This weekend sees this long season come to an end and one of the matters still to be determined is the race for second place. Currently Inter hold a one-point advantage on Atalanta and Lazio, but two of those three go head-to-head in Bergamo tonight, while the Biancocelesti visit Napoli. Not a bad way to end the season…
The question is, which of these three actually deserve to have the title of ‘Best of the rest?’
All have one time or another flirted with the idea of a real Scudetto battle with champions Juventus, but as has been the case so often in recent years, their light flickered, but did not burn bright enough.
Of them, it can be argued that Lazio have been the most disappointing in terms of the title tilt. Until the stoppage of play due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Le Aquile were dreaming of a first league title for 20 years. They were in fine form, playing an exciting brand of quick counter-attacking football and were just a point behind the Bianconeri.
In addition to which, they had beaten the Piedmont club on both occasions that they met this year, including in the Supercoppa Italiana, by a 3-1 margin each time. They clearly showed they had the ability, tactical nous and mental toughness to handle the juggernaut that is Juve. It might be simplistic to just say that they simply folded after the resumption of play, but ultimately that's what occurred.
They can be proud however of the fact that after years of dropping off the pace in the second half of the season, that they at least made it back to the Champions League for the first time in 13 years.
Of the three teams, Inter had changed the most last summer. They brought in Antonio Conte to ironically try and break the dominance of La Vecchia Signora, which the Lecce native himself started in 2012. A host of new and expensive recruits to the playing staff brought a renewed sense of taking that next step after years of growth under former manager Luciano Spalletti. Ultimately, they flattered to deceive.
It is quite telling however, that Conte himself said that "second place was the first of the losers, and ultimately meaningless." What motivation does that give to his charges as they prepare to face the best attack in the country? With a Europa League fixture against Getafe in just four days’ time, is it even worth it for il Biscione to care about beating the Bergamaschi and guarantee finishing second?
Conte was brought in to win trophies. The club were unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League group stage, lost to eventual winners Napoli in the Coppa Italia semi-finals. The idea of actually winning a first European trophy for a decade must be a huge motivation, especially for Conte, whose credentials as a manager in continental play is low. All the talk of Sandro Tonali and Leo Messi (as far-fetched as that is) can be put on hold.
Inter’s final test is a head-to-head with Atalanta, the club that has been defying belief in recent years. Following their qualification for the Champions League and subsequent progression at least to the last eight, they confirmed it was no fluke by making it into the top four again. Their all-out attacking football based on incessant pressing, quick passing and the penchant for the spectacular has thrilled fans around the world.
In contrast to Conte, Gian Piero Gasperini has built up the idea of finishing runners up, stating "it would be prestigious." Make no mistake about it, Atalanta are enjoying mixing it with the big boys both in Italy and in Europe. Making it into Europe's most prestigious competition in consecutive campaigns is a source of pride in itself and considering their wage bill and general stature in football history, finishing behind the Bianconeri would be another giant growth step.
Considering they face a rusty PSG in 11 days’ time, the clash with Inter will present an ideal opportunity to prepare. Gasp can use the match to decide who replaces first choice Josip Ilicic in the line-up, after the Slovenian returned home to deal with a personal matter. As we've seen though, no matter the competition, whether it's home or away and regardless of the match situation, Atalanta only know one way to play, so fully expect them to go all out to try and beat Inter and leapfrog them into the second position.
All three of Inter, Atalanta and Lazio have compelling arguments as to why they should and deserve to finish second, but ultimately, the medium to long term ambitions are what will matter in the end.
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