Sunday, 31 December 2006

Mid-season review

Following the trials and tribulations of last summer, five months on Italian football is only just regaining an even keel. The first half of the season has revelled in the unusual, but with 2006 about to be consigned to the history books, a semblance of normality is finally returning to Serie A.

The World Cup triumph in Germany proved Italian football is a force to be reckoned with, both at the national level as well as domestically, as Italy, unlike their Final opponents France, boast a league where the majority of Marcelo Lippi's world champions ply their trade.

With that wealth of talent available and with the game seemingly purged of the ills that plagued it for so long in the wake of the Calciopoli verdicts, most fans were licking their lips at the prospect of an exciting and open race for the Scudetto. It has not disappointed.

The sanctions imposed on, most notably, Milan and Juventus, but also Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina, resulted in a strange but exciting feel to the table during the opening months of the new season as some of the more established sides found themselves languishing at the wrong end of the table, leaving smaller, less experienced teams to occupy the top spots.

Palermo, in particular, took full advantage of their rivals' points deductions and the absence of the Old Lady in the top flight to push on towards the business end of the table, and Francesco Guidolin's side even took top spot on several occasions.

The Sicilians have proved to be the surprise package of the season so far, and despite Rosanero president Maurizio Zamparini's continual down playing of their chances, they have done exceptionally well so far.

Going into the winter break, Palermo occupy third place, a good nine points ahead of fellow islanders and equally surprisingly placed Catania.

With three teams in Serie A this season, Sicily has firmly been placed on the European footballing map, and Catania's success in their first season back in the top flight for 23 years has only enhanced the reputation of the Sicilian game.

Another small team to profit from absence of the usual suspects at the top of the table was Siena, who found themselves in the top five until as late as mid-November, despite a minor points penalty for financial reasons. Unlike their Sicilian rivals however, the Bianconeri could not maintain that kind of form, and have since dropped to 13th.

Indeed the only team to maintain any kind of sustained good form during the first half of the season has been Inter, and the Nerazzurri are looking good to retain the title they last won on the pitch back in 1989.

Coach Roberto Mancini's side are yet to be beaten in Serie A this campaign and have secured their place at the top of the table going into 2007 with a searing 11-game winning streak that has broken club and equalled league records.

Striker Adriano has pushed his club's form hard for sheer column inches, with his 'holiday' back in Brazil and all round poor displays since the World Cup attracting almost as much attention as his record-breaking team.

But even the under-fire Brazilian managed to find the back of the net leading into the winter break, and should he be able to rediscover his famed touch, Inter will not have too many problems in hanging on to top spot for the remainder of the season.

Fellow winning-run record holders Roma - they set the pace by winning 11 on the trot last season - seem like the only team capable of maintaining a sustained challenge to Inter this season.

The Giallorossi's form has been equally electric of late, although unlike Inter Luciano Spalletti's side are capable of the odd aberration, as shown in their shocking 3-0 reverse in the Derby della Capitale.

But should talismanic captain Francesco Totti - himself in fine goalscoring shape - stay fit and on form, the capital club should be strong enough to secure a runners-up place come May.

Perhaps notable in their absence so far in this review of the season has been the name of Milan, who have suffered a great deal since the summer.

Whilst everywhere else Calciopoli deductions were being reduced, Milan's eight point penalty stood, meaning coach Carlo Ancelotti's side have never been far from the relegation zone for much of the campaign so far.

Perhaps Ancelotti has good reason to feel hard done by, but much of his side's early season malaise cannot simply be put down to the top brass of Italian football's decision to punish Milan.

Moreover, a great deal of the blame can be placed a lot closer to home - firstly at the door of Milan's transfer policy, which failed to adequately replace the departed Andriy Shevchenko or reinforce an ageing back line, and secondly with the players, a number of who have simply not performed well enough.

But that said, over the last few weeks in the run-up to Christmas, the Rossoneri have sent out a powerful message of intent with two 3-0 wins, and a surge back up the table is not beyond Ancelotti's men. Indeed, a Champions League place is now very much back on the agenda at the San Siro.

Over in Turin, relegated Juventus look likely to get back to the top flight at the first time of asking after having had their points deduction reduced and imposing their star-studded squad on Serie B. Other giants of the Italian game such as Napoli, Bologna and Genoa will also be hoping to secure promotion in 2007.

All of which means that, despite the tremendous upheaval over the summer, life in Serie A will soon be back to normal and much of what passed after the World Cup triumph be been conveniently pushed to the back of everyone's minds. Inter will begin the year defending their second straight Scudetto, Milan and Roma will be playing in the Champions League and Juve will be back where they belong.

Scandal? What scandal?

Source: Eurosport

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