The Race for Fourth in Italy Hots Up

In a week when we found out the Uefa Champions League final will include an Italian participant for the first time since Milan lifted the trophy in 2007, it seems only fitting that the focus of today’s blog is on the fierce battle for the last Champions League spot in Serie A.

With Inter Milan and Roma contesting an incredibly close title race that currently sees Inter ahead by two points with three games remaining, two of Italy’s quota has already been claimed. Milan should seal third, though the Rossoneri’s form has been atrocious culminating in fervent speculation that head coach Leonardo will be replaced in the summer. I would argue that Leonardo has had a very limited, ageing squad to work with and the red-half of Milan requires drastic overhaul to have any chance of mounting a challenge for silverware next year.

The present incumbent of fourth is Sampdoria, fresh off ending Roma’s 24-game unbeaten run at the Stadio Olimpico last Sunday, coming from a goal down to severely derail the Giallorossi’s chances of dethroning Inter. In fact, in a situation eerily similar to Manchester United, Roma requires Lazio, its bitter rivals, to do it a huge favour and take points off the leaders this weekend. Similar to Liverpool, Lazio has little to play for – it is now six points clear of relegation with nine points remaining so should be sure of Serie A football next season.

Sampdoria finds itself on 60 points, two clear of Palermo, with the Sicilians four points better off than sixth-place Juventus. This season has been dreadful for the Old Lady to the extent that European football is not guaranteed – Napoli is only one point behind Italy’s most prolific league winner. Realistically, Juventus is not going to make up seven points on Sampdoria with nine remaining. My blog about Alberto Zaccheroni taking charge of Juventus proved to be correct – his appointment has not helped proceedings and the Bianconeri is desperately attempting to line up a manager to correct the failings of this season. Rafael Benitez has been linked with the job, but the situation he will move into is strikingly similar to the one he would be leaving, except he might have some money to spend on improving a squad which, much like Milan, needs a facelift.

Therefore, whoever finishes fourth, whether it is Sampdoria or Palermo, will give Italy a new face in the Champions League next season, provided that there is no mistake in the qualification tie.

Sampdoria is a side with a solid defensive base and a mobile attack that has been illuminated by the excellent form of wide men Daniele Mannini and Franco Semioli. Despite the public spat between the enigmatic Antonio Cassano and boss Luigi del Neri that saw the very colourful (read his book) striker dropped for close to a month, Sampdoria has been able to rely on the goal-scoring exploits of Giampaolo Pazzini, who has notched 17 in the league for the Blucerchiati. Angelo Palombo’s routine diligence and leadership as club captain, added to his excellent role in front of the defence, has been reinforced by the consistency of centre-backs Stefano Lucchini and Daniele Gastaldello. The Doriani faithful will hope that the club can secure qualification which might ultimately facilitate the stay of Pazzini and Cassano, both of whom, unsurprisingly, are in high-demand after excellent campaigns. While the public campaign to get Cassano into the national team squad for the World Cup died down after his fall-out with his manager, Pazzini is a player that Marcelo Lippi should be looking at closely. The striker, who scored the first goal at the new Wembley stadium, would be a terrific addition to Italy’s forward options in the summer.

The lofty position of Palermo has come as a surprise to many, who would have predicted a mid-table finish for a side that had a slow start to the season. However, with an unbeaten home record dating back to March 2009, the Rosanero’s consistency has been the main reason why it has sneaked into contention for fourth. The Sicilians boast a capable squad with a good mixture of flair, youth and experience. The attacking trio of Javier Pastore, Edinson Cavani and Fabrizio Miccoli has allowed the side to penetrate the most vaunted defences in the league. Indeed, Cavani and Miccoli both have broken the ten goal mark for this season, leading for some calls for the latter to board the plane to South Africa for the Azzurri. Former Lazio boss Delio Rossi has bounced back from a disappointing exit from his old club and, having taken the reigns from Walter Zenga during this season, has done an excellent job. Again, qualification would allow the club to hold on to its best players, with many of Europe’s finest sniffing around, especially for highly-rated Danish defender Simon Kjaer.

