s side could actually manage to limp on should they lose Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Immobile or the influential Luis Alberto. So far, the signs are good and the fixture list a favourable one for Lazio. Apart from the Rome Derby, which is always unpredictable, they have Sampdoria, SPAL, Hellas Verona and Parma before the epic showdown with Inter on February 16.
Perhaps not enough is made of their defence, with only 17 goals conceded, only Inter have conceded fewer. They have the perfect mix at this moment in time and should be seen as genuine contenders. Against Napoli, they were far from perfect, but they got over the line.
Getting over the line has been Inter’s problem for some years now, but with Antonio Conte at the helm, they are many people’s favourites to win Serie A. They welcomed an Atalanta side that had hammered Milan 5-0 before the winter break and then destroyed Parma 5-0 just after it.
With 49 goals, Le Dea are the most prolific team in Italy and arguably the most entertaining to watch. Gian Piero Gasperini’s brand of free-flowing attractive football has won many admirers and Inter were certainly wary. The draw was perhaps the correct result, although many will point out that this could have been very different had Lautaro Martinez’s rugby tackle not evaded VAR.
The truth is, Inter did not play anywhere near the standards they have been doing in recent weeks and yet they defended against a very serious and capable side. Admittedly, Samir Handanovic’s penalty heroics were needed on Luis Muriel, but in any campaign, moments like this are essential.
Lecce, Cagliari and Udinese are winnable games coming up with the Milan Derby on February 9 being less of an obstacle than in previous years. That being said, The Derby Della Madonnina does not count for form or ability, it is always played as an occasion.
Juventus can become the sole Winter Champions with a victory away to Roma this evening, but there is also the far from impossible idea of a defeat giving Inter the Scudetto d’Inverno instead. After all, Maurizio Sarri has lost only two games on the Bianconeri bench and they were both against Lazio, so why not suffer at the Olimpico again?
The truly fascinating part of this fixture list is that it will be reversed for the final day of the season. Imagine where these sides will all be when they face off again with everything on the line? We’ll have Atalanta hosting Inter in the passionate atmosphere of the revamped Gewiss Stadium, Lazio at the Stadio San Paolo in what could by then be a head-to-head for Champions League places and Juventus taking on Roma in Turin. Can there be any bigger tests?