Posted by: mdegeorge | April 6, 2011

Italian roller coaster has no end in sight

The end of the Serie A season is a distant seven weeks away. Unlike some of the other leagues on the continent (I’m looking at you, Bundesliga), the Italian top flight is anything but resolved. Three teams sit within five points of the summit, chasing the coattails of Milan, which has looked a shaky leader of equally uncertain competitors.

It’s a league where a general shortage of goals means a hot striker can carry a team for a few weeks at a time and single-handedly alter the title picture. It’s also a dynamic that has played host to some feverish late-season runs the last few seasons, including an epic collapse by Inter Milan that was almost done in by a torrid second half from fall doormats Roma.

Photo via Flickr user @olaszmelo

The league-wide drama is compelling, but you have the feeling it will ultimately take a backseat to the crosstown theater that is the Milan rivalry. I Rossoneri sit top of the table with 65 points, trailed by Napoli (62) and Inter (60) with seven matches to play. So far, the two stage players from Milan have been engaged in a fascinating dance back-and-forth whose end date won’t be until the final day of the season May 22. Here are the highlights:

Dec. 18: Inter returns with a Club World Cup championship to a pink slip waiting on the desk of manager Rafael Benitez and a mid-table standing. Milan’s only company atop the standings are a pair of perceived overachievers in Napoli and Lazio, which the smart money says will fall off the pace eventually. Milan’s 1-0 loss to Roma heading into the Christmas break is their only defeat since the end of October. I Rossoneri strike the first blow in the head-to-head, capturing a key win Nov. 14 thanks to a goal by Inter expatriate Zlatan Ibrahimovic and some desperate defending after being down to 10 men on the hour with Ignazio Abate’s dismissal. It’s part of a stretch for Inter in which it can only manage to take six points from six matches. Historically bad starts confine both Juventus and Roma to the bottom half of the table and essentially eliminate them from title contention.

Dec. 24: Inter unwraps a Christmas bombshell by naming Leonardo its new manager. That’s the same Leonardo who made 103 league appearances, worked in the front office where he helped mine talented Brazilians and sculpt a team defined by that generation, and broke into management with indifferent form in 2009-10 with arch-rivals Milan. Inter president Massimo Moratti insists the appointment isn’t a slight at the red side of town, Players like Christian Abbiati are unnerved by it to say the least, as are the plethora of players who Leonardo signed (Thiago Silva, Pato) and the handful who were in uniform with him over a decade ago. It amounts to a perplexing purpose pitch that leaves many on both sides of Milan stunned.

Jan. 19: The Leonardo bump is in full effect as i Neriblu win four straight games out of the Christmas break, beginning to take advantage of three matches in hand. The gap to leaders Milan is cut to six points as i Rossoneri, perhaps blinded by the light of Leo across town, turn in a pair of draws, including a dour 1-1 affair against relegation-threatened Lecce.

Jan 23: Four wins on the trot comes to a sudden end when red-hot Udinese plays host to Inter and dumps them, 3-1. It’s Leonardo’s first lost in five matches at the helm and coupled with a Milan defeat of Cesena, sends the gap back to nine points.

Feb. 6: As seems inevitable, Milan finally hits its first obstacle of the second half, drawing with title-contenders Lazio and mid-table Genoa. Inter rebound to blank Bologna and fire five past Roma to cut deficit to five points.

Feb. 28: What looks like a three-horse race is cut to two by Milan’s win over Napoli, a decisive 3-0 decision. It’s made all the more impressive by Milan’s ability to shake off a home defeat to Tottenham in Champion’s League midweek. Inter meanwhile keeps pace, handling Cagliari before its first leg in the Round of 16 vs. Bayern Munich.

March 9: Milan bounces into North London with the confidence of back-to-back wins over Napoli and Juventus, but can’t muster a goal and is sent crashing out of the Champions League.

March 15: Inter turns in a magical European night in Munich, overcoming a 1-0 deficit from the home leg to notch a 3-2 win on late goals from Wesley Sneijder and Goran Pandev and advance on away goals. It’s not indicative of their league form though: They dropped points in a 1-1 draw to relegation-fodder Brescia the preceding weekend.

March 20: With the international break looming, the respective sides of Milan appear on different trajectories. Milan drops a contest at struggling Palermo after president Maurizio Zamparini puts his job on the line for a win. The match is the first of three, later shortened to two on appeal, played without Ibrahimovic after the Swede picks up a red card the week prior against Bari. Despite the spot of difficulty in which it puts them, Inter meanwhile ekes out a 1-0 win over Lecce. The lead is down to two points heading into a protracted two-week buildup to the Milan derby.

April 2: The race is turned on its head. Inter come into the Derby della Madonnina flying high, while the red side of town faces a dubious repeat of its failure to capitalize head-to-head each of the last two years and coach Massimo Allegri downplaying the importance of the match for his team. Milan are dominant, taking the lead 45 seconds in through Pato and controlling play for large stretches thanks to a fluidity of passing in the midfield that would make even Leonardo blush. Pato adds another, and after Christian Chivu is sent off, Antonio Cassano converts from the penalty spot in stoppage time just seconds before he’s dismissed to take a bit of the polish off an otherwise historic win.

April 5: Inter’s hangover affects their form in the Champions League, as they suffer a brutal 5-2 humiliation at home to a second consecutive German opponent, Schalke, and see Chivu sent off yet again.

And then…

It’s safe to say the twists and turns in this race are far from over. The Inter camp remains hopeful,  banking that Samuel Eto’o’s predicition that the derby wouldn’t be decisive will hold true. The return of Lucio will be greatly appreciated by a defensive pairing of Chivu and Andrea Ranocchia, which has been exploited for its slowness and torched in recent outings. Milan has relied on essentially just three players for scoring all season, with Pato, Ibrahimovic, and Robinho with more than 10 goals each in the league and no one else with more than three. To those ends, they may be getting talismanic striker Filippo Inzaghi back sooner than expected, as the veteran hitman’s knee injury that was expected to sideline him for the rest of the season could give way in a few weeks.

Both teams face similar run ins to the finish. Inter has four of its final seven at home, while Milan necessarily hit the road for four. Both teams’ average opponents from here on out sit 11th in the table with three matches against teams in the top half. Milan’s toughest test might come on the season’s final day with a trip to Udinese, while Inter has to contend with a trip to Napoli in Round 37. Napoli, the sleeper in the race who might still have something to say about things, faces a decidedly tougher road with an average opponent sitting eighth. Its final two weeks feature Inter and Juventus.

Photo via @olaszmelo

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