Serie A roundup: AC Milan in top four hunt, title race back on
All of the big European leagues are sewn up, except for Italy. With a fight for European places and the title at large, Serie A is delivering the goods this season.
Despite a lack of marquee fixture, this weekend in Serie A produced both exciting games and important results. AC Milan bounced back from Europa League failure with a stirring comeback against Chievo Verona, while Inter and Roma distanced themselves from Lazio in the race for the top four.
Europe’s most exciting title chase is very much back on after Juventus dropped points to lowly SPAL, allowing Napoli to narrow the gap at the top to just two points.
Rossoneri comeback keeps European dreams alive
The relative ease with which a struggling Arsenal team dispatched Milan in their high profile Europa League clash led many to wonder if the Rossoneri’s surge in form would run of out steam.
Worries increased when an early 1-0 Milan lead was overturned by a Mariusz Stepinski tap-in and a Roberto Inglese rocket, giving Chievo a 2-1 advantage heading into halftime.
Milan never once appeared rattled by Chievo’s goals against the run of play and continued to compress the game into the Gialloblu’s defensive area.
Patrick Cutrone tied the game in the 54th minute, but the celebration had to wait until a VAR check confirmed that the striker was onside. Andre Silva completed the turnaround with an 82nd minute winner after pouncing on a loose ball in a crowded penalty box and blasting home his first Serie A goal.
The mental resilience displayed by the Rossoneri has steadied the ship heading into the international break. It’s an especially important achievement given the season defining fixtures awaiting Gennaro Gattuso’s men on the other side, with a Champions League spot not out of the question.
Milan’s secret weapon grabs spotlight
Hakan Calhanoglu swept a rebound into an empty net for Milan’s first goal on Sunday, but the Turkish attacking midfielder’s contributions during his debut season in Milan have increasingly tended toward the spectacular.
Renowned as a superb striker of the ball during his time in Germany, Calhanoglu has taken the wide left position in Gattuso’s tactical setup as his own.
Suso, a more tricks and flicks type, wide on the right and the physically imposing Cutrone leading the line through the middle, Calhanoglu’s pinpoint crosses and ability to switch swiftly the point of attack have become crucial to pressure Milan’s opponents.
Elite level free kicks and set-piece delivery further cement his value to a team with several aerial threats.
The swerving shots like that which bedevilled David Ospina for Milan’s only goal against the Gunners may grab the headlines, but it is Calhanoglu’s ability to be both facilitator and finisher that has fired Milan’s charge up the Serie A table under Gattuso.
Top four race tightens
With Champions League qualification via winning the Europa League no longer a possibility for Milan, the once-unthinkable task of earning a top four finish in Serie A became the Rossoneri’s only path out of their uncertain financial future.
Their surge under Gattuso’s leadership pushed them onto the fringes of the top four race, but a defeat at home to Chievo would have all but ended their challenge.
As it turned out, Milan’s comeback kept them within striking distance. Roma held on to third place, defeating Crotone 2-0 for their third consecutive win to move to 59 points on the season.
Mauro Icardi tallied four goals for fourth placed Inter in a 5-0 rout of Sampdoria, pulling to within two goals of Ciro Immobile in the Capocannoniere (‘head gunner’ – Serie A’s golden boot) race and pushing the Nerazzurri to 55 points with a game in hand.
Lazio stumbled to a 1-1 draw with Bologna, dropping them to 5th place on 54 points.
Milan currently sit on 50 points, five back of the fourth and final Champions League spot.
The game both Milan clubs have in hand is tantalisingly against each other. The Derby della Madonnina was postponed due to Davide Astori’s death and will be made up on April 4.
Four days prior, AC Milan will host table-topping Juventus in a game that will have much to say about both the title race and the four team scrap for the last two Champions League spots.
Sprint to the finish in Scudetto scramble
Napoli’s lead atop the Serie A table vanished in merely a week, as Maurizio Sarri’s Partenopei lost at home to Roma and drew 0-0 away to Inter to start the month of March.
The inevitable advance of the Juventus machine saw the Bianconeri catch and then pass Napoli, taking a four point lead into this weekend’s game at relegation battlers SPAL.
Juventus unsurprisingly dominated possession and created the greater chances, but Massimiliano Allegri’s men never broke through. It is a credit to the Bianconeri’s consistency that football watchers are genuinely stunned when the expected late goal doesn’t come, but the 0-0 draw still saw Juventus drop two points and open the door for Napoli to take a step closer in the title race.
Sarri’s Napoli huffed and puffed for over an hour at home against Genoa. Poor finishing plagued them for much of the first half, and when Dries Mertens bounced a shot past Mattia Perin and off the post, it felt like Napoli’s rotten luck might keep them from closing the gap.
An unlikely hero finally blew the house down. Spanish defender Raul Albiol nodded a corner kick off the back of his head and into the far corner, seeing the Stadio San Paolo into delirium and cutting Juventus’ lead at the top of the table to just two points. Juventus will host Napoli on April 22, which will likely decide the fate of the Scudetto.
What are your predictions for the remainder of the Serie A season? Let us know in the comments section below.