The closest and most interesting title race in a major European league this season is coming, surprisingly enough, from Italy.
Why the surprise?
Simply because for the past six seasons, the Serie A has been a one team show. Yes, Juventus have always been the most successful team in Italy but they have never dominated the league as much as they did since the beginning of this decade. To put it in perspective, four different teams have won the Premier League title during this same time. But ironically, while this exciting Italian season seems to be a race to the finish like, the race in England is practically over, and we haven’t even reached Christmas. While Manchester City are simply unstoppable in the Premier League, opening a double digit lead over any competition, only two points separate the top three teams in the Serie A as we approach the end of the first round. Napoli and Inter are giving Juventus a real fight, and Roma could join the pack if they win the one game they have in hand.
While Napoli and Inter are a delight to watch, we first have to look at Juventus and ask if they are as strong as they were in the past few years. The answer is no. Maybe it’s the disappointment, and the fatigue, of losing two Champions League titles in three years. Maybe it’s Buffon, who is not getting younger and is now conceding more goals than in any of the previous seasons. And maybe it’s a natural cycle of a successful team who has a relatively slower season.
While all those may be true, if you ask the fans they will point to one man, Leonardo Bonucci. He became a traitor to the fans in Turin as soon as he replaced the black and white jersey of Juventus for the black and red one of Milan. Bonucci has been one of the world’s most reliable defenders in his seven years as a “Bianconerri,” part of an indestructible backline that was the backbone of the glorious team. Now that he is gone, the defense looks shaky, clearly conceding more than before.
Why did Bonucci make the move? His strained relations with Juve manager Massimo Allegri were no big secret. The two traded insults following a league match last February, and though they eventually decided to put the incident behind them for the good of the team, when summer came, one of them had to go. The club chose the manager over the player, selling Bonucci to Milan for 40 million Euros. Did they make the right choice? We’ll have to wait for the end of the season to answer this question.
While Juventus struggle on defense, their two competitors are shining on offense. In his third year as manager of Napoli, Maurizio Sarri seems to have found a lethal combination up front. The trio of Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Martens pose a major challenge to every defense they face, you never know which of them will strike. It’s a big difference from the Higuain era, when it all depended on the Argentine striker. His numbers were great, but it was clear that if you stopped him, Napoli had a problem with scoring.
The previous “Higuain” version of Napoli reminds us of the current version of Inter. Mauro Icardi has always been an outstanding goal scorer, but his numbers this season are simply stunning. With an average of a goal per game, Icardi now leads the goal scoring table in the Serie A and what could keep his legs fresh for the late stages of the season simply because Inter do not play in European competitions. Come April and May, when he plays 20 matches less than Dybala and Higuain from Juve or Callejon and Martens from Napoli, that could prove crucial.
Does all this mean we will finally have a new Italian champion this season? It is way too early to tell. At the end of the day it is still up to Juventus more than anyone else. The Bianconerri are still the most experienced team of them all and if they regain their defensive posture they will probably win it again. The difference is that this time, as opposed to some of the previous seasons, there looks to be a real fight.
A title race involving three or even four teams will give the Serie A the competitive feel it had in the past, in the good old days of the 80’s and the 90’s, when it was seen as the best league in the world. As we approach the mid season mark this seems to be the case. Let’s hope it stays like this all the way to the end.