The intriguing aspect of this race is that the two sides clash in the penultimate game of the season at the Stadio Renzo Barbera, home of Palermo. The hosts travel to bottom-three sides Siena and Atalanta either side of the clash, whereas Sampdoria will welcome already-relegated Livorno and high-flying Napoli to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. Both sides are unbeaten at home this season: a phenomenal effort only matched by leaders Inter. However, away from home, both have lost nine games and Palermo has only won three times. It is tough to predict how this one will finish. For Sampdoria, a return to the Champions League will be its first appearance since the 1992 final loss to Barcelona, back when the competition was known as the European Cup. Palermo has never made it to the competition in its history, so it would certainly be a momentous achievement. Either way though, Italy will have a new entrant into the Champions League and one of these great Italian regions, Genoa or Sicily, will host some of Europe’s finest teams.

Turning my attention to the Champions League briefly and I will start by saying how Lyon was seriously disappointing. This was not the side that beat Liverpool and Real Madrid away from home. This was a side that allowed the occasion to get the better of them and failed to match the intensity and quality that its German opposition provided. It is hard to assess how well Bayern Munich did given Lyon’s poor display. However, despite having dismissed the Bavarian side as distinctly average, Louis van Gaal has built a physically sound side that has great attacking impetus through Arjen Robben. Ivica Olic netted a perfect hat-trick, underlining why he is keeping out €30m+ striker Mario Gomez from the starting line-up. Olic used to play out wide in his earlier years, but seems to have found his niche as a striker in the mould of Carlos Tevez – a guy who hassles defenders and always puts the pressure on the opposition. I personally thought that Hamit Altintop was terrific on the left, in place of the suspended Franck Ribery. The Turkish international put in a display which indicated his ability to step in for the troubled Frenchman in the final, demonstrating a penchant for running at the opposition and dissecting the opposition with incisive passing. In fact, the Germans functioned better as a team without Ribery – a situation that it might find itself with permanently next season if you believe some of the transfer rumours.

Altintop will hope to be lining up on May 22nd against Inter Milan, who overcame the defending champions Barcelona in an awesome defensive display. A few people have come out and said the Nerazzurri’s win was ‘anti-football’ and ‘a sad day football’. Their argument is flawed – “pretty” football should not mean that teams win. There is an art to defending, as shown best by Walter Samuel, who was my man of the match with an absolutely solid display. In fact, it was Sergio Busquets disgraceful play-acting, causing the dismissal of Thiago Motta, which played into the hands of Mourinho’s men as it gave full justification for the visitors to sit on their lead. Barcelona was uncharacteristically slow in building up its attacks, despite having 76% possession and Xavi completing 30 passes more than the entire Inter team put together! Pep Guardiola’s substitutions highlighted two things – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bought for the exact reason to score goals when the side is in trouble, was taken off at a key moment and was not replaced by a former top three World Player of the Year, Thierry Henry. Instead, Bojan Krkic came on, as did Jeffren, leaving many to speculate that Henry will be shipped out in the summer. It might be a little drastic, but I would not be surprised if Ibrahimovic followed suit. Contrast his performance to the tireless effort of Samuel Eto’o – despite scoring plenty of goals, Eto’o was deemed surplus to requirements. I wonder, with hindsight, whether Barcelona regrets its decision regarding Eto’o and Zlatan.

A positive for Barcelona has to be the emergence and development of Gerard Pique, capped with an incredibly cool finish when the centre-back was shoved upfront. Pique, in my opinion, will continue developing and emerge as the best defender in the world. He seems to have the technical qualities that he would have learnt as a young lad at Barcelona’s school of excellent, ‘La Masia’, and the defensive solidity that would have been drilled into him by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in his spell there. Many have drawn a comparison between Pique and legendary ‘libero’ Franz Beckenbauer, especially given the similarities in the way that the Spaniard is so comfortable on the ball, much like the illustrious German.

Whilst I have not covered the Europa League, I will finish today’s blog with praise for Fulham and Roy Hodgson. An absolutely incredible run has seen the Cottagers reach the final where the opposition will be Atletico Madrid who came through on away goals thanks to Diego Forlan scoring once again at Anfield. Fulham will rightly fancy its chances, having disposed of high calibre competition in previous rounds. Hodgson has done a magnificent job with modest resources and the calls for him to receive the manager of the year award are truly deserved. It is actually rather fitting that a former Inter manager makes the final of the Europa League in the same week that the Nerazzurri reaches the final for the first time in nearly four decades.

